Sandworms, the signature creation of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, are colossal beings that live in the deserts of the planet Arrakis, which the worms travel through the way a shark might through water. Their dominance over the land has them alternately revered and feared by the different human populations who also live there, carving out lives in the unforgiving environs. The worms are drawn to anything out on the sand, capable of sensing vibrations from far away, and emerge from underneath their targets, the ground giving way to a gaping maw for anyone unfortunate enough to be in the area. When David Lynch directed his ill-omened 1984 adaptation of the original 1965 novel, he gave his sandworms multi-lobed mouths that opened like monstrous flowers, much like they had in John Schoenherr’s dust-jacket illustrations. It’s a dependable method for making anatomy look ominous — just have it look like a toothy vulva — but it’s not an approach Denis Villeneuve replicates in his own sumptuous and strange new take on Herbert’s source material.
Villeneuve’s sandworms, like so many details of his new movie, strive to come across as genuinely otherworldly and from a context other than our own. They have a tunnel-like quality that’s organic only in the sense that microscopic organisms that turn out to be nightmare fuel when given their close-up are still organic, ending abruptly in circular jaws that are permanently agape and ringed by a filter made up of rows of needle-like teeth. When Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), Dune’s reluctant messiah figure, has an encounter with one after fleeing into the desert, the worm lifts its massive noggin out of the drifts right in front of him, and he stares into its unseeing countenance in a moment that’s meant to be electric with the terrifying majesty of this utterly alien life-form. But, gazing into that eyeless hole with clenching interiors glimpsed in its shadowy depths, it might also cross your mind that the reimagined worm left its old vagina dentata influences behind only to end up resembling a giant asshole.
The human imagination is not as limitless as we like to pretend, and it’s funny how often, in trying to get beyond the boundaries of the known, we just end up circling back to our own privates. That’s the challenge of science fiction, to create a real sense of distance and otherness when so much of storytelling rests on evoking the familiar. It’s a challenge that Dune takes up with an admirable and maybe doomed determination, rendering Herbert’s rival intergalactic aristocrats and space witches on an awe-inspiring, gloriously unfriendly scale. Herbert himself didn’t build his world from scratch: The squabbled-over Arrakis, the only source for a substance called spice that’s essential to interstellar travel, is at the heart of what are basically oil wars writ large. And Dune does have the contours of a space opera, with its sand monsters and ghoulish villains and fine-boned princeling destined to meet the literal woman of this dreams — Chani, a member of the indigenous Fremen population played by Zendaya, who will presumably get more to do if the sequel actually happens — and lead humanity toward a better future. But Villeneuve isn’t interested in making a swashbuckling romantic adventure that happens to have sci-fi trappings.
His 2016 film Arrival was about trying to communicate with extraterrestrials who experience existence in an entirely different way from us, and Dune is bent on depicting a far future humanity in which traces of the familiar — bagpipes played at a ceremony, an ancestor’s penchant for bull-fighting — just end up emphasizing how distant the characters’ desires and motivations can be. They aren’t entirely inscrutable: Oscar Isaac plays Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, as a careworn but kind ruler who’s aware he’s being steered into a trap when asked to take over Arrakis. Leto’s trusted military advisers, Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), serve as surrogate fond old brothers and stern uncles to Paul, while as Paul’s mother and Leto’s concubine Lady Jessica, Rebecca Ferguson embodies the fretful tension of a woman torn between protecting her son and preparing him to face unavoidable danger. But Jessica also happens to be a loyal member of the Bene Gesserit, a matriarchal order of psychic women who manipulate politics while masterminding an unfathomable multi-century breeding program to create the Kwisatz Haderach — a messiah who may or may not be Paul.
The most daring aspect of Dune is not that it only tells half a narrative, or that it opts to immerse its audience in its richly rendered universe, assuming they can keep up without guide ropes. It’s carried pretty far on the strength of spectacle alone, with its spaceships hanging impossibly still in the air, its thrumming Hans Zimmer score, and its pallid antagonist, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård channeling Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz), floating around on anti-gravity boosters like a menacing balloon. No, the most daring aspect of Dune is how much unease it creates around the idea of a chosen one, from the Leni Riefenstahl–inspired military ceremony in which Leto and Paul receive their commission to take care of Arrakis to the fact that Paul is the product of eugenics. It begins with Chani talking in voiceover about the colonization of the Fremen’s land and the oppression they’ve experienced at the hands of rapacious outsiders, and then turns to a white savior whose greatness is entirely synthetic, engineered via planted prophecies and genetic manipulation. Paul’s reluctance to fall into the role created for him isn’t the usual self-doubt, but the dread of someone who begins to believe he’s meant to initiate a holy war. Being the hero of the story has never looked so poisoned, and that alone is thrilling enough to hope Villeneuve gets to make part two of this impressively batshit venture.
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