First installment of Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ makes an epic case for the biggest screen

The director took Frank Herbert’s novel to the big screen in such sweeping fashion, there’s almost no way a small screen can recreate the awe-inspiring experience

Brad Keefe
"Dune"

This weekend marks one of the biggest paradoxes of Hollywood’s hybrid pandemic release model. A film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible is arriving in theaters … and on the small screen.

Back in December, director Denis Villeneuve strongly expressed his disdain for Warner Bros.’ decision to simultaneously release his “Dune” in theaters and on HBO Max. His statements got support from Christopher Nolan, who famously held out on pressure to release “Tenet” to streaming in 2020.

Of course, the difference between then and now is the wide availability of effective vaccines against the virus that shuttered theaters for most of a year.

Villeneuve’s feelings on seeing his sweeping sci-fi epic on the small screen haven’t cooled, comparing the experience in an August interview to “[driving] a speedboat in your bathtub.” Having seen his “Dune” on the big screen, he’s not wrong.

Villeneuve took Frank Herbert’s novel to the big screen — a feat once attempted by no less than David Lynch — in such sweeping fashion, there’s almost no way a home screening can recreate the sense of awe it brings.

That it is visually stunning and world transporting is no surprise if you’ve seen Villeneuve’s films, particularly “Blade Runner 2049.” The question going in was, how would the director handle the storyline from a nearly 500-page novel that requires a glossary?

Part of the answer was previously known but not widely made clear in the marketing of the film. The opening credits announce this is “Part 1.”

The story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the young son of a duke, and his journey to a larger destiny is a classic hero’s tale, but not a simple one. Add in a cast that includes Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, and Zendaya, and it’s enough to make your head spin.

How much your head spins will determine whether “Dune” is more than its epic scope, stunning visuals, a brilliant Hans Zimmer score and Oscar-frontrunner set design and costumes.

I’ve made no secret of my belief that novels don’t always make great movies, particularly if they require pre-knowledge of the material. A movie that’s only good if you’ve read the book doesn’t do its job.

Villeneuve and his co-writers, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, do an impressive job of making the dense material digestible and (mostly) understandable through clever exposition and solid pacing.

None of this is to say that there aren’t moments when the journey is a bit of a slog. The last stretch of the two hours and 35 minutes did have me glancing at my watch a few times. But it’s also abundantly clear that trying to squeeze the material into one epic (and epically long) film would have been a mistake.

Of course, this also means we’re seeing half a story. The endpoint is one of intrigue, but it also feels a bit like the film is wheezing to a resting point for the rest of the journey.

“Dune” even dropped a day early on HBO Max, and I’ve already seen people who’ve watched it say what I’d tell you now. It’s best to see this on the biggest screen possible first. If your comfort level means waiting a few weeks for those mostly empty matinees, I’d recommend it.

“Dune”

Now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max

4 stars out of 5