The two most important lines in Dune come at the very beginning and the very end.
First, when Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) tells princeling son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) he needn’t desire the power he will soon hold – nor the hero arc he’s set for. Essentially reading straight from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Leto says to the wavering adolescent: “A great man doesn’t seek to lead. He is called, and he answers.”
Gravitas, yes, but Leto is slightly underplaying the sheer scale of Paul’s reluctance. He has searing nightmares about the force he may one day wield and the uncertainty of his own destiny that Freud would have a field day with. It’s that unwillingness to grow up and do all the ugly things power dictates which is really what this first part of Dune is about. It’s so finely balanced to set up a more plot-heavy and frankly eventful sequel that the idea it may never be made already seems a genuine tragedy. Explaining any more about where exactly Dune stops along Paul’s epic journey toward greatness would be giving away too much, so I’ll stop there.
But – thankfully – it’s not a film that requires any familiarity with the source material, nor David Lynch’s unsuccessful but well-liked 1984 adaptation. I purposefully avoided any knowledge of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic before seeing Villeneuve’s adaptation. Many others brushed up on it. Most won’t. Villeneuve and co-writers Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Eric Roth (we’ll come back to him) seem to know this. Stretches in the early parts of Dune are a layman’s terms guide to Herbert’s incredibly intricate and uniquely realized universe. Experts in the original story shouldn’t be bored, though, as the mountains of exposition are nicely dished out to Paul as well as us. And the stellar performances of Stephen McKinley Henderson, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson and Josh Brolin among Duke Leto’s Atreides inner council keep Dune entertaining.
Eric Roth does, too. The legendary Hollywood screenwriter, now 76, has the likes of Forrest Gump, Munich and A Star Is Born under his belt and another dozen or more box-office hits on top. His hiring by Villeneuve and Warner Bros. is an act of caution and an attempt to restrain Dune from the weirder routes Lynch took all those years ago. The decision pays off. Unlike Blade Runner 2049 which, although impressive, left many alienated, Dune is consistently gripping and plot driven. That it’s shorter despite carrying a huge amount more plot (even in its first half) says a lot about Villeneuve’s own lessons from that previous adaptation, commercial and otherwise.
Dave Bautista is still around, though not with the tiny glasses which made his Blade Runner performance so memorable. As far as creepy accessories go, however, Dune has an abundance. They mostly go to Stellan Skarsgård, who seems to spend most of the movie in an alien bath or an alien steam room. The gadgets throughout the movie are excellent, with production designer Patrice Vermette doing excellent work on all of Dune’s array of titbits and the audacious set design Herbert seems to have obligated from adapters.
What he didn’t obligate from adapters, though, was the care and attention Villeneuve and his co-writers gave to the story’s complicated – but unambiguously earthly – politics. Watching a film in 2021 about a hallucinogen-rich contested region fought over between rural tribes and a series of distant empires has a particular weight. Paul’s hero arc fits in all that, but in all it doesn’t particularly need to for Dune to still be provocative and interesting and timely.
Yet it’s that hero journey which fuels Dune. Chalamet is strong as the stony-faced hero with plenty to learn. Watching him have a series of profound conversations with role models and bad influences alike from weapons master Gurney (Josh Brolin) to spiritual kook Gaius (Charlotte Rampling) to warrior-legend Duncan (Jason Momoa, in a strikingly good performance) never, ever gets boring.
But that final line rings true, too. It’s not a spoiler to reveal one character says: “This is just the beginning.” With Dune so clearly intended to set up a sequel where, in the immortal words of Bad Boys 2, shit gets real, we can only hope Villeneuve and co. are given the chance to make it happen.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Warner Bros will release Dune simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros