The real world just felt too small when I stepped out of Denis Villeneuve's Dune. There weren't any enormous spaceships ready to rocket off to planets in distant galaxies. No Brutalist palaces amid endless desert vistas. No building-sized sandworms roaming about, eager to devour anyone who disturbed them. Just me and traffic on Atlanta's I-285.
This latest Dune adaptation isn't perfect — it's at times emotionally empty, and it's basically set up for a second movie we may never see — but it successfully transported me to the universe Frank Herbert created over half a century ago. The film focuses on half of the novel, telling the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a sheltered baron's son who moves to the desert planet of Arrakis. It's an important post, since it's the only world that produces the melange, or spice, which powers interstellar travel. But as Paul quickly learns, it's also a dangerous place for his elite family, and it's where he learns he may also be a potential messiah. You know, typical teen boy stuff.
After being wowed by Dune in the theater, I plan to rewatch it at home on HBO Max, where it's also being released today. But I'm certain the experience won't be the same, even on my 120-inch projector screen. This Dune demands to be seen on something even bigger—a place where your very sense of being can be dwarfed. Dune made me feel like Paul Atreides standing in front of a skyscraper-sized sandworm, waiting to be consumed. And I welcomed it.
Of course, it's no simple thing to trek out to the cinema these days, not with coronavirus still raging and fellow theatergoers refusing to take basic safety precautions. (The vaccines are safe. Masks work. Please protect yourself and others.) But if you can manage to safely see it in theaters — perhaps by renting out a private screen with friends — you'll be reminded of what makes that experience so special. I watched it in the second row of a fairly typical multiplex theater, and it still floored me. I can only imagine what it would be like on a full-sized IMAX screen, which can reach up to 98 feet tall.
Dune is at its best when Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser let you soak in the vistas, the regal-yet-alien costumes and the wealth of background details. It's pure visual world-building. At one point, a character's eyes briefly flash white when he's asked to compute the cost of an imperial envoy's trek through the stars. It's never explained, but you get it. This style of slow burn sci-fi isn't for everyone, but if you enjoyed Arrival or Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve's previous genre forays, there's a good chance you're primed for this brand of storytelling.
Even before I saw anything on the screen, though, I felt Dune in my gut. As I waited for my screening to begin, an alien voice began speaking out of nowhere, sounding like it came entirely from the theater's subwoofers. It posed a question about the power of dreams, but really, it was as if the movie was saying, "Sit up, pay attention, you're not on Earth anymore."