“Dune” has long been considered unfilmable, but director Denis Villeneuve seems to have cracked the code on how to bring this sweeping narrative to the big screen.
Previous versions of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel have struggled to capture the scope and nuance of the source material, which focuses less on the technology of the future and more on the politics of humanity.
“Dune” centers on the House of Atreides, a family that is assigned leadership over a planet named Arrakis by the sovereign ruler of the known universe, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. This planet is an inhospitable desert, but is the only source of a priceless and exclusive substance known as “spice.” This substance can extend human youth, vitality and lifespan.
Shaddam actually sees House Atreides as a potential rival and a threat and conspires with House Harkonnen, who had been in charge of harvesting spice on Arrakis, to destroy the family.
The novel and film center on Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), the heir apparent of House Atreides, as he navigates his family’s relocation to Akkrais, the betrayal of the Padishah Emperor and his assimilation into the planet’s native population.
“It might help to think of the whole thing as a kind of Mafia turf war, set in space: Enemies and treachery are everywhere,” wrote Michael O’Sullivan in his review of the film for The Washington Post.
Many critics praised Villeneuve’s precise storytelling and sprawling scale of the film, while others faulted it for being long, slow and ending just as the story was getting interesting.
Audiences should be aware that “Dune, which has a two hour and 35 minute run time, only covers half of Herbert’s novel. Warner Bros. has not officially greenlit a sequel to handle the second half of the novel.
“Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ is both dazzling and frustrating, often spectacular and often slow. It’s huge and loud and impressive but it can also be humorless and bleak,” wrote Steve Pond in his review of the film for The Wrap. “Though on the whole, it tries valiantly to address the problems of taking on Herbert’s complex epic, which requires a director to spend lots of time setting things up and explaining the world before they can even get the damn thing off the ground.”
The film currently holds an 87% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 174 reviews.
Here’s what critics thought of “Dune” ahead of its debut in theaters and on HBO Max Friday:
Those unfamiliar with “Dune” will need to be prepared for a film that unfolds slowly, Pond writes in his review of the film.
“Villeneuve has to spend a good 45 minutes of his film essentially laying the groundwork, using voiceover to describe the planet Arrakis, then finding a variety of ways to tell Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, and by extension the audience, what he’s getting himself in for,” he said.
The world of “Dune” is huge and Villeneuve spends time fleshing that out on screen.
“This version of ‘Dune’ sometimes feels as if it aims to impress you more than entertain you,” Pond wrote. “It’s grim on a staggering level, ditching most of the fun of sci-fi yarns in favor of a worldview that feels more like Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’ or ‘Prisoners’ than his ‘Arrival.’ But it’s also a formidable cinematic accomplishment, a giant mood piece that can be exhilarating in its dark beauty.”
Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac and Stephen McKinley Henderson star in Warner Bros.’ “Dune.”
“So just see it. It’s remarkable,” wrote Soren Andersen in his review of the film for The Seattle Times.
“Himself a fan of the novel, Villeneuve made the picture for fellow fans,” he wrote. “But not only for them. He made it, too, for people who have never read the book. And now they won’t have to. The movie has captured the book with amazing fidelity.”
Many critics noted how faithful Villeneuve was to the novel when adapting “Dune.” Andersen praised the director’s “mastery” of the story’s visual elements as well as the casting of Chalemet as Paul.
“In an act that could be called either courageous or foolhardy, [Villenueve] opted not to make ‘Part Two’ until after ‘Part One’ is released,” he wrote. “Whether ‘Part Two’ is ever made depends on how well this movie does at the box office. It’s about [two and a half] hours long, but it doesn’t feel like it. If it succeeds, get ready for ‘Part Two’ somewhere down the line.”
Michael O’Sullivan also addressed the length and breadth of the film in his review for The Washington Post.
“There’s a lot going on here — a quasi-biblical space opera, part ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and part mobster movie — and spreading it out over two movies has allowed [Villeneuve] to take his time with the story and tell it richly, and without rushing,” he wrote.
For comparison, he pointed to David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation as one that felt “overly condensed and frenetic.”
O’Sullivan praised the ensemble cast, which includes cinema heavyweights like Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Oscar Isaac and Stellan Skarsgard alongside Chalamet.
“Chalamet is well cast: an almost too pretty slip of a man who harbors hidden strengths and intensity,” O’Sullivan wrote. “When at last he learns to harness it, it lands with satisfying heft, even if it makes you wait, in a mix of frustration and fulfillment, for the next chapter.”
Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson star in Denis Villeneuve’s remake of “Dune.”
“Unless you’re sufficiently up on Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic to know your Sardaukars from your Bene Gesserit, your crysknife from your hunter-seeker, chances are you’ll be glazing over not too far into ‘Dune,'” wrote David Rooney in his review of the film for The Hollywood Reporter.
While Villeneuve’s iteration has cinematic spectacle, Rooney noted that the film “keeps throwing arcane details at you” that don’t pay off because the film ends before completing the story.
“Perhaps the biggest issue with ‘Dune,’ however, is that this is only the first part, with the second film in preproduction,” he wrote. “That means an awful lot of what we’re watching feels like laborious setup for a hopefully more gripping film to come — the boring homework before the juicy stuff starts happening.”
“Whether audiences will choose to return for more after this often ponderous trudge through the desert is an open question,” he added.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.