The Ambitious ‘Dune’ Achieves the Impossible by Tearing Down Movie Boundaries

No one can bring the unimaginable to life like Denis Villeneuve.

The French Canadian filmmaker has built his career on tackling ambitious projects that might frighten or trip up other directors. He has been largely successful, but capturing Amy Adams communicating with aliens or Emily Blunt trying to take down Benicio del Toro’s drug cartel is one thing. Adapting a storied science fiction novel once considered “unfilmable” is something else entirely.

Hollywood has tried several times to adapt Dune for the screen, but the 1965 novel’s enormous scope and complex worldbuilding made it notoriously difficult. It’s an immense challenge, so of course, someone of Villeneuve’s mettle would want it. A project like this isn’t just a filmmaker’s Everest, though. WarnerMedia is banking on Dune being its next big franchise that can fill theater seats, spur HBO Max subscriptions, and potentially score some Oscar nominations along the way. Given its reported $165 million price tag, Dune being anything less than a full-blown, awards-contending blockbuster would be catastrophic.

That’s heavy pressure to put on the modest story of an intergalactic royal family embroiled in a war of planetary colonialism, with mind control and giant sandworms weaved in for good measure.

The Atreides family – Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his mystical concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and son That’s heavy pressure to put on the modest story of an intergalactic royal family embroiled in a war of planetary colonialism, with mind control and giant sandworms weaved in for good measure. The Atreides family – Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his mystical concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and son and heir Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) – are assigned dominion over the planet Arrakis by the Emperor of the Imperium (basically the galaxy). Arrakis is home ​​to spice, a precious desert substance that powers interplanetary travel and grants superhuman abilities, and the Fremen, the planet’s indigenous people who the dueling Harkonnen dynasty has brutalized for years beforehand. The Atreides must take control of the spice trade and face several mountains of obstacles, including the gigantic desert insects that can swallow machinery like candy. As if that weren’t enough drama, Paul’s dreams of the future and a mysterious Fremen girl (Zendaya) signal that he might be the Messiah of the universe, or something.

Timothée Chalamet in Dune (courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures)

If Dune sounds slightly incomprehensible, that’s because it is, through no fault of its own. The novel is dense in a way that would make George R.R. Martin blanch. Dune only adapts the first half, as noted in the subtitle. Trying to explain the story’s every nuance would be obscenely tedious, so Villeneuve doesn’t. There is some exposition to outline the stakes, but the director mostly lets the world speak for itself. He approached Blade Runner 2049 in the same way, but his effort is narratively more satisfying this time around. 

Dune is confounding at times but not dull. Villeneuve embraces the inscrutability and lets it seep into the film’s marrow, embedded in everything from the script to its pacing. It is best leaning into its most challenging elements, specifically Paul and Rebecca’s powers and the secretive order governing them and the Imperium. The war games and political maneuvering are slightly less compelling (and the lack of direct challenges to the universe’s colonialist leanings feel like a missed opportunity). Still, Villeneuve’s commitment to gloriously staging them makes boredom impossible.

Describing Dune as “grand” is both redundant and insufficient. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Villeneuve’s work and the novel should expect nothing less than a spectacle. Dune exceeds those immodest expectations and delivers the most absorbing cinematic experience, the kind we see less and less of even as budgets frequently reach nine figures. Villeneuve doesn’t waste a single frame. Nearly every shot is a feast for the senses, and that’s not an exaggeration.

Through Villeneuve’s eyes, and enhanced by Greg Fraiser’s eye-popping cinematography, you can practically taste and feel the spice as it wafts through the harsh desert air. He lingers in moments just enough for them to wash over you but doesn’t dally as he has before. The intricate details of the production design, costumes, and visual effects are astounding, giving the film weight and tangibility that many modern blockbusters can’t reach. Maximum scale is the default for every scene, even the quiet and intimate ones, to fully immerse you in this world. Villeneuve conceived Dune for the biggest possible screen; even IMAX might be inadequate to appreciate the production’s breadth fully. It is an overwhelming cinematic achievement.

Josh Brolin and Oscar Issac in Dune (courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Dune boasts an ensemble cast as broad as the Arrakis desert, with Oscar and Emmy nominees, superhero favorites, indie darlings, and Internet boyfriends (there’s even some overlap). At the center of it is Timothée Chalamet (quite literally; he’s often in the middle of the shot) as Paul, the unmoored young prince. Chalamet is a gifted actor, but the role doesn’t suit his strengths. He is an expressive actor whose best characters – Elio in Call Me By Your Name, Nic in Beautiful Boy – wear their emotions on their sleeves. Paul’s stoicism, however, leaves Chalamet limited. He is excellent in moments when he gets to tap into powerful feelings, particularly in scenes with Charlotte Rampling’s terrifying Reverend Mother and Rebecca Ferguson’s Jessica, but they are few. Everyone makes solid use of their screen time, and there are no weak links. Rampling, Ferguson, and Javier Bardem, as the Fremen leader Stilgar, make the strongest impression, playing to the mysterious motivations and conflicting alliances at their characters’ cores.

For a half-century, Dune was the story that couldn’t work. Even before the pandemic punted it to HBO Max, industry pundits grumbled that the movie would be an embarrassing flop. It’s a Titanic-esque miracle that Dune exists in this current climate and a brilliant endeavor across the board. The worst thing about the film is that it’s technically unfinished, unintentionally (or not) leaving audiences hungry for more. Villeneuve accomplished the improbable, and he deserves the chance to complete what may be his magnum opus. Audiences deserve Dune as well, to witness filmmaking pushed against the bounds of possibility.