Dune: A Surprisingly Loyal Adaptation

Caution: Spoilers ahead!

On Friday, Oct. 22, Warner Bros. Pictures released its highly anticipated science-fiction epic Dune in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max. The film, based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel of the same title, was directed by Denis Villeneuve and stars Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides alongside Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa and several other well-known names. Villeneuve is best known for directing the films Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). 

The film takes place in a futuristic universe around the year 10191 and follows a young Paul Atreides — the son of Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Lady Jessica — as the emperor calls upon the Atreides clan to oversee the desert planet Arrakis. The planet is populated by a people known as Fremens, whose eyes have turned blue due to an overconsumption of the planet’s primary export, the immensely profitable “Spice.” The film covers approximately the first half of the original novel’s plot, making the announcement of a sequel planned for 2023 no surprise.

The decision to release the film simultaneously in theaters and on HBO’s streaming platform has not been without controversy. Villeneuve, along with stars Ferguson and Momoa, has been adamant that the film is best experienced on the big screen. Even the ads that have popped up on my Instagram feed over the past few weeks insist: “#DuneMovie MUST be experienced in IMAX.”

“Frankly, to watch Dune on a television, the best way I can compare it is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub,” Villeneuve famously proclaimed in an August 2021 interview with Total Film. “For me, it’s ridiculous. It’s a movie that has been made as a tribute to the big-screen experience.”

Ferguson, who plays Lady Jessica (Paul Atreides’ mother and member of the all-female order Bene Gesserit), echoed those same sentiments. 

“I will not stand on the barricades if people are scared, and it is a very dangerous virus that is going around,” the actress told Newsweek. “But that aside, creatively and from my love of cinema ― yes this should f***ing be seen in the cinema.”

The film, which was released to international audiences five weeks ago, has grossed $300 million in the box office and received largely positive reviews. Villeneuve’s opus has an 83% positive approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has an average rating of 7.5/10. 

Right off the bat, the film fulfills all the major requirements for a big-budget fantasy epic. It begins with a montage voice-over from Zendaya’s Chani, which introduces us to the world of Arrakis, Caladan and Spice. It’s one of the many moments that brings to mind Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the gold standard in the film world for a successful fantasy series adaptation. Specifically, Dune’s introduction mimics Cate Blanchett’s prologue as Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Another thing Dune shares with Lord of the Rings: a thrilling score by Hans Zimmer. 

The star-studded cast does not disappoint. Ferguson excels as the conflicted, protective and grieving mother. Isaac gives a perfect performance of the stoic and deeply honorable Duke Leto. Chalamet taps into his experience from roles such as Henry V in The King (2019) for an entirely convincing portrayal of a young man coming into leadership wielding mysterious new powers. 

Zendaya, who is featured prominently in trailers and press for the film, largely disappears from the movie after the initial voice-over only to reappear briefly in the last ten minutes. The film’s transparent attempt to capitalize on Zendaya’s celebrity power is a rare misstep in a production that largely trusts in the power of the original story to captivate the audience. 

The battle and action sequences as well as the portrayal of the villainous Harkonnenns are done in perfect fantasy-blockbuster tradition. The Harkonenns come off as a mixture of orcs and stormtroopers, and the take-over scene of Arrakis was as perfectly devastating as the Game of Thrones season one betrayal of Ned Stark in King’s Landing. 

The film is surprisingly patient. Unlike the modern-day blockbuster and rushes from action sequence to action sequence, Dune takes its time building the world, setting the scene of the Atreides family and their loyal inner circle and delicately hinting at Paul’s unfolding powers. For the book lover, the film’s loyalty to the novel will be appreciated and enjoyed.

For the average viewer, the film may appear to privilege background over actual plot development. As Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt stated, “The sheer awesomeness of Villeneuve’s execution … often obscures the fact that the plot is mostly prologue: a sprawling origin story with no fixed beginning or end.”

Villeneuve’s admiration for the world of Dune is unquestionable. In a film era largely dominated by franchises like Marvel and James Bond which rely on gratuitous action and shock value, the careful and painstaking cinematic world-building of Dune makes it a refreshing and must-see film.