The most important thing about Dune the movie is not that it is Dune. This movie aspires to be more than one film from the beginning. It is the beginning of a capital F-Franchise.
Denis Villeneuve's movie is fantastic, just to be clear. Dune manages to translate the sometimes difficult novel into a fun and accessible sci-fi epic on a scale that is far greater than the Star Wars or Star Treks. It feels like half an epic.
Dune (the movie) was inspired by Dune, a classic sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert. At its core, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides (the son and heir of House Atreides), who is involved in a complicated political power struggle against Harkonnens, another house. Everyone is fighting for control over Arrakis, the desert planet that bears the name of the dune. This is also the source of the extremely valuable resource spice which allows all galactic commerce to take place. Paul stumbles upon a greater destiny, which could alter the face of the galaxy.
A key part of its success is lead actor Timothe Chalamet as Paul Atreides, who has to walk the line between coming across as an actual human being with feelings and emotions and the otherworldly, wise-beyond-his-years messiah that Paul is destined to become. Chalamets Paul does not want to become the next Duke Of House Atreides. He wants to spend time with Jason Momoas brother-y Duncan Idaho and complain about the inconvenience of having to go to family functions. This helps to humanize Paul who is otherwise perceived as an expert at all of Dunes' quasi-magic tricks.
Dune is able to translate the sometimes difficult novel.
The rest of the star-studded cast is also great. However, many A-list actors feel underused in ways that almost scream theyll be back for the sequels. Oscar Isaac plays the patrician, noble Duke Leto and gets the most screen time. Isaac exudes a sense righteous honor and it is easy to see why his men would follow him into a desert world. It's also easy to see why he falls into the political traps.
Momoa adds the most humor to the film's sometimes ponderous moments, walking from scene to scene with smiles. Other characters, such as Javier Bardems Freman leader Josh Brolins overtly skilled weapons master or Dave Bautistas villainous Rabban, feel more like setting the table for the sequel.
At least in the first half, Dune pays less attention to its female leads. Zendayas Chani is Paul's love interest and his partner in the second half of Herberts novel. The film is limited to silent, softly lit perfume-commercial-style visions for most of its running time. Although Rebecca Ferguson has a bit more to do as Paul's mother, the Lady Jessica spends more time worrying about her son and partner than when she is a member the politically powerful Bene Gesserit sisters.
Dunes' world holds a lot of power for women, but Dune is primarily a film about men. Villeneuve will probably change this if Villeneuve adapts the second half of Dunes, in which Jessica and Chani play larger roles during Pauls time with the Freman. But for now, it's more setup than payoff.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Dr. Liet -Kynes. This is a gender-swapped character from the book who is an Imperial liaison who is caught between her love for Arrakis and Freman and her loyalty to the Emperor who seeks embroil Kynes with his plots.
Setting and worldbuilding are the real stars of Dune. Villeneuve's previous films, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, are all reworked here. The ships look more stark and abstract, while the buildings are more brutalist and towering, and the landscapes seem more sweeping and desolate. Hans Zimmer's bass-heavy music is even louder. Although I'm not convinced that Dune (or any other film) should be seen in a real theater, you will want to ensure you have a good pair of speakers ready for whatever you decide to do with it.
Dune is an epic film that is meant to be seen. It has a scale and scope that stretches from Paul's fate to the size of the famous sandworms. It works. When everything is on its best, Dune explodes with visual, thematic and sonic weight without losing sight the personal dramas that drive those lofty ambitions.
However, the real star of Dune is its setting and worldbuilding.
Villeneuve skims over many of Herberts info-dumps, making some of the subtler political machinations clearer to simplify and streamline the story. The film doesn't use the word "mentat" or explain the concept of living calculators. But, it is not necessary to. Even for those who are not familiar with Dune, the film is easy to understand.
The problem with Dune is its abrupt ending. It doesn't end with a dramatic, cathartic conclusion, but rather somewhere in the middle. Dune will leave you wanting more. However, it leaves you feeling like you didn't get what you expected.
Dune may try to have its cake, and eat it too in some ways. Pauls visions for possible futures serve as a substitute for Freman battles or Dunes galactic stakes. As if to remind viewers and studio executives that the real excitement is in the yet unconfirmed sequel, it even shows a short shot of someone riding a sandworm.
There will be a Dune: Part Two in the future. This will allow for a marathon of the two parts over several hours to give an experience comparable to the original. Dunes' methodological worldbuilding and tablesetting are in the same spot as the movie leaves Paul. They are primed for greatness but have a lot to unlock.