When presented with a largely successful attempt at filming a book that has defeated as many filmmakers as Frank Herbert's imposing 1965 novel Dune, one's first impulse cannot help but be admiration for the quantity of effort it took to get us there. Dune isn't an unfathomably long book - the edition I own runs to 517 pages - but it is surely one of the densest books in the history of science fiction, creating a complicated universe full of several political sects, one of which is also a religious order, elaborate fantasy-science, detailed in three separate appendices and enough alternatives for virtually every important noun in the book, there's a glossary that runs as long as a chapter in it own right (nineteen pages' worth, in my edition). Science fiction literature can be about much more than world-building (I say this as someone with a marked preference for indulgent world-building in my genre fiction), but insofar as world-building is one of the main things science fiction can be very great at doing, Dune is trendsetter and magnum opus of that tendency, building out of Herbert's workmanlike prose one of the most laboriously detailed universes ever described in a single volume of fiction.

The new film of Dune, with a script credited to Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve (who also directs) and Eric Roth, doesn't match Herbert's world-building, because it can't; a lot of that material is packed away in the appendices or long digressive paragraphs. Instead, this adaptation is focused on simply making a comprehensible, watchable version of the story sitting atop all of that lore, while pulling in enough of that lore to make the story actually function. This is no small achievement. The first finished film adaptation of Dune, directed in 1984 by a very unhappy David Lynch, is watchable, but not comprehensible. The second, a three-part television miniseries from 2000, is comprehensible, but not watchable. Villeneuve and company had to cheat a bit to hit their sweet spot: the film's onscreen title is actually rendered as Dune: Part One, and after two and a half hours, it has managed to get us only a decent part of the way beyond the book's midway point. And they did this with no guarantee that Warner Bros. would have any interest in financing a follow-up to a very expensive film for a niche audience. But hey, the cheat works, and if at the end of everything we end up with only one-half of a good Dune movie, that's one-half more than we've had so far.

Another cheat: this film tells a lot more than it shows. Largely by virtue of having gotten Roger Deakins to shoot several of his films, Villeneuve has won for himself the reputation of being a visual storyteller (Deakins did not shoot Dune; that job fell to Greig Fraser, an eminent talent in his own right), and I wouldn't even say that Dune isn't a visually satisfying movie. On the contrary, it's full to the bursting point with striking imagery, courtesy of Fraser, production designer Patrice Vermette, costume designers Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan, and the army of effects artists creating what is easily 2021's most impressive portfolio of CGI landscapes, cities, and sci-fi vehicles. I'm just saying that the filmmakers aren't using that striking imagery to demonstrate how the world works; they're doing it it to create breathtaking, awe-inspiring, overwhelming illustrations to their well-honed screenplay. I don't know if there's anything "wrong" with that; Dune is tough enough just to pick up the book and read it, and we have ample evidence that it's murderously hard to transform into motion pictures. So if this extremely cautious approach is what Villeneuve and company thought they could make work, well, good news: they made it work.

That's less generous than I'd like to be towards a movie that had this unambiguous strength: it flattened me like a steamroller. I mean that at least sort of literally; watching the film on the biggest screen with the largest array of speakers available to me, the sound mix felt like a physical object, pinning me down like a bug as the sound effects creating a fully fleshed out world of machines and sandstorms, shaped and sharpened by Hans Zimmer's exceptionally good score (a mixture of tense ambient music and melodies that sound a bit like Hollywood "Arabian" motifs skewed and distorted by centuries of evolution), roared like a jet engine, softened but never entirely silenced by the deadened moments where the film takes a pause in silent, suffocating rooms. But beyond the sound mix (which I would be inclined to call my favorite part of the whole thing; the music might actually be #2), there's also something genuinely daunting and crushing about the images, which are composed in the most maximally "this is a Major Big-Budget Epic" scale I have seen in quite a long while. Villeneuve and Fraser seem to have two modes: press their camera right up into the actors' faces, capturing the smallest details of their expressions as a kind of finely detailed landscape in its own right, or go so far back that you have to hunt around the massive wide shot to find the little ant-creatures of the cast. Obviously, the film has medium shots and medium-wide shots and people in rooms having conversations where we see three or four of them at a time, and all; it is a studio movie. But those aren't the moments that linger in the brain; it's the heavily bifurcated sense of awe: awe at the inhuman grandeur of the worlds being explored, awe at the sheer fact of human faces continuing the muddle through, feeling feelings and all. It is so much of a movie, swinging for the fences with every at-bat, trying to go for the most self-consciously "large" images it can muster. It is, to be frank, exhausting as hell; the last time I left a theater feel like a movie had gone over me so thoroughly, literally tiring me out physically to have watched it, was Mad Max: Fury Road.

And why shouldn't it? If Dune isn't necessarily as good as I wish it were at using its visuals to supplant some of the lengthy talking and explaining that, even in this ruthlessly stripped-down version, still dominates the storytelling, it's pretty great at creating the right mood for the story to do its work. Dune, the novel, is too many things to say "what Dune is" is, but what Dune is, is a tragedy about humans being caught in the machinations of history: whether they try to fight it, or redirect it or simply give up and let it sweep them along, the humans in the story are generally objects more than subjects, driven by the scenario rather than acting upon it. How much of this was a directed strategy and how much was just Herbert's limitation as a writer (like virtually every major midcentury science-fiction author, he was best at ideas, a functional writer of prose, and somewhat crap at character psychology), I do not speculate. But either way, it's what Dune is, and in this case, the movie captures something of that feeling, that the ongoing flow of political events are something terrible large and inhuman, and one merely gets through it, exhausted and beaten, if one get through it at all.

This isn't to say that one "gets through" Villeneuve & company's vision of Dune; I felt every minute of the running time, but I wanted to feel every minute of it, if you follow me. The movie is a spectacle, throw-all-the-money-onscreen popcorn cinema of the most unapologetic sort (the reported budget is $165 million, which honestly seems low for the sheer quantity of film we get out of it), and only the fact that it doesn't have a detectable sense of humor really disguises that fact. It's not "fun" like Star Wars is fun, but it is fun like Lawrence of Arabia is fun: the sheer mass of it becomes its own kind of attraction, and the portentousness of it is charming. I don't think Dune is as good as Lawrence of Arabia (nor Star Wars), but it wants to play that game, and good for it: we don't often get great big capital-M Movie-Movies that don't feel at least kind of like gussied-up TV episodes anymore, and whatever the limitations it puts on the film, Villeneuve is unashamedly committed to the idea that his Dune will feel like every set has crawled out of the rock with centuries of age accrued, that every actor is tasked with being an icon first and a person second.

That's part of why I haven't yet bothered with a plot summary or a cast list. The plot summary would be useless; Dune is almost nothing but plot. Basically, in the year 10,191, interstellar travel depends on a substance called "spice" (that's all the more the film tells us about it, compared to an elaborate history of spaceflight in Herbert's books; a particularly clear-cut example of how the writers have pared things down to give us just the story, and it still takes 2.5 hours to get through half of it), and spice is found only on the arid planet Arrakis (called "Dune" one time in the film, by a character with a digitally distorted voice). The political machinations of the galactic Emperor have led him to arrange a conflict between the powerful houses of Harkonnen (who used to rule Arrakis) and Atreides (who now rule Arrakis) in the hopes of weakening both of them; much of this part of the story concerns how the Atreides attempt to gain a foothold on Arrakis, in part by pursuing a program of cooperation with the native inhabitants of the planet, the Fremen, while the Harkonnens. A religious order of neo-Catholic space nuns, the Bene Gesserit, are controlling all of the above, as part of a centuries-long plan to breed the Space Messiah. I cannot overstress what a crude and artless summary this is. The mixture of individual humans involved in all of this includes one of 2021's best-on-paper casts, including Oscar Issac, Rebecca Ferguson, TimothΓ©e Chalamet, Stellan SkarsgΓ₯rd, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster;Β  in a sense, though, this is all actor-proof, and whether the people involved are doing exceptionally good work (Ferguson is my favorite here, and it's not by a small margin), or suitably competent work (Brolin yells a lot and does it with great authority), or just kind of getting by (Momoa isn't great at finding one tone and running with it, though he's great in the scenes where he's one-on-one with Chalamet, and those are the ones that matter most), they're all kind of on equal footing. The only clear-cut "hm, that didn't work out, and weakens the movie" performance, to me, is Zendaya, who can't or won't go for the same stick-up-the-ass gravitas of the rest of the cast, and so just feels like a young adult from the 2020s, stranded in the grand machinery of space history; the one big concern I have for the sequel (other than the possibility that it won't get made) is that she's going to have a great deal more to do in it. But even there, the movie doesn't need her to be good; it needs her to wear the costume and look pensively.

Does this all mean the film is a masterpiece? Does this mean its terrible? I really don't know. I was tremendously happy to have watched it, and was even tremendously happy to be in the middle of watching it, though I could also feel my body shutting down while that was happening. Dune is an exorbitantly grand film, dwarfing us in its world and its iconography and its elaborate (but clearly laid-out) story; it exactly the right amount of Seems Smart, Is Actually A Little Dumb, But is Intensely Sincere Either Way to make for the best kind of popcorn movie with aspirations to a monumental tone and a feeling of grave importance to its razzle dazzle. Maybe it will re-watch well, and maybe it won't; maybe having a sequel will make it feel more like a complete movie that can be reasonably judged, and maybe the sequel will just fall into all the traps of adapting Dune this one somehow avoided. Good or bad, I am quite sure that is is extraordinary, and it is not fair to ask more of our epic popcorn blockbusters than that.