Dune Review: The Story Must Flow

Dune is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now
out of 5

Before I get into the review of the new film, Dune, I feel like some context is in order. Dune is and always will be my favorite book. My former brother-in-law turned me on to it in the mid-80s, and I’ve read the first book more times than any other in my 48 years on this planet. I spent my teen years devouring it annually and even own a hardcover first edition (the Chilton version). So, when this film was announced, directed by Denis Villeneuve, a man I consider the best filmmaker working today, I was excited. I was not disappointed by what was on screen, but as a fan, the ending left me with a sense of trepidation. I’ll get to that later.

Dune stars Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson, who lead a monstrous cast of amazing talent who work in concert to bring the seminal science fiction story to life like never before. Dune is the story of House Atreides, who are manipulated by rival House Harkonnen and the Padashah Emperor Shaddam IV to take over the spice mining operations on the desert planet Arrakis, also called Dune.

House Atreides in Dune

House Atreides is led by Duke Leto (Oscar Issacs), who moves his entire fiefdom, including his son Paul (Chalamet), concubine Lady Jessica (Ferguson), his Master of War Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Master of Swords Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Mentat Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Suk doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen) from the rainy planet of Caladan to the arid world of Arrakis on orders from the emperor.

The previous rulers of Arrakis, House Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and Beast Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), vacated their spice mining operations, and in this universe, the spice must flow. The spice, Melange, is the most important resource in the universe, used by the Space Guild to facilitate space travel, among other uses. That makes Arrakis arguably the most important planet in the galaxy, so House Atreides takes the appointment with honor — even as the appointment is anything but.

Paul takes a test in Dune

On Arrakis, House Atreides makes contact with the native Fremen, led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and his daughter, Chani (Zendaya), and Leto tries to harness their numbers — their “desert power” — to ward off a betrayal he expects is coming from the forces that put him and his family in jeopardy. When the attack does come, House Atreides is seemingly wiped out, and Paul and Jessica flee into the desert, running from sandworms, the emperor’s elite Sardaukar soldiers, and the Fremen. And just as the story begins to dig deeper into the sands of this epic tale, the film, labeled “Part One” on the main title card, ends.

Dune is the perfect vehicle for a visionary director like Villeneuve. The muscles he flexed in Blade Runner 2049 were just a precursor to the scale of this production. By now you’ve seen or heard all the superlatives laid upon this film, like stunning, epic, gorgeous, and all are true — and then some. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser captures the scope of the story in each frame, and Villeneuve paints his masterpiece using all of the tools at his disposal.

Sandworms roam over Dune

The script by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Villeneuve hits all the important beats, and much of the rich backstory story of this literary universe is explained through implied conjecture and exposition. It’s a marvel at how much is conveyed on-screen this way, and yet there is still so much to visually take in in each and every scene.

Most of the performances in Dune are spot on. The camaraderie between Chalamet’s Paul and Momoa’s Duncan conveys a history that predates the events of this story, without feeling too forced. That is taken directly from the book. Oscar Isaacs is pure strength when he’s on screen, breathing life into Leto like never before. The audience witnesses why he is so beloved by his people.

Paul and Jessica join the Fremen in Dune

There are times in Dune when I felt Chalamet might have been miscast as Paul. But I’m not sure if this is because I know what’s coming for the character and the trials he will go through, or if he just stumbles in portraying the messiah. As a “15-year-old” boy, it works, but there’s a scene in the third act when Paul begins to understand everything and his role in it, and the weight of that scene is lost because Chalamet couldn’t handle it. I’m not sure if this is part of the plan to show Paul’s eventual growth, and unfortunately, we won’t know for a while.

As beautiful and well acted Dune is, the fact that this is only part one of two (or more) rings hollow, primarily because Warner Bros. has not given the green light yet for part two. If Dune fails to live up to expectations, fans like myself will never get to see the story play out on screen with this cast and crew, and that worries me.

And to make matters worse, this film is available at theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service, which will affect box office totals and further hurt the prospects of the second part (it’s not a sequel — they are still telling the main story). It’s a strange situation to be in, and frankly, I don’t trust the powers that be at Warner Bros. to come through. I would feel so much better if part two was already filmed and ready to go next year, as we are looking at two years at the earliest for the conclusion — if we even get it — and that specter looms over this version of Dune.

Denis Villeneuve has completely delivered the best adaption of Dune to date. The amazing cast and production does everything it is supposed to, and as a lifelong fan, I’m thrilled at how well the film turned out. It goes without saying, but this is a film that should be seen on the big screen at a theater, preferably IMAX or more (if there is a more). I will watch it a few times on HBO Max this weekend and see it again in a theater as soon as I can, but my fear of never seeing the resolution will haunt each and every viewing. I can only hope Warner Bros. green lights part two before the weekend is up, as the spice — and this story –must flow.

Dune is rated PG-13 and is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now.

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