'Dune' review: Denis Villeneuve's brings a sci-fi classic back to the big screen

We've been waiting patiently for the results of Legendary Entertainment's acquisition of the rights to "Dune" in November 2016. Since then, Denis Villeneuve, who was being considered for the project, has been waiting for them. What did the visionary director, who created the riveting "Sicario," "Arrival", and "Blade Runner 2049" from Frank Herbert's source book, possibly do? We now know.

It was first published in 1965 in two serials in Analog magazine. In 1966, it won both the Hugo Award as well as the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It is the first in a series called the "Dune Saga", and it has been sold more than 12 million copies around the world. It is regarded as the greatest piece of science fiction ever written, and one of 20th-century literature's most significant contributions. George Lucas was also greatly influenced by "Dune" when he wrote "Star Wars" (Tatooine, Arrakis spice freighters, Spice Mines of Kessel, etc.).

"Dune" takes place over 8,000 years into the future in a feudal interstellar community in which various noble homes control celestial estates. It tells the story about young Paul Atreides who is the ruler of House Atreides. House Atreides were ordered by the Emperor to take over the stewardship and replacement of their sworn enemies House Harkonnen by reason deep in politics and paranoia.

Note: For information on how to view the movie outside of the theaters, see our "Dune” streaming guide.

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Lynch's 1984 version is more influential on the production and design of the vehicle than Lynch's 1984. Image credit: Warner Bros

Arrakis is a desert wasteland that is inhospitable. It is however the only place to find Melange, a spice that has many health benefits and enhances cognitive abilities. This seemingly insignificant planet is actually the most important one in the universe.

The story that follows is multilayered and interconnected with technology, politics and emotion. It's a battle for survival and control over Arrakis.

Many considered "Dune" to be impossible to film, or at least extremely difficult, much like " Foundation", which is currently on Apple TV+. A French consortium bought the movie rights in December 1974 with the intent of Alejandro Jodorowsky as the director. Pink Floyd and French progressive rock group Magma were to provide the music. Jean Giraud, Chris Foss, and HR Giger had been approached to design set and characters. An impressive cast included Salvador Dal, Orson Wees, Gloria Swanson and David Carradine. The project was halted due to financial concerns, despite Jodorowsky’s ambitious ideas. It had been in development for two and a quarter years. Amazon Prime has an amazing documentary called "Jodorowsky's Dune" that tells the entire story.

Ridley Scott thought about having a go in early 80s. He even made preliminary artwork for HR Giger. The studio didn't expect "Blade Runner" to be the blockbuster box office hit it hoped for in 1982 so that was it.

In 1984, David Lynch released "Dune", the film everyone is comparing to this one. It's also the only cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel. It is important to keep in mind that these two interpretations are not the same thing. They were made by different directors with different visions and 37 years apart. It is important to consider this as comparing two productions of Shakespeare's Henry V and Dune. This is science fiction Shakespeare.

Lynch's "Dune", which took almost three years to make, also featured an impressive cast that included Sean Young, Patrick Stewart and Max von Sydow. The movie's cast includes Stellan Skarsgrd and Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin as well as Jason Momoa, Timothe Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Timothe Chalamet.

Related: "Dune" goes into space as an astronaut to celebrate Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel

The 1984 film's harvester rescue scene was outstanding due to its steampunk aesthetic, strong performances and great acting. Image credit: Universal Entertainment

The 1984 movie adopted a different approach; Lynch took some liberties with the story (it doesn't rain on Arrakis at the end of the novel), added the nice-but-not-necessary Weirding Modules and redesigned the whole look and feel of the technology used. Lynch used the same style to popularize steampunk, much like Ridley Scott did for cyberpunk in Blade Runner. It suggests that advanced technology has more Victorian-era components. This is evident when we look at Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), a perspective shot taken from within the hunter-seeker's bedchamber during an assassination attempt.

Villeneuve, on the other side, chose a retrotech aesthetic that is similar to "Star Wars", for example. It looks stunning, especially on a large screen. But neither is wrong, and we love both. The time it took to make a movie is 37 years. Special and visual effects have improved tremendously over the past few decades. Arrakis' giant sandworms are a prime example of this.

There are many differences between these interpretations, not only in the visual style but also in the approach they take. Lynch's film felt more theatrical than "Dune", which has the grandeur of Shakespeare's plays. The movie used voiceover narration, and the 2021 adaptation is missing this feature. This has its pros and cons. We will use the example of the hunter-seeker assassination in Paul's bedchamber. Kyle MacLachlan's inner voice provides exposition about the suspensor field's effect on making it slippery beneath. It enhances the scene without dictating information to the audience.

It was an absolute bonus to be able to visit Salusa Secundus, homeworld of the Sardaukar terror forces, (Image credit to Warner Bros.

Villeneuve completely eliminates that. Villeneuve instead relies on dramatic incidental music and instrumental montages for tension building. It works very well. Both approaches, although they are very different, work equally well in creating an effective set of pieces.

The screen time for Dr Yueh, played by Chen Chang and Dean Stockwell respectively in 1984's movie, is also drastically reduced in the new movie. There are pros and cons, but mostly these are the cons. Lynch's film shows that the strong relationship and respect Duke Leto has with Yueh is continually built upon. This makes his betrayal of his imperial conditioning and his disillusionmentment even more important. It does make him the prime suspect for being "the traitor" Baron Vladimir Harkonnen mentions earlier in the story.

Villeneuve's version of Stockwell's character is hardly visible. While we don't think he is suspicious because he barely speaks two words, Villeneuve's portrayal misses the enormity of his Marcus Brutus-style treachery. Stockwell's performance as Piter de Vries (Brad Dourif) is an Academy Award-worthy one. Sadly, Chang does not.

Villeneuve's film, on the other hand, significantly increases the screen time and story of Duncan Idaho ("Jason Momoa). Lynch's film was shockingly short on Richard Jordan.

Dave Bautista's performance as the Beast Rabban Harkonnen was one of the most memorable in the movie. (Image credit Warner Bros.

Both movies did not show Dr. Lietkynes' final scene, which Max von Sydow played in 1984. Sharon Duncan-Brewster has reprised the role. However, Liet Kynes, the father of Chani is shown in the 2021 movie. The book shows Kynes being badly beaten by Harkonnens in the attack on Arrakeen. He is then taken to the desert to die, but without a stillsuit. He starts to hallucinate, and has an imaginary conversation about his father. Then he is swallowed in a spice blow by the desert. This is a touching chapter and Villeneuve pays tribute to it by having Kynes swallowed in the desert by a worm, instead of taking some Sardaukar troops.

We get a glimpse at Salusa Secundus, the home of the terrorized Sardaukar Sardaukar troops, in this movie. Villeneuve, who chose to expand the story to create the two-part story, (the 1984 movie ran at 2 hours 17 minutes, and the film runs at 2 hours 35), hasn't yet shown Feyd Rautha as he was famously played by Sting in Lynch's Lynch movie. This is strange because Feyd's story is parallel to Paul's book. He is, in essence, the anti-Paul.

Villeneuve still makes his own changes to the story. One of the most memorable is the rescue of the harvester crew when the carryall malfunctions. The novel shows that the Harkonnens overpowered the crew of the haulall, and Lynch's movie assumes they destroyed it. This is a crucial scene in the story, as Kynes starts to admire Duke Leto, despite his better judgement. This also helps to establish the continuing, gradual thread suggesting that the Harkonnen threat to Arrakis remains very real. The malfunction felt forced, and it was unnecessary to alter. Oscar Isaac is not as forceful as Jrgen Prochnow, who shouts, "You guys, run!" RUN!

The steampunk production design was beautifully displayed in the 1984 bedchamber hunter-seeker scene. Warner Bros. Image credit

Let me tell you, a movie that is part of a bigger story should still be able stand on its own. I don't know if this movie does. It was clearly written with part 2 in mind. The decision to end where it ended before Paul begins the next chapter of his story and fulfills the prophecy is interesting. There is no third act.

Lynch's "Dune", with its many memorable scenes, lines, and rare-seen panache were so well-known that they are still so easily quotable. Everett McGill (Stilgar), can say anything to Patrick Stewart. He leads a counterattack, holds a pug, and shouts, "Long Live Duke Leto!"

It's not the same movie, however, and very few things will be as memorable. It is much more conversational and casual than the dialogue and, despite some great performances by Charlotte Rampling (Reverend Mother Mohiam), nothing really stood out.

This movie, with a few minor exceptions, follows a similar story as Lynch's. However, it really skews after the Harkonnen attack against Arakeen. Sometimes it feels almost as if the movie was deliberately made to be different from the 1984 version. This makes it possible to enjoy both movies.

The 37-years of CGI progress have resulted in a little Muad'Dib or desert mouse, based on a kangaroo. Warner Bros. Image credit

It's easy to enjoy once you get past how "Harkonnen” is pronounced. The movie opens with a very interesting perspective. It is a great representation of our times. We hear Chani (Zendaya's) view of Arrakis' occupation and Fremen's hunted times. Villeneuve chose to give the set a more Middle East-inspired feel than Lynch's colonial aesthetic. Both work well, and the 2021 movie pays tribute to the source book since the book contains a lot of Persian influences.

"Dune" is a great movie, and it, like Lynch, has its ups as well as its downs. But is Villeneuve's best film so far? No. Without a doubt, that was Blade Runner 2049. This version of "Dune", could be even better. Could this be "Blade Runner 2049?" It's not. This is a great film. Denis Villeneuve has not put his stamp on the movie as much as his fans would like. This would be a school report. It would read, "We know Denis could do better, and while his work is still among the top in his class, but we believe he can achieve more."

The opening of "Dune" in the US has been reported at $40 million USD as of the writing. This is Denis Villeneuve's best opening in the US. It's a great achievement and there's no reason why part 2 shouldn't be allowed. Interestingly, "Dune", at $165m was $35 million less to make than "Jungle Cruise". Let that sink in.

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