I have an unusual relationship with Dune as a cinematic endeavor. Way back in 1984, at the tender age of fourteen, I was active in the San Jose area's bulletin board scene, the precursor to social media. Throughout that year, I went to see movies on opening night with various "modem friends". It was so much fun that at some point I decided that David Lynch's big-screen version of the Frank Herbert novel, which was opening that December 14th, would be the be-all, end-all of "BBS gatherings". So for months I badgered everyone I could find – "Are you coming to Dune?" – and bought Herbert's book to get acquainted with the source material. (I couldn't finish it, but that's on me, not Herbert.) My mom even let me skip school that day so I could be the first in line at noon, for an 8pm show. (You couldn't preselect your seats in those days; standing in line was part of the experience.) All in all, the event was a smashing success: I got some 60-70 people to show up, and we all had a wonderful time.
Lynch's movie, of course, was an exotic but baffling mess. Herbert's Dune had confounded him just as it had Alejandro Jodorowsky a decade earlier. (Jodorowsky's Dune is a tremendously entertaining documentary about that stillborn endeavor.) If the material could defeat visionaries like Lynch and Jodorowsky, then who on earth could conquer it? When Denis Villeneuve threw his hat into the ring, this much was clear: if Dune could be reined in by anyone, it would be him. Especially once he had the only slightly less ambitious Blade Runner 2049 under his belt.
So after all this wait, are the results worth it? Well, yes – although Villeneuve was smart enough not to try to cram the entire novel into one film, instead delivering just the first half of the story. (A risky bet, in case the film flopped, but we'll get Part Two soon enough.) As such, most of Dune's two and a half hour runtime is dedicated to world building, its plot boiling down to this: On the desert planet of Arrakis, the Emperor has called for a changing of the guard as to which planet's "house" must oversee the mining of Arrakis's precious "spice", which powers interplanetary travel and also serves as a hallucinogen. The new clan is the sophisticated House Atreides, taking over for the disgusting and violent House Harkonnen – who aren't ready to hand over the reins. We soon find out that the Atreides are being set up for failure, and probable war. But why? We don't know yet, but it might have something to do with young Paul Atreides (a perfectly cast Timothée Chalamet), who's not only primed to take over the clan but whose mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) has taught him a type of witchcraft. Once Paul steps foot on the sandy planet, the locals start stirring: could he be their Messiah? Well, audience, what do you think?
Villeneuve and his cowriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth do an impressive job at covering Herbert's sprawling narrative with economy. It would be easy for a newbie to get lost in all these characters, cultures, rituals, technology, and politics, but the script explains everything as clearly as possible. If anything, I wish there was more story in this first installment. Mostly we just get exposition, destruction, and a whole lot of footage of Paul and Jessica wandering the desert. It's not boring, but having long forgotten what happens after page 100 of Herbert's Dune, I'm not sure if Part Two is going to be tons of story and character development, or just tons of fighting and sand.
Still, Dune is an awesome, transportive spectacle, which is as it should be. For those still stinging from Lynch's misfire – and let's not even mention the long-forgotten TV adaptation of the book from a few years back – Villeneuve's film will satisfy all but the unsatisfiable. He sure knows how to set up a shot, that's for sure. Kudos also to rising cinematography star Greig Fraser, to composer Hans Zimmer pushing himself, and to Villeneuve's longtime production designer Patrice Vermette, returning to the fold after Dennis Gassner took on his role in Blade Runner 2049.