Movie Review: Dune

What if Star Wars—but on sand?

I’m surely not the first to refer to Dune as a cross between Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia (and no, I’m not going to Google to see the thousands of hits that phrase gets), but it’s certainly apt. We tend to think of futuristic movies as happening in space. Dune posits, what if Star Wars—but on sand? (In fairness to Frank Herbert, he wrote the novel Dune in 1965, long before Luke Skywalker was even a twinkle in George Lucas’ eye.)

The sand thing, as Lawrence of Arabia made so clear, is good, from a visual perspective. Lots of undulating hills and graphically windy sandstorms and, in this case, giant burrowing sand worms whose deadly faces look either like the pistils of a flower or, if you’re feeling less charitable, giant buttholes. Either way, it’s cool.

This is actually part one of what will be a two-part epic, so there’s lots of “world-building.” Not exactly my cup of tea. (Any movie where a title card reads: “Giedi Prime: Homeworld of House Harkonnen” is simply not going to do it for me.) It doesn’t help that Dune takes itself dead serious. Star Wars had a goodly amount of humor—partly thanks to the wise cracking Han Solo. (Dune has its version of Han Solo—Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa, who is appealingly swashbuckling but not particularly funny.) Star Wars often leaned into its silliness and camp. I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), the visionary director behind this film. But he has never exactly struck me as a laugh riot.

I’m going to attempt to explain the plot here, but don’t hold me to it. There’s this planet called Arrakis, which produces a substance called “spice,” which is somehow both able to fuel spaceships, sustain life, and give you a trippy high. (Try that, Elon Musk!) The people of Arrakis—who have freaky-beautiful blue eyes and are able to withstand extreme desert heat—have been oppressed and hunted for their spice. For some reason, the unseen emperor calls off the fierce Harkonnen kingdom, led by Stellan Skarsgård (outfitted in enough gooey, bulbous, gelatinous prosthetics to make Jabba the Hut weep), and asks the decent Duke of the House Atreides (Oscar Isaac) to oversee Arrakis. The Duke has an official concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), whom I thought was his wife until, like, the last 20 minutes of the film. She loves the Duke, but is also beholden to the long line of witches that she hails from. The Duke and Lady Jessica have a son named Paul, which is a really lame science fiction name when you get right down to it. Paul is played, dreamily, by the dreamy Timothée Chalamet. What a time to be alive!

Paul is possibly the Chosen One, in the Harry Potter and Neo sense of the phrase—a young man bestowed with supernatural powers, preternatural fighting instincts, and a heart so kind and just he can rule and bring peace to the planets. Either that, or he’s just a confused half-Duke/half-witch’s son. TBD, as the kids say.

A funny thing about Timmy being the possible Chosen One. It feels vaguely…20th century, doesn’t it? I mean, there was a time when every cinematic hero destined for greatness was a young cis white male. That time has passed to such an extent that this almost feels like a throwback. Hey, gotta throw white men a bone once in a while. (I kid, I kid…)

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the relationship between Paul and his mother. Both actors are great. Turns out, despite his slender physique, Chalamet is loose-limbed and agile enough to do action. And of course, he brings his astonishing beauty and method actor intensity to the role. Ferguson embodies the fascinating contradictions of a woman who fiercely loves her son but must put him in harm’s way to see what he’s capable of. Mother and son speak in a sign language of their own—both are also capable of mind control (although Paul’s skills on that front are still being honed) and their bond is fierce.

But wait, isn’t Zendaya in this film? Yes, albeit barely. She’s one of those blue-eyed Arrakis people (Zendaya + bright blue eyes = illegally gorgeous, needless to say). Mostly she shows up in Paul’s prophetic dreams. Is she a friend, a lover, or a foe? Also TBD, I’m afraid.

I watched Dune on HBO Max, where I was able to enjoy it well enough, but kept thinking, “Damn, I wish I had watched this in a theater.” Don’t be like me. See it in a theater, the bigger screen the better. The film is intended to be a spectacle. Apparently, the Hans Zimmer score rattles the chairs.

They once said that the novel Dune was unfilmable. David Lynch tried, and allegedly failed, in 1984. (I can’t confirm that the film was a bust—I haven’t seen it since I was kid.) Villeneuve has certainly debunked that conventional wisdom. Dune is a success on its own terms—gorgeous, layered, and occasionally exciting (when it’s not being overly expositional, that is). It’s certainly not my kind of film, but if you’re stoked to see it, you will be in geek heaven. And over the course of its two hours and 35 minutes (!), the film won me over. Had part two been immediately available, I would’ve nuked another bag of popcorn, leaned back, and clicked play.