Somehow, I still haven't read Dune, so I was a little ashamed of going to see the movie first. The reviews, though, were just too compelling to miss our shot at seeing it on the big screen, and I've got to say, I'm very glad we did. Not only was the film incredibly beautiful and more than worth the cost of cinema tickets, but I actually thought that I benefitted from not knowing the plot on the way in.
Why? Well (assuming the movie and book are pretty similar in terms of plot, pacing etc.) Dune is not a modern Hollywood movie. It's got the budget, and the cast, and the production value, and the VFX of a modern Hollywood movie. But the plot is all backwards. The epic, grand battle happens in the middle of the film. The hero's moment to prove themselves and take on their mantle happens right at the end. The film deftly concludes the immediate storylines, but leaves the main arcs set up but open-ended (presumably for the inevitable sequels). It's surprisingly refreshing! Each story beat feels like it fits the narrative, rather than fitting a formula so consistent across films that it's only notable when, as with Dune, it's broken. And rather than feeling like a movie trying to break the mould and deliberately messing with audience expectations, in Dune these differences just feel natural. No one would question the order of events, because they're so clearly right for this story. The typical blockbuster formula simply wouldn't work here; sure, it would still be a fun film with some great world-building, but it would lose a lot of the character and soul that sets Dune apart.
I wonder if this is why the book is considered such a classic – that even when it was written its narrative was so strong as to eschew expectations and norms – or whether it's more a damning state of how formulaic modern film has become. Either way, it works extremely well.
Layer on top of that a fantastic cast, some absolutely stunning set and costume design, and a pitch-perfect score (who expected bagpipes to work this well in a sci-fi setting‽), and Dune is already feeling like a modern classic. But then you get to the world-building, and here it's just in a league of its own. I'm sure most of this work is the result of the original source material, but the visuals and direction have to be applauded for how well that source has been adapted for the screen. The world of Dune is simultaneously unique, human, alien, futuristic, realistic, and somehow familiar. It's a far cry from the sleek, idealism of Star Trek or the rough, almost corny fantasy of Star Wars. Interstellar ships are truly gigantic; planet-based aircraft are clearly designed differently than those used away from an atmosphere (plus, the whole dragonfly design is beautiful by itself); technology is unusual but practical and has evolved to fit the needs of the culture it portrays, rather than simply being futuristic looking. Their personal shields are a great example of this: it's a simple visual effect that makes a lot of sense and has resulted in an entirely different type of warfare, and some absolutely stunning VFX work. The bombs that "drill" through the outer shields by pressure, then ignite within the still faltering shields... 👨🍳💋
Which isn't to say that everything about the world of Dune is truly original, nor does it always make sense. The biggest glaring problem here are the sandworms, whose presence is used in fascinating narrative ways and whose design/effects are extremely effective (the whole sand liquefaction is brilliant). But come on, their biology makes no sense. We're told that the "native" humans brought what little plant life the planet hosts with them, and the only other creatures that seemingly live on the barren desert are small rodent-like critters, so what on Arrakis do sandworms naturally eat? I'm aware that a retcon explanation exists that posits that they are filter feeders, eating a sort of pseudo-planktonic lifeform that lives in the sand (and, weirdly, that this plankton is in fact the larval stage of the sandworms themselves, a frankly unnecessary complication to understanding how such a life cycle could evolve in the first place). Okay, sure, filter-feeding works in this instance, and there's plenty of light on the planet that the upper layers of sand could logically support a biosphere of autotrophs and phototrophs. I even quite like the fact that "spice" is a waste product of the worms, both for a reason as to why it exists on the planet in the first place, and for why the previous ruling Family didn't simply hunt the creatures to extinction immediately on arrival. But if these are filter feeders, why are they also hyper carnivorous? Why do they come running at the first sign of tremors on the planet's surface? Why (and how?) do they swallow entire town-sized vehicles whole? Analogous creatures on Earth (whales) tend to have extremely narrow, small throats because they don't need big ones for swallowing microscopic plankton. If sandworms are supposedly evolved to as, effectively, grazers, then where do these predatory biological instincts come from? And why, on a planet that largely lacks resources, are they so damn fast? Nothing else moves, why burn that much energy?
Perhaps their ecology is better explained in the books, but the sandworms aren't the only bit of worldbuilding that falls apart a little when you scratch just a bit below the surface. There's also the slightly too-evil enemies. The two main families/empires that the story has focused on are almost parodies of themselves. Our heroes are righteous paragons of virtue, ruling through wisdom and honour. Our villains are basically amoral fascists that rule through fear, greed, and force. To go along with these themes, our hero's homeworld is a lush, verdant, utopian place of beautiful sunsets and deep-rooted traditions, whereas the villains live on a planet that's just all mining equipment and industry and slime baths. Look, it's great to see a father figure that genuinely cares for their heir to the throne and would be willing for them to step aside, if ruling isn't their prime choice. In fact, over the course of the movie, all of the heroes become much more fleshed out, interesting characters, to the extent that you can forgive the obvious morality being shoved in your face. They are shown to be at least a little manipulative; even if that manipulation is designed to serve the greater good for the most part, there's still a tinge of self-survival and family-first about their actions, which humanises them. But the villains get no such treatment. Every decision they make is just evil: they're backstabbing, angry, genocidal, arseholes who see the universe as nothing but a means to further riches and power. It's a little cheap and, even though their villainy is used well and the actors do a great job within the roles, it's still weak storytelling IMO.
That said, these are extremely minor gripes. The movie is immensely enjoyable, incredibly well made, and has stuck with me for days after watching it (and will likely continue to do so for weeks/months/years to come). I'm not sure I've had an experience like this with a new franchise since I saw The Fellowship of the Ring way back, and I do genuinely think that Dune could become an equally revered and exalted series as The Lord of the Rings. The world that they have crafted, and the characters that exist within it, are genuinely fascinating, and that final teaser at the end has me desperate for more. I thought they wove flashbacks/flashforwards into the narrative extremely cleverly, I found the space witch angle surprisingly interesting, and even the whole prophesied one trope has me interested simply because Paul is such a well written, intriguing character. I also cannot wait to learn more about the "natives" of Arrakis (and get to see Zendaya actually have more of a leading role, rather than simply being Dream Girl 😂) and see where the story goes moving forward. In short, I'm hooked 👏👏