Author Frank Herbert didn’t accurately predict a future where humanity expanded into interstellar space, across planets and galaxies. Maybe it’s too early to actually know though. Herbert did foretell a future where rich nations clash with other rich nations for the rights to a poor country’s desert-buried resources. Seeing Dune adapted now makes this sci-fi story disturbingly prescient.
There’s a telling visual in Dune – among many – that sees a skyline filled with spaceships. Their shape suggests chess pieces moving in formation as the political ruling class lay out a strategy to conquer sand-swept planet Arrakis. After a careful, admittedly stubborn, exposition-laced opening act, Dune finds a voice through its imagery. The attempt to avoid the mistakes of David Lynch’s 1984 Dune are clear; Denis Villeneuve capably establishes Dune’s nuanced lore with clarity, specificity, and accuracy.
In a culture where the ruling class view themselves as superior, with infinite military, financial, and personal power, Dune finds its hero. Paul Atreides (Timothy Chalamet) earns his status, willing to reject a system he’s born into. The generational divide happens between the elders who think only of lavishly prospering and the young who see value in the culture of a misunderstood, isolated people. Paul draws others to this cause the nearer he comes to his own realization; he’s not a brash, outspoken, risible rebel. He merely envisions what’s right, and at the end of Dune (at least this supposedly first part), Paul becomes a Lawrence of Arabia-esque figure.
It’s dazzling to watch, and pure Villeneuve. Modest but expansive. Artistic but approachable. Heady but thrilling. The source material’s own strength assists, but Dune’s adaptation to a cinematic medium requires a deft hand. Villeneuve has that vision, same as he did for Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. Those distinctive, often hauntingly hazy aesthetics create worlds and tell stories even without words. Dune is especially barren, with the wealthy living in unnecessarily expansive structures, and the poor existing under open skylines in a sensible contrast to define who has more in their lives.
The Arrakis people stay a mystery throughout Dune. They appear, on occasion, in visions. Who they are is told only from one perspective, that of the conqueror. Knowing less means wanting more, their culture exotic yet understood. Living among the desert allowed these people to thrive via their ingenuity and tenacity. They’re smart in letting their enemies destroy one another to maintain their own peace. Connecting to Paul only necessitates empathy for people who only wish to preserve their lifestyle. Dune realizes this, and layers it in miles of captivating, arresting imagery.
A smart adaptation focused on clarifying entrenched sci-fi lore, Dune finally sees a film version worthy of its status.