It usually pays off to follow director Denis Villeneuve wherever he goes, so how about to the planet Arrakis? Dune (2021) is the latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction classic from 1965, and while there’s something distancing and ponderous about it, it’s also an ambitious, visually stunning production. In the deep future, an intergalactic empire depends largely on “spice,” a hugely valuable substance with psychotropic properties that is also the key to interstellar travel. Spice can only be found on the planet Arrakis, where the House Harkonnen – led by its grotesque, ruthless Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) – has long been in charge. Then the Emperor instigates a change, reassigning stewardship of Arrakis to House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). Arrakis is a desolate planet, and the Atreides – including Leto, his concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and his heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet) – arrive to find the spice mining operations in disarray, thanks to spiteful Harkonnen sabotage. But that’s just the first of many problems for the Atreides, whose new control of Arrakis is part of a larger plot. In the resulting power struggle, Paul – who possesses precognitive abilities – appears to become a crucial figure in the battle to control Arrakis, which will depend largely on the Fremen, the planet’s rugged, indigenous population.
It’s easy to see why Dune’s involved space opera world-building had such a lasting impact on the genre, and Villeneuve successfully immerses the viewer in its complexities: laying out political powers, defining players, building out cultures, and establishing the psychic abilities of the Bene Gesserit order from which Jessica and Paul descend. So much situational orientation is required, in fact, that two-and-a-half hours is only sufficient to deliver half the story. This results in a film that feels both overlong and incomplete, hardly a recommendation. But inasmuch as it’s the result of faithfully adapting a complex novel – which I remember as robust, dense, and yes, distancing and ponderous – it feels largely successful to me. Sluggish pacing is an early barrier, but ultimately does contribute to the epic scope, especially once the narrative slow burn builds in concert with sweeping cinematography and magnificent effects. The characters of Dune aren’t particularly interesting, but the casting is nicely tactical, with the right performers – including Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Jason Momoa, Charlotte Rampling, and Zendaya – in the key roles. It’s not likely to be embraced by the average viewer, but fans of the director and genre afficionados will find more than enough to carry them through in anticipation of a concluding sequel.