Villeneuve’s Dune: A Captivating Take on a Classic Novel

Pavan Cheruku

You’re strolling through a crowded sidewalk in Lexington center: the sun’s out, there’s a light breeze, and the trees are swaying from side to side. But as you turn a corner and approach a new bakery, you’re inundated with the most heavenly smell you’ve ever encountered. The scent lifts you up and lures you towards its source. Before you know it, you’re diving head first into a banana split cake, with banana slices and whipped cream all over your face.

Dune, the latest film by director Denis Villeneuve, is the cinematic equivalent of being captivated by a banana split cake. The movie, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, had me on the edge of my seat throughout its two and a half hour runtime. Villeneuve, who in my opinion is the greatest director working today, was the obvious choice to take on the challenge of adapting the novel’s fascinating plot for the big screen. His repertoire of movies, including Prisoners, Blade Runner 2049, and Sicario, demonstrates his mastery over mind-bending plots and breathtaking visuals.

Though I completely trusted Villeneuve to do Herbert’s novel justice, there’s no dispute that the Canadian director struggled with condensing the lengthy masterpiece into a two and a half hour movie. The novel is full of extensive world-building and lore; there’s tons of characters, intriguing ecosystems, and political/economic insights to be derived from the sci-fi epic. When David Lynch, one of the most inventive directors of all time, attempted to adapt Dune onto the big screen in 1984, he was panned by critics for cutting out substantial parts of the book in an attempt to keep the film from being bloated.

But miraculously, Villeneuve managed to incorporate the key plotlines and character arcs that defined the original novel without making the film difficult to follow. It’s impossible to summarize this movie meaningfully without great oversimplification. Dune follows the harsh desert planet Arrakis, which is the only source of the valuable spice, melange. Melange has psychoactive properties, can increase life expectancy, and facilitates interstellar space travel. For years, the Harkonnens ruled Arrakis ruthlessly, extracting melange for their substantial financial gain. Everything changes, however, when the Emperor decides to put the House Atreides in power of Arrakis. Paul Atreides, the protagonist of this film, is played perfectly by Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet’s portrayal makes Paul a character we can empathize with, even if we’ve never dealt with colossal sandworms like he does. Rebecca Fergerson embodies the role of Lady Jessica, who is Paul’s powerful mother. Their relationship is the heartbeat of this film, and it grounds the fantastical elements of Dune in something humane. The rest of the cast is also phenomenal, with standout performances from Oscar Issac as Duke Leto Atreides, Stellan Skarsgård as the menacing Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and Jason Mamoa as the badass Duncan Idaho. Unfortunately, Zendaya, an extremely talented actress who I was looking forward to seeing as Chani, was barely in the film. However, I expect she’ll play a much larger role in the sequel.

Beyond the enthralling plot and performances of Dune, the cinematography and soundtrack were also notable. The cinematographer, Greig Fraser, along with Villeneuve, crafted each shot like a museum painting. I particularly loved how Villeneuve and Fraser played with contrasting sizes; there’s a beautiful shot where Paul is surrounded by the overwhelming size of the desert. In contrast, the soundtrack, done by Hans Zimmer, felt underwhelming. Though it delivered at certain climactic points, I felt as though his soundtrack for Dune wasn’t as engaging as other soundtracks he’s made for movies like Inception and Interstellar. Nonetheless, I do find it amazing that he created new instrumentals just for this movie.

Besides my mixed feelings for the soundtrack, the only other qualm I have with Dune is the ending. This movie only covers the first half of the original novel, so it ends before we get any sort of resolution, which means this film doesn’t really stand on its own. Regardless, I am super excited to see how the sequel concludes the story (of the first book in the Dune saga).

Because of its outstanding visuals, fascinating plot, and mesmerizing acting, I will give Villeneuve’s Dune an A. It is without a doubt the best movie I’ve seen in theaters in years. I’ve been able to watch the movie twice so far (for free as an AMC Theaters employee), and I would urge anyone who loves science fiction, fantastic visuals, phenomenal acting, or just wants to support a one-of-a-kind director, to watch Dune.