I’m a ‘Dune’ superfan and watching Denis Villeneuve’s new film gave me chills all the way through

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in 'Dune.'
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in ‘Dune.’ Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures
  • I saw Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of “Dune” at the New York Film Festival.
  • I’m a superfan of the book and 1984 movie, but the new version exceeded my expectations by far.
  • Villeneuve’s adaptation made some much-needed updates, and the visuals were breathtaking.

There’s a mantra repeated in the world of “Dune” about the nature of fear, and the effects it can have on a person’s mental state.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration,” the saying goes. In David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, it’s Paul Atreides who most often utters this prayer. And in Denis Villeneuve’s stunning new adaptation, it’s Paul’s mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) who first says the words onscreen.

It’s a memorable litany for sure (I’ve personally found myself repeating it in times of stress), and one that applies in more ways than one to the daunting task of adapting an epic, esoteric work like Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune” into a cohesive film.

To take on such a gargantuan task, one has to be fearless, able to parse Herbert’s dense prose for plot nuggets and hidden meanings without getting bogged down. Villeneuve, along with fellow screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, are up to the task, doing justice to Herbert’s vision while facing the pitfalls of previous adaptations head on.

I’m a superfan of “Dune” – I’ve devoured the novel, and Lynch’s 1984 version has a special place in my heart (shout out to the House Atreides pug, who is definitely not canon but one of my favorite parts of the film nonetheless).

But watching Villeneuve’s incredible adaptation at the New York Film Festival was an entirely different experience. From the mammoth sets that stunned even Jason Momoa (who plays Duncan Idaho) to the fearsome villain Baron Harkonnen (a disturbing Stellan Skarsgård), Villeneuve’s “Dune” gave me chills all the way through.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul and Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Mohiam in 'Dune.'
Chalamet as Paul and Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Mohiam in ‘Dune.’ Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

The new ‘Dune’ doesn’t stray too far from the novel, but still provides some much needed updates

At the core of Herbert’s “Dune” (and Lynch’s adaptation) is the story of Paul and his journey to becoming the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah predicted by the mythical Bene Gesserit sisterhood and mythologized by the Fremen people.

While the new “Dune” still centers Paul in the narrative, it also gives the women of House Atreides and Arrakis far more agency than previous versions. In both Herbert’s novel and Lynch’s film, Paul’s mother Jessica is described as a “concubine” to Duke Leto who bore a son, despite being ordered by the Bene Gesserit to give birth to a daughter.

In the new “Dune,” however, Jessica’s position in the Atreides house isn’t described in such dated, subservient terms – instead, she’s portrayed a near-equal to Leto, with her standing as a Bene Gesserit witch giving her a great deal of autonomy and power.

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica and Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto in 'Dune.'
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica and Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto in ‘Dune.’ Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

Other characters in the new “Dune” who also received much-needed updates include Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen woman who’s shown as a ruthless warrior in her own right and not just Paul’s love interest, and Dr. Liet-Kynes, who in previous iterations was male, but is played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster in Villeneuve’s version.

As a longtime fan, it was great to see some of the novel’s female characters finally getting their due, and being afforded more status than a love interest for or accessory to the story’s men. I also appreciated the decision to cast Zendaya and Duncan-Brewster, both women of color, for two of the film’s most prominent roles.

And in a departure from Lynch’s adaptation, the villainous and scheming Harkonnens are actually terrifying in the new “Dune.” Stellan Skarsgård and Dave Bautista each give memorable performances as Baron Harkonnen and his nephew Glossu Rabban, respectively, and even the Baron’s signature way of floating above the ground is more menacing and less campy than in previous versions.

Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban Harkonnen in 'Dune.'
Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban Harkonnen in ‘Dune.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

By splitting the film into two parts, Villeneuve avoids the mistakes of other adaptations

One of the downfalls of Lynch’s adaptation is that it attempts to cram all of Herbert’s 400-page novel into a two-hour film.

Villeneuve’s “Dune” does clock in at around two and a half hours, but he wisely decided to split the narrative into two parts, which means the ending of his version takes place about halfway through the novel. The sequel, which has unfortunately yet to be confirmed, will most likely follow the second half of the book.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, the ending to Villeneuve’s film will likely seem abrupt. But as a diehard fan, I loved being able to spend more time with the characters, instead of rushing through Herbert’s sprawling, multilayered narrative to hit certain plot points.

The world of “Dune” is complex, with Fremen and Bene Gesserit mythologies taking some getting used to, not to mention the interplanetary politics at play. But by splitting the film into two, Villeneuve is able to pay greater attention to the intricacies of Herbert’s world – and actually takes time to develop his characters into multifaceted individuals.

Unlike other adaptations, the new “Dune” completely immerses you in the story, making Paul’s journey and the conflict over Arrakis all the more engaging.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica in 'Dune.'
Chalamet as Paul and Ferguson as Jessica in ‘Dune.’ Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures

Villeneuve’s film is also visually breathtaking

There were numerous moments during the new “Dune” that gave me goosebumps, and most of them occurred because of the film’s dedication to portraying Arrakis and the Atreides’ home planet of Caladan in stunning detail.

On Caladan, there are gorgeous shots of Paul walking along a misty beach or visiting graves with his father on a desolate hill.

But the real magic happens when the Atreides family first steps foot on Arrakis. Legions of soldiers and Fremen arrive to greet them, although the true standout of that scene is the vast, sandy desert that extends as far as the eye can see. As Paul, Jessica, and Leto adjust to their new home, you can almost feel the scorching heat and sand beneath your feet.

The battle between House Atreides and the Harkonnens in 'Dune.'
The battle between House Atreides and the Harkonnens in ‘Dune.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

I was also stunned by film’s brutal battle scene, when the Harkonnens and imperial soldiers massacre the Atreides forces. The moody, subdued lighting of the Atreides’ home at night gives way to violent bursts of light and sound, and the sheer number of soldiers on both sides made my jaw drop.

I’ve never felt so immersed in the world of “Dune” than when I was watching Villeneuve’s version, which creates a world as intoxicating as the infamous “spice” itself.

Zendaya as Chani in 'Dune.'
Zendaya as Chani in ‘Dune.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

The fearless new ‘Dune’ is a must watch for diehard fans and casual viewers alike

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made movie-going more difficult, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for opting out of going into a theater right now.

But I have to say, watching “Dune” on a big screen was an experience like no other. It’d likely be an enjoyable watch at home, but the film’s sweeping sets, epic battle scenes, and thrilling one-on-one action sequences were made to be seen in a theater (and it’s also worth noting that Villeneuve wants people to see it in on the big screen, too).

It’s rare to feel so satisfied after seeing a film adaptation of a novel (especially when past versions have been so fraught with difficulty), but the new “Dune” is everything I had hoped for – and more.

Even if you’re not a superfan like I am, you won’t want to miss this.