If Dune is your initial foray into the Dune universe (or Duniverse), the best I can do is wish you good luck. Familiarity with Star Wars will help in a back-door way, as George Lucas cribbed from Frank Herbert’s book (among other sources) when creating his story set in a galaxy “far, far away”. Dune (the movie the book is based on) is filled with people, places and things that are all interconnected and important to the story at hand. The more you understand the story, the more you will enjoy this movie. I generally dislike movies and television shows that require “homework” in order to understand and enjoy them, but with Dune, it’s essentially a requirement. However, if you read the book (only 412 pages!) before watching the movie, you’ll have a much more rewarding experience, guaranteed.
Boiled down to its essence, Dune is a story of betrayal and destiny. The emperor of the Imperium asks Duke Leto of House Atreides (Oscar Issac) to uproot his family and take over ruling the planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune) from the ruthless House Harkonnen. The Duke knows it’s a trap, but can’t bring himself to decline a request from the emperor. Not long after arriving, the Harkonnens invade and, with an assist from the emperor’s special troops, slaughter nearly everyone associated with House Atreides and retake control.
The Duke’s wife Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) survive. Jessica has been training her son in the secret arts of her order (the Bene Gesserit), believing he is the chosen one that will bring peace and order to the galaxy. Paul and Jessica seek out the Fremen, the native people of Dune, to ask for help in getting off the planet safely. Paul, haunted by dreams of a Freman woman (Zendaya) before his arrival, sees partnering with the Freman as the way to find out if he is the chosen one or not. The movie ends here, leaving the resolution of the story for part 2.
One of the unexpected pleasures of watching this Dune is comparing it mentally with the prior version released in 1984, directed by David Lynch. Rarely do we have two versions of the same story presented by such uniquely gifted visual storytellers. The visuals in Lynch’s version were decent for the most part, while Dennis Villeneuve’s are spectacular. Villeneuve’s Dune is a feast for the eyes, the best special effects I’ve seen this side of Star Wars. In Lynch’s defense, he had nowhere near the same budget and had to tell the entire story in 2:16, while Villeneuve will have more than twice that allotment to work with.
What surprised me was how both Villeneuve’s and Lynch’s movies suffer from the same problem: with so much ground to cover, character development suffers. Outside of Paul and Jessica, the supporting cast are thinly drawn sketches of characters. The plot of Dune requires so much setup that there is little opportunity for the actors to do more than explain what is happening. Like Lynch, Villeneuve fills the cast with well-known actors who provide a visual shorthand for their characters. This works well to a point, with Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin and Stellan Skarsgård coming off the best. However, many characters come and go without leaving much of an impression beyond their costumes. A limited series on the level of Game of Thrones, the proven template on how to bring complex, dense material to the screen, would have made much sense here. Dune could have been brought to life in nine or ten hours.
As someone who’s read the book and seen Lynch’s movie several times, I thought Villeneuve’s movie works well, but is completely devoid of surprises. The movie’s visual sumptuousness and its excellent cast are enough to hold interest, and while Villeneuve gets closer to the spirit of the source material than Lynch, he still fails to stick the landing. Dune is very well made and interesting to watch, but just doesn’t have enough “spice” to achieve greatness. Recommended.