They see what they’ve been told to see.
The trap is set. One day House Harkonnen is ruling over the spice mines of Arrakis with an iron fist and the next sees them leaving. The local Freman know it won’t last, though. Outlanders have come to oppress their people for generations ever since discovering the power of this substance within the sand. Without it, interstellar travel is impossible. As such, whomever oversees its cultivation has the potential for wealth beyond the imagination. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s (Stellan Skarsgård) avarice therefore makes him an ally to the emperor once the noble Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) begins to earn favor with the other houses. That potential threat becomes this yet unseen royal’s complete focus. So, he chooses a side by gifting Arrakis to Atreides before removing Harkonnen’s leash.
This is the narrative thrust to Frank Herbert‘s Dune and it plays out exactly as you’d expect. Director and co-writer (with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) Denis Villeneuve consciously chose to push both David Lynch‘s adaptation and Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s failed attempt aside by going back to the novel in a way that would allow his vision to exist alongside theirs with as little overlap as possible. It’s with good reason too considering the former was much-maligned (Lynch wanted it to be two parts, compiled a four-hour rough cut, and ultimately saw the finished piece reduced to less than two-and-a-half hours) and the latter the product of a singular mind nobody should pretend to believe they could bring to fruition when the person who originated it couldn’t.
Fresh off the success of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve has built his own personal aesthetic that carries over here for better or worse depending on your level of fandom. I like what’s he’s been doing in the science fiction genre, but I know a lot of people who don’t. So, know that he isn’t reinventing his wheel. This is everything you imagined a Villeneuve Dune would be and yet that guarantee of consistency and box office success still couldn’t get a sequel green-lit until a week after release (one-year late due to COVID). He had secured a two-picture deal with Warner Bros., but production was on a case-by-case basis. If audiences somehow decided to jump off the bandwagon, everyone would go their separate ways.
It’s the reason I waited as long as I did—along with the obnoxious gatekeeping rhetoric about “cinema” and the “theater experience” that soured my opinion of Villeneuve as a person (I enjoy his films regardless). I had no interest in spending two-and-a-half hours on an incomplete story. At that point I could just rewatch Lynch’s because its incompleteness was about depth rather than structure. He gets to show what happens whether it makes coherent sense or not. Following the journey of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) into the desert only to never see him leave and put what he’s about to learn into practice is just a waste of time. It becomes hard to care when the talk surrounding the film is a desperate attempt to make me.
Thankfully, the work speaks for itself. Herbert has said that if there was one thing Lynch got wrong, it was the idea that Paul was a God rather than a man playing one. Villeneuve doesn’t make that mistake—at least not yet since we must wait another two years to see where things go. His Paul doesn’t even want to be next in line to his father Leto’s dukedom let alone a fabled figure meant to fulfill a prophecy to free the millions of Freman that have been used and abused for millennia. As Leto explains, however, those who want a throne are rarely honorable enough to serve it. True leaders answer a call. Maybe Paul’s visions are his. Or maybe they’re part of an elaborate feedback loop.
That’s what makes this story interesting. Not that Paul is the person the mystic seers known as Bene Gesserit (of which his mother Jessica, Leto’s concubine, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is one) think or that the Freman believe, but that he must exist with that burden. He’s a boy being groomed by his father to govern and by his mother to emancipate and no one is really asking his opinion about it all. He just wants peace. He wants his parents to be safe. He wants his (older, court-appointed) friends (Josh Brolin as military specialist Gurney, Jason Momoa as heroic swordsman Duncan Idaho, and Stephen McKinley Henderson‘s mentat—human computer—Thufir Hawat) to be safe. And he does want the Freman to be free. He’ll do what’s possible.
As such, this Paul holds a lot of frustration. He’s known to snap back at those who believe because he’s not interested in following their script and thus removing his ability to possess his own free will. This is especially true since he begins to have visions—the reason Jessica’s former mentor, Charlotte Rampling‘s Reverend Mother Mohiam, takes an interest—that foretell the future. What’s cool about this detail, however, is that he doesn’t dream about a linear reality to come. His visions are more like a code to decipher. He sees characters he’ll soon meet (Zendaya‘s Chani and Babs Olusanmokun‘s Jamis), but not how he’ll meet them. Sometimes they kill him. Sometimes they help him. It’s up to Paul to decide how to interpret what he sees.
He must because the threats only increase with each passing day. House Atreides has an altruistic notion about defeating tyranny and they know that they cannot achieve it without help and luck. That means treating the Freman with compassion. It means knowing that any quiet they find is but that which comes before the storm. Allies are in short supply due to mistrust (Sharon Duncan-Brewster‘s Dr. Liet Kynes and Javier Bardem‘s Stilgar know they mean well yet aren’t quite certain it matters) and enemies grow in number thanks to the emperor and Harkonnen putting everything they have together to defeat the last “good” house in the universe. And some traitors might prove to be their best allies since motivation and desire aren’t always aligned. These are complex dynamics.
It’s a reason why Dune has been so tough to crack in this medium. The political intrigue and character conflicts are intricate. They need room to breathe so they can progress organically rather than through dialogue-heavy exposition (it’s weird to never meet the emperor or his daughter here considering how front-and-center Lynch made them—by necessity since Princess Irulan narrates). I think Villeneuve has done it. And say what you will about Arab appropriation (the score often made me feel like I was in the Desert Zone of NieR:Automata), it didn’t necessarily bother me. It’s a choice (a lazy one considering representation is nonexistent) that evokes more beauty on-screen than the hate our media normally conjures today. We’ll see if that changes upon entering their sietch next time.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Caption: (L-r) ZENDAYA as Chani and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release.
 © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Caption: TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary release.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Caption: (L-r) REBECCA FERGUSON as Lady Jessica and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.