Never has the simultaneous release on HBO Max and theaters been a disservice to a movie more than it has for DUNE, the new big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. From an outsider perspective, it seems like every single shot of this two hour and 35 minute epic cost millions of dollars to produce, and every cent was worth it to create one of the most visually staggering films of the past couple years. Despite the film’s very lengthy runtime, the film never seems to drag or be anything less than enthralling, and by the end of the movie I found myself thinking that I could have watched two and a half hours more.
Part of the genius of DUNE is how it makes the lore of an 800 page sci-fi novel feel simple and understandable to any audience member who may choose to watch. The main story follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the young son of the very powerful and influential House Atreides, led by his father Duke Leto Atreides (a standout Oscar Isaac). Once the former rulers of the desert planet Arrakis, the House Harkonnen, pull out and return to their home world, House Atreides is tasked by the Emperor to become the new harvesters of the most valuable commodity of the universe, found only on Arrakis. Hidden rivalries, mysterious prophecies, and dreams that foretell an uncertain future are all powerful players in this complicated chess game, yet in many ways this film is just a simple coming-of-age/hero’s journey story akin to Star Wars.
The way that director/writer/producer Denis Villeneuve, who is easily one of the best filmmakers working today, manages to make DUNE both a grand epic about imperialism, feudalism and the corruption of politics while also centering a very human and personal turn of events involving a boy trying to live up to his father’s legacy and make the world a better place is on the same level with some of the best science fiction ever put to screen. Even during scenes that contain some of the largest and most sophisticated visual effects physically possible, viewers will find their concentration focused on the characters and the impact these events have on them. Villeneuve has already proved how fantastic he is at delivering grand, yet personal films with projects like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, but here he proves just how gargantuan he can get budget-wise while continuing to deliver incredible stories.
Similar to his previous films, Villeneuve delivers such an extreme feast for the eyes that he can almost get along on that alone. Director of photography Greig Fraser contributes to the gorgeous imagery, knowing exactly when to drain the color from a shot while creating a visual that comes across similar to a futuristic painting. The way Fraser’s lighting combines with the out-of-this-world visual effects creates an immersive experience like no other, and makes this the clear frontrunner for both awards at the Oscars (The Green Knight needs to watch out). It goes without saying, then, that the world-building is utterly spectacular, to the point that when the movie ends it feels like stepping out of a portal to another dimension. For two and half hours, the audience is in another world entirely, and only when the first credit comes on-screen do they remember the obligations they have in their own lives.
While the movie is a bit long and a lot to take in, it never feels like a slog to sit through or a waste of time. Even in the more personal scenes with two actors planning out the next political move of their house, the stakes are felt and the audience’s understanding of the DUNE universe expands ever so slightly. Part of this is due to the effortlessly great acting on display, even on scenes where one is not conscious of the many A-list actors scattered throughout this movie. Timothée Chalamet proves that he can carry the emotional weight of an 165 million dollar sci-fi epic without even batting an eye, which is no easy feat. Those who aren’t already on the Chalamet bandwagon will have a hard time staying off of it between this and The French Dispatch. Rebecca Ferguson also quietly flaunts her versatility as an actress by playing the mother of House Atreides, and Oscar Isaac is the emotional core of the film, delivering a typically strong performance that will get no recognition as per usual.
DUNE is one of those movies that single-handedly pushes the bar higher for what is visually and artistically possible with big-budget adventure films. I would say this type of occasion is a rarity, but Villeneuve has accomplished this great feat with his previous three films along with this one, proving how genius of a filmmaker he is. While it is hard to compare DUNE to Villeneuve’s previous masterpieces (Blade Runner 2049 and Prisoners are still vying for my personal favorite), this is undoubtedly a film that will stand apart from the rest in many ways, while becoming the definitive big-screen version of Frank Herbert’s Dune (sorry, David Lynch). DUNE may not be for everyone, especially for those who want a fast-paced action-thriller or those who are only watching for Zendaya, who is in the movie for all of 15 minutes. Whatever one’s personal thoughts, DUNE is a film that will be brought up in conversations decades from now, which to me is definitive proof of the awe-inspiring experience one will have after entering the theater.