Paul Atreides, the handsome young protagonist of Dune, is one of science fiction’s original chosen ones. His heroic journey from plucky teenager to feared warrior has been imitated time and time again—think of Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. But the director Denis Villeneuve’s film is the first adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel to properly portray the grim tragedy of Paul’s arc; the movie is epic in scope, but it understands the quieter human underpinnings of the original work.
At the heart of Herbert’s Dune series, a multi-book tale of space empires, sandworms, religious fervor, and political gamesmanship spanning centuries, was a simple observation: Great power comes with terrible burden. Dune follows the Atreides family after Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) is given control of Arrakis, a harsh planet that is mined for a magical substance called spice, crucial to space travel. The Duke knows the gift is a poisoned chalice, an opportunity to fail that’s been set up by an evil baron—but still he accepts, hoping to defeat the odds stacked against him. His wife, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is an aristocratic space witch who works to mold the future behind the scenes. And their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), might be the messiah, a baby she willed into existence against her training. He is marked from birth with the potential to change the universe’s destiny. But being at the center of a cosmic chess match is as terrifying as it is exhilarating.
All of this information will seem basic to a Dune fan, but it’s difficult to communicate on-screen without massive voice-over information dumps, a tactic David Lynch resorted to in his failed 1984 adaptation. Luckily, Villeneuve’s film—billed on-screen as Dune: Part One—attempts to translate only the first half of Herbert’s first book. It has more room to breathe as a result, so it can offer newcomers to the series more clarity and spend real time developing its characters beyond familiar archetypes.
The scale still feels immense—enough to capture the magnitude of Herbert’s storytelling, which blended the fall of the Roman empire with 20th-century imperialism and flung it into a far future, in which space aristocrats wrestle for control of whole planets. Villeneuve, a French-Canadian director, emerged with the indie works Polytechnique and Incendies. But his Hollywood output steadily increased in budget and ambition, beginning with dark thrillers such as Prisoners and Sicario, and then moving into the staggering science fiction of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. With Dune, Villeneuve takes on a famed best seller that defeated one of the finest filmmakers alive, and it’s his grandest gamble yet: He imagines city-size ships, helicopters that look like dragonflies, and giant worms rampaging around the desert, and pairs them with a thundering Hans Zimmer score. Dune will be released on HBO Max the same day it hits theaters, but it’s best enjoyed on the largest possible screen with a bone-rattling sound system.
The grandeur was expected; Villeneuve is a rare director who actually knows what to do with a colossal budget. His movies, though, are often dismissed as chilly puzzle boxes. Although I count myself a fan of his work, I did wonder whether the large ensemble—including Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, and Charlotte Rampling—might feel like pawns being moved around on a galactic board. But he wisely places the emotional focus on the central trio: Paul and his parents, all struggling against the rigid expectations that other people—and their society—have for them. Chalamet plays Paul as someone alternately tempted by and fearful of his prophesied future, and the mythic powers that carry him further and further from normalcy. Isaac’s Duke, tinged with sadness and resignation, tries to make small steps toward a peace that he knows is unlikely. But Ferguson is the star of the show, imperious one moment and fragile the next, torn between nurturing her son’s purpose and protecting him from becoming a monster.
Those finely drawn emotions made Dune resonate for me, much more than its stunning battle sequences or sweeping landscapes. Villeneuve’s sole error is that in giving himself time to explore Herbert’s novel, he has robbed himself of a proper ending—the film cuts off about halfway into the book, and you don’t have to be a reader to tell. It left me wanting much more, but one hopes this Dune won’t become another strange footnote in film history. Villeneuve’s vision can be fulfilled only if he’s allowed to complete the tale.