A tyrannical galactic emperor ruthlessly rules the universe. On a desert planet, the father of a teenage boy is brutally murdered. A member of an ancient order utilizes mind control abilities to protect and mentor the boy in the hopes that he’s the “chosen one.” Sound familiar?
For decades, the Star Wars film franchise, created by George Lucas, has been a dominant player in pop culture everywhere. Spanning three trilogies produced between 1977 (A New Hope) and 2019 (The Rise of Skywalker), a collection of film and television standalones, and the prospect for perpetual cash-cow spin-offs under the direction of Disney, the cinematic universe has grossed more than $10 billion over the past 44 years. But this isn’t the story of Luke Skywalker, Emperor Palpatine, and the Jedi that has so thoroughly captured a worldwide audience. This is the story that came before it.
Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune, is the empire-centered space opera that was Star Wars before Star Wars was even conceived. Despite its considerable influence on Lucas and others, Dune’s popularity—it’s one of the world’s best-selling science fiction novels—has not translated well to the big screen, even in our era of endless adaptations of pre-existing stories.
And that’s a damned shame. Dune not only popularized many of the core elements that turned Star Wars into a colossal hit but has inspired other prominent sci-fi and fantasy works, such as Game of Thrones, one of television’s greatest cinematic and financial achievements. Shouldn’t the material that set the template for these billion-dollar franchises join the party with its own big-budget franchise that reinvigorates its beloved story? Well, Dune is getting that chance, but it could very well be its last. Director Denis Villeneuve has one try to prove that perhaps the most pivotal sci-fi book ever belongs on the big screen.
Just how pivotal is Herbert’s novel? Its influence on monumental pieces of pop culture ranges from strong similarities to … well, whatever you want to call what Star Wars did. When the original film debuted, in 1977, the author had heard of its rather striking resemblance to his book. “The editor of The Village Voice has been calling me and asking me if I have seen Star Wars and if I’m going to sue,” Herbert told his local newspaper in Port Townsend, Washington. “I will try hard not to sue.” Once he saw the movie, though, he’d have to try really hard. (Note: Spoilers follow for the many iterations of Dune, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones.)
Dune, for the unfamiliar, is a sprawling tale whose galactic setting is so splendidly rich with history and detail that its sizable appendix is almost required reading in order to comprehend everything Herbert created. Most of the book details the plight of young Paul Atreides, whose ducal father is relocated to the hazardous planet of Arrakis by the reigning Padishah Emperor. With its daunting heat, endless desert, and severe water deficiency, Arrakis, nicknamed Dune, is a character in itself. As the only known source of the uber-valuable natural resource “spice”—a narcotic that not only prolongs life and transforms cognitive abilities but makes space travel possible—the planet is rife with the kind of corruption endemic to any feudal society. Paul and his mother, Jessica, have everything taken from them when the family’s patriarch, Duke Leto, is murdered at the hands of the Emperor and his vile accomplice, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, sending the displaced mother and son into the depths of the unfamiliar desert. But Paul is trained by his mother in the ways of the Bene Gesserit—a women-led order that utilizes advanced combat and mind control skills. Using these powers and acquiring god-like omniscience through his sensitivity to spice, Paul allies with the indigenous Fremen and eventually convinces them that he’s the prophetic savior their religion promises. With millions of natives (and some gigantic sandworms) at his back, the young Atreides crushes House Harkonnen and bends the Emperor to his will, avenging his father and installing himself as galactic ruler.
But Dune isn’t your clichéd revenge tale, with a “chosen one” trope and happy ending. Woven into the plot are deep ecological commentary, political and religious cynicism, and morally gray characters that prove more compelling than even the inspiringly altruistic hobbits and heinous big-bad Sauron of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. In layman’s terms, it takes the narrative complexity of Game of Thrones dropped into the Star Wars universe to equal what Dune had already accomplished half a century ago.
The parallels to Star Wars: A New Hope and its ensuing sequels in the original trilogy (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) are considerable and aplenty. Skywalker, the franchise’s protagonist, lives on a desert planet called Tatooine, where the climate calls for “moisture farms” to produce water via air moisture, similar to the struggles and conditions on Dune’s Arrakis. Like Paul’s House Atreides, Skywalker’s family is brutally killed by an empire—at the head of which is an evil ruler who bends the rest of the galaxy to his will. Instead of the Bene Gesserit, the Jedi are Star Wars’ ancient guild of supernatural warriors, who use “the Force” (in lieu of “the Voice”) as a means of mind control and heightened awareness. Additionally, Luke and Paul both share psychic connections with their sisters. And while everyone knows Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, fewer are familiar with Paul’s sister, Alia.
Remember one of the greatest plot twists in cinematic history, when, in 1980, Empire revealed that the villainous Darth Vader was Luke’s father? Well, Herbert did that first too. Amid the cognitive transformation of Paul’s consciousness, he discovers that the culprit responsible for his father’s murder, Baron Harkonnen, is actually his maternal grandfather.
And the similarities keep rolling on. In 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Lucas debuted the infamous gangster Jabba the Hutt, whose giant slug-like body matches the description of one of Herbert’s main characters from his 1981 Dune sequel, God Emperor of Dune. In that same film, Lucas also introduces the Sarlacc—an enormous man-eating creature burrowed in the Tatooine desert, which echoes the gargantuan sandworms that help make Dune’s Arrakis so treacherous. Spice is also referenced in the Star Wars universe, though instead of being a thematic driving force of corruption and power (oil, anyone?), it’s basically just space cocaine. Perhaps that was the true genius of Lucas’s work: He made Star Wars a marketable Dune by simplifying Herbert’s concepts of psychological evolution, ecological metaphors, and political intrigue, all of which made the 1965 novel such a dense piece of literature. Unlike Herbert’s fat tome, Star Wars has proven to be an easily digestible cinematic feast that will continue generating billion-dollar releases and more lightsaber merchandise than Uncle Walt could have imagined in his wildest dreams.
And no, Star Wars is not a complete rip-off of Dune; the plots have some major differences. But the sheer popularity of Lucas’s empire—you know you’ve tried to use the Force at least once in your life—can leave a bad taste in your mouth when you know where most of it originated. So many of the most memorable aspects of Star Wars (the Jedi and the Force, Vader delivering the immortal line “No … I am your father,” the romanticism of desert wastelands) were foreshadowed by Dune. Herbert himself recognized this; in a biography of the late author, Dreamer of Dune, his son Brian asserts that his father was “livid” after finally seeing Star Wars, in 1977. Herbert identified 16 points of “absolute identity” he believed the film had borrowed from his novel, and he formed a tongue-in-cheek organization, the “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society,” with other sci-fi writers who felt they’d been ripped off. But his biggest concern, his son writes, was that getting Dune to the big screen would now be even more of a challenge, since so many of its important concepts had been preempted cinematically by Star Wars. It seems Paul Atreides wasn’t the only prophet in town.
Dune’s influence doesn’t end with Star Wars, though in most cases it’s less obvious. Take George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which was developed into the wildly successful Game of Thrones. Martin’s Eddard Stark is a clear echo of Herbert’s Leto Atreides: Both are the patriarchs of noble families, both are eventually doomed by the betrayals of political systems they are too honorable to survive, and both of their deaths serve as jumping-off points for the series’ respective plots. Paul’s relationship to Arrakis’s Fremen is also paralleled by Martin—twice. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are somewhat messianic figures in ASOIAF, and both consequently gather a large following of indigenous tribesmen who become their main source of power: Snow earns the trust and loyalty of the oppressed Wildlings while Targaryen, after being forced into exile, eventually wins the devotion of the desert-dwelling Dothraki warriors. Like Paul’s sister, Alia, one of the Stark sisters, Arya (seriously, how hard is it to name sisters in this genre?) becomes a hardened killer as a preteen, joining a cult called the Faceless Men whose followers can take the shape of any human in the world—a parallel to Herbert’s Face Dancers, who share the same power. And where Dune has the female-only Bene Gesserit, Martin employs the maesters—a male-exclusive guild of historians and healers who are similarly suspected of political interference from the shadows. GOT is not as heavily indebted as Star Wars, but the influence is undeniable. Additionally, the torch of Dune and its offspring is constantly being passed to other acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy series, such as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, which gets its own Amazon Prime Video adaptation later this year.
So why hasn’t the grandmaster of modern science fiction been granted his cinematic due, even 35 years after his death? Well, several filmmakers have tried. The first attempt was a failed venture by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which was shuttered after budgeting and runtime concerns—Jodorowsky believed he needed 10 to 14 hours to tell Dune’s story. In 1984, director David Lynch, after such successes as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, turned in a film that barely handled the basic tenets of filmmaking, let alone the thematic complexities that Herbert’s novel boasts. Lynch’s vision was so sloppily put together that even fans of the source material got lost amid the incoherence. The director has since claimed that a lack of creative control was at the root of the movie’s failure (both aesthetically and at the box office), and he has attempted to have his name removed from it entirely. Fans of the book, especially, see the Lynch film at their own peril: Onscreen, Paul’s lengthy integration into the stubborn Fremen culture takes about two minutes, Herbert’s core theme of messianic cynicism is erased when Paul ends the perpetual drought of Arrakis by summoning a rainstorm, and other fundamental aspects of the novel are either misrepresented or thrown out entirely. Ironically, Lynch turned down an offer to direct Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in order to launch his assault on Herbert’s book.
In 2000, Dune was once again adapted, but this time as a three-part miniseries written and directed by John Harrison. Debuting on the Sci Fi channel and dubbed Frank Herbert’s Dune, the series was something of a critical success, going on to collect Emmys for cinematography and special effects and spawning a sequel in 2003 based on Herbert’s later novels. No masterpiece, Frank Herbert’s Dune did at least take enough time in retelling the elaborate novel. However, it still couldn’t do justice to the author’s majestic vision of futuristic technology and such fantastical elements as the Empire State Building–size sandworms. Instead, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy was the adaptation of the moment, expertly implementing the special effects necessary to seamlessly adapt a visually uncompromised version of Tolkien’s revered universe. And that is exactly what Dune requires: the modern-day blockbuster treatment. Once thought unfilmable because of the entangled plotlines and special effects needed, cinematic technology has finally caught up to the vision of Herbert’s magnum opus. The precedent has been set by Game of Thrones’ adaptation of Martin’s phone-book-size novels, where political plotting spanning dozens of point-of-view characters was made intelligible to a worldwide audience—at least for the first few seasons. Recent developments in technology enabled GOT to convincingly portray dragons, ice zombies, and Bran Stark’s journey to omniscience as he fulfilled the role of the mystical Three-Eyed Raven—another parallel to Dune’s Paul. And hey—if Jackson had the technology in the early 2000s to flawlessly adapt Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, then director Villeneuve can certainly do it now for Herbert’s Arrakis.
He needs to. A fan of the original novel and the mind behind visionary sci-fi epics Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve must leapfrog both Lynch’s thematically bankrupt film and Harrison’s accomplished miniseries to craft the kind of immersive blockbuster that had fans flocking to Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and the most recent Star Wars trilogy. Should this new iteration of Dune fail despite its world-class director and a hefty $165 million budget, studios may never look at the novel again.
In deciding up-front to split the story into two films, Villeneuve has wisely bought himself time to re-create Herbert’s canon. But has he succeeded where his predecessors failed, crafting a product that can excite fans old and new alike?
The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Villeneuve’s new Dune is a masterpiece of sensory overload—the powerful soundtrack acts almost as a parallel narrative—that combines the immersivity of Blade Runner 2049 and the otherworldly tone of Arrival, but surpasses both. The director impressively merges the art house with the blockbuster as he properly sets the mood of an inherently dark setting while conveying the majesty and wonder of a civilization set some 20,000 years in the future.
Unlike its predecessors, this Dune handles its universe’s much-needed exposition with ease. The droning monologues that turned actors into robotic iterations of Herbert’s appendices are gone, and in their place are seamless pieces of context that show the necessary information. Free to serve as conveyors of emotion rather than facts, the sparkling ensemble cast (Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, and more) turn in performances that strengthen the epic’s slow-burn flow. But the heart and soul of this film is undoubtedly the sublime pairing of Villeneuve’s breathtaking visuals and Hans Zimmer’s domineering score (better even than his work on such blockbusters as Gladiator and The Dark Knight), an extraordinary merger that shapes the movie into an unforgettable cinematic experience.
It’s that exemplary pairing of sight and sound that makes Dune simultaneously so grand and yet so dire; in a different setting, the universe that Villeneuve has so meticulously crafted could’ve been misconstrued as hopeful. However, Zimmer’s mesmerizing, bass-heavy compositions—at times hanging like a backdrop, other moments brought boomingly to the fore—keep the imagery grounded in the story’s central themes of deceit and destruction. (In one scene, Villeneuve poetically frames the blistering Arrakis sun setting over the desert, mirroring the famous imagery of Star Wars’ Tatooine in a way that not so subtly says, I should’ve been here first.) The impact of this cinematic marriage is what turns the consumption of the film into an experience, not a viewing—while the visuals and music are both tremendous accomplishments individually, their union puts the viewer into a trance-like state that makes the 155-minute runtime fly by. In well under three hours, the flow of visual and audible awe created by Villeneuve and Zimmer evokes a level of intensity that the likes of Star Wars and Marvel wish they could achieve.
While the film takes its time to unravel, the grandeur of Villeneuve’s production design is as compelling as the action sequences. From the seemingly infinite barren desert to the pitch-perfect detail of the sets, such as the heavily industrialized Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime and the hopeful, oceanic planet of Caladan, the passion this director has for the source material is apparent, as the intricate descriptions on Herbert’s pages come alive onscreen. Unlike Lynch’s Dune (and many other sci-fi works), the elaborate costuming of the various cultures in the film is exotic enough to induce fascination but not so embellished that it creates caricatures of its subjects. In the same vein, Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen is monstrously intimidating, leaving behind the quirky, over-the-top portrayals by Kenneth McMillan (1984) and Ian McNeice (2000). Although limited in screen time, Skarsgård’s menacing performance is the film’s most memorable. And at long last, an adaptation of Dune has found actors that convincingly portray the complexity of its most important characters, Paul (Chalamet) and Jessica (Ferguson); both serve as essential emotional guidelines throughout.
And holy smokes, those worms!
Yes, Herbert’s famous sandworms have finally gotten their due, after 56 long years, and their faceless, sharp-toothed enormity is glorious. Some of the film’s most suspenseful and visually compelling moments come from the seconds before their arrival, as pulsating sand and exploding dunes warn Atreides’s soldiers and Fremen alike of their impending doom. Every appearance by the creatures is as exciting as the last, and perhaps that is Villeneuve’s greatest accomplishment: He manages to elevate the story’s tension even when you know what’s coming. He keeps the tale of House Atreides fresh with both his worldbuilding and the intimacy of his characters, along with carefully choreographed fight sequences, exhilarating rides on ornithopters (sleek, flying transport vessels that resemble dragonflies), and the surreal sandworm attacks—deserved payoffs that work with the emotional cohesion of the plot.
No adaptation can include everything from the source material, and 2021’s Dune is no exception. But Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts utilized their 2.5 hours well in covering roughly half of Herbert’s novel. Is there a missing scene or two that would’ve filled book fans with gratitude if put to the screen? Surely. But where Harrison’s miniseries was bogged down by its faithfulness to the book, Villeneuve’s film smartly crops Herbert’s story, deploying a fine balance between creative detail and spectacular action in order to pull in both the well-initiated and the newcomer. The only issue here is the somewhat anticlimactic ending, which has been a handicap to film franchises that have attempted to split their source material into multiple parts. But even with that constraint, Zimmer’s blasting score manages to get your heart racing for something that doesn’t feel entirely possible: a second act that promises even greater scale and splendor.
“So this is the new Star Wars movie, right?” one viewer japed before an early screening of the film. The unfortunate reality is that comparisons of Herbert’s story to Lucas’s historic franchise will be made as Dune debuts around the world. But the main goal of this film was never to give Herbert his “credit” for inspiring the sci-fi and fantasy that came after him, it was to bring his incredibly layered story to life in an age when his warnings about fanaticism, technology, and extreme climate are more relevant than ever. Villeneuve, now firmly cemented as a sci-fi master, has done a splendid job getting the ball rolling in that regard, creating a must-see cinematic monument that demands a second part. HBO Max is set to release the film on their streaming service simultaneously with theaters, but please, do Villeneuve’s magnum opus justice and see it on the big screen.
Indeed, Villeneuve’s film is actually Frank Herbert’s Dune … or at least half of it. As Zendaya’s character, Chani, promises in the closing moments of the movie: “This is only the beginning.” ❖
From the Voice October 2021 print edition.