Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the most immersive, visionary, impressive works in the history of storytelling. Reading Dune more than two decades ago was the first time I truly understood just how powerful the human imagination is. I’d read epic science fiction before. I’d read comics with years of history, watched long-running movie and television series, played video games with what were the largest worlds at the time, but none of them felt like the result of literal millennia of planning the way Herbert’s novel did. The vastness of his universe, the distinct cultures and histories, the way past, present and future weaved into and through not only the narrative but the form of the novel itself, remains a testament to what the human mind is capable of creating. And clearly, with its decades-long litany of works both adapted from and inspired by, I wasn’t alone in being awed by Herbert’s vision of a far, far future universe so extensive that David Lynch (also known as Alan Smithee), Alejandro Jodorowsky, the SyFy television network, and countless other undeveloped adaptations failed to fully capture just the first of Herbert’s Dune series. Now, with one of the most immersive, visionary, and impressive film directors of this century, whose last two releases were among the best of their respective years, we get to once again witness Herbert’s vision on screen. However, for now, it seems even Denis Villenueve is incapable of adapting Herbert’s work.
This is because, for now, the story is unfinished.
Normally this fact is something I’d avoid mentioning, or place within a giant “SPOILER WARNING” title, but even co-writer Eric Roth felt it important to reveal months ago that Villeneuve’s Dune only covers half of the novel. Sadly, I did not know this before entering the theater, although I had my suspicions when the film opened with the title card “Part One,” but after Zendaya’s Chani utters, “This is only the beginning,” I wound up staring at the end credits in stupefied disbelief. I sat in my seat well after everyone else left hoping there would be a second part. Seriously, what the ****?
The shattering disappointment of Villeneuve’s unfinished work stems from the fact that Dune (Part One) is never less than stunning. Every scene, from the deep greens and blacks of Caladan, the hazy tones of Arrakis, the rigidity of the Bene Gesserit, and the near-monochromatic Harkonnen, splays across the screen like a painting on a canvas. Though epic in its grandeur, a sparse mise-en-scene, included limited color palettes and minimal lighting, immediately draws the eye to the most important point on screen. Simple, geometric spaceship designs serve as striking visual cues to the advancement of technology, while innovative costume designs hint at cultures developing at the same rate. Battle sequences begin in near silence as faceless figures clash over blank backgrounds, their shields shaking and sparking red with every killing blow. The cast, with perhaps the exception of Timothee Chalamet whose shaggy-haired appearance belies the intensity he brings, is stacked with pitch perfect talent. Hans Zimmer’s incredible score – a mixture of Middle Eastern vocals, 70’s sci-fi ambience, pulsing percussion, and, at Villeneuve’s request, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – blasts onto the scene without ever overpowering it. This is a film that needs to be seen on the largest, loudest screen possible, and not streamed. Not only to boost its box office, but to boost the experience of the film. Dune, like the work which inspired it, feels like nothing else which has come before it, save for Villeneuve’s own previous work on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Obviously a lot of credit for this has to go to cinematographer Grieg Fraser, the visual effects team, set designers, costume designers, and all the other dozens of hardworking tradespeople who make cinema possible (support the IATSE!), but Dune would not look, sound, feel, or unfold the way it does without Villeneuve’s unique vision.
As a piece of intellectual property, Dune is massive with the six books of the initial series selling millions and outliving the original author, several prequel series, comic books, video games, and even songs (one by the immensely talented Ryako). Typically, when dealing with such a popular piece of fiction, and such an expensive movie adaptation, studios will follow the safe route investing in a formula for mass appeal or in a director with a record of financial success. For all their faults, Warner Bros has taken an extreme gamble on hiring Villeneuve. For all his success, Villeneuve has become infamous for making beautiful, awe-inspiring films that no one pays to see. In Dune, WB and Villeneuve have a billion-dollar science fiction franchise that looks, sounds, and feels like the most expensive piece of arthouse cult cinema ever produced. The film almost feels like WB making right on everything that went wrong with the Synderverse, from choosing the wrong filmmaker for the subject to interfering once that filmmaker started working. This is very clearly the film Villeneuve wanted to make and WB is right to let him make it. Everything in it, even the languid pacing and overbearing score, is done with purpose and deliberation.
It’s a long movie that feels like a long movie. It’s a slow movie. The first half unfolds like a series of character introductions. It’s jarring and cold, with emotions that only come to the surface after revelations which, for now, haven’t come. There aren’t laser battles or aliens. There isn’t much witty banter or overt speechifying. It’s a white savior story, much of which isn’t told. It is ponderous and yet spare, epic yet so focused that there’s little time for explanation or extraneous dialogue. It frustrates in never quite letting the audience understand what is happening yet intrigues in making us want to know more. It feels lived-in and yet forbidden, never allowing us to become comfortable. It’s loaded with conversation scenes as intense as its action. There is a constant feeling that everything on the screen is leading somewhere, has some kind of meaning, will be a part of some big payoff, that something massive is about to happen, AND THEN IT JUST ENDS! Right when we’re getting to the really good stuff! It just f***ing ends!
For now… for now…
The biggest problem for Villeneuve’s Dune isn’t that large portions of the potential audience will be turned away by its length or pacing or barrage of unfamiliar names and terms or that isn’t the type of feel-good romp or mind-numbing escapism that audiences flock to. The biggest problem is that we don’t know if the director, the cast, and the crew, will have the chance to finish the story. Those of us who have read the book, or several books, know to get tense when we hear of the Gom Jabbar, the Litany Against Fear, or the Kwisatz Haderach. We know the significance of the crysknife, the thumper, and the desert mouse. We get goosebumps at the beautifully envisioned sandworms. Those who aren’t familiar with the books, who might wander into the movie looking for a more intense Star Wars or a less obvious Avatar, won’t understand why the Reverend Mother has to test Paul or why Zendaya only has like five minutes of screen time outside of visions. Even at his most accessible, films like Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve’s work has never been exactly easy, mainstream, or something that appeals to mass audiences. Yet without that appeal, we who have read the books will never get to see this wonderful vision of Herbert’s work to completion, and those who haven’t read the books may never understand why this vision is so wonderful. For what it is, one part of a story which may never end, Dune is a stunning piece of work. In exact contradiction to a novel, much of the storytelling is done through the visuals without the use of words. This version of Dune is not what so many others likely imagined of the novel and yet it is precisely what an adaptation of such an epic, unique work demands. It’s not at all what blockbuster filmmaking is. Yet it is exactly what blockbuster filmmaking should be. Cinema has a whole would be better if the list of highest grossing films had more entries like Dune, Blade Runner 2049, and Arrival and fewer like F9. So no, for now, even the one of the most immersive, visionary, impressive filmmakers of this century wasn’t able to adapt the spectacle of Frank Herbert’s epic work. Part of this is because the adaptation is unfinished, and part of this is because it was never Frank Herbert alone who created Dune.
One of the main criticisms for most novel adaptations is that they don’t “feel” like the book. Characters don’t look the way we expected them to. Events are altered, added, or removed. Themes and subtexts are downplayed or emphasized. This will always be the case with a work as dense as Dune and there will always be people disappointed because the movie isn’t the same as the book. Thing is, it’s impossible to collapse 5000 years of history into a single film without removing their meaning or following those years through a television series without making them tedious. It’s impossible to portray the Bene Gesserit plot or the Emperor’s political machinations on screen without thirty minutes of exposition. Different mediums have different demands.
Reading Dune was the first time I truly understood just how powerful novels are. No visual medium, not movies or shows, comics or games, empowers our imagination as much as words on a page. With nothing else to rely on, we fill the empty space between words ourselves, making our imagination as integral to the creative process as that of the writer. In some way, it was reading Dune which solidified my own desire to become an author, in the same way that it’s likely Dune helped inspired Denis Villeneuve to become a filmmaker. Very few of us will ever have a chance to share what we imagined while reading Herbert’s words on the page. While Villeneuve’s adaptation, nor any other, will ever be able to fully capture the worlds we imagined, his is so spectacular, so masterfully envisioned, so wonderful to behold, and such a powerful experience that we as participants in this world, as contributors to the legacy that is Dune, should support his vision. This is a film that needs to be seen in a theater, safety permitting of course, or else we may never see anything like it again.