Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) — Screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth.
When science-fiction neophytes first lay their eyes on the marketing material for Denis Villeneuve’s latest science-fiction film, Dune, they should be forgiven, if they immediately remark that it looks like an imitation of Star Wars — or other similar films. Obviously, they would be under a false impression, but, after all, it is a little bit strange that one of Star Wars‘ most obvious sources of inspiration — Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune — has not previously generated a widely known or appreciated adaptation.
In fact, the Dune property is perhaps especially renowned for being difficult to adapt. Famously, Alejandro Jodorowsky tried but failed to get an adaptation off the ground, while David Lynch’s adaptation from 1984 was critically panned. Those ‘failed’ attempts are, in fact, more widely known than the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series that the franchise also spawned. Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. have now entrusted auteur Denis Villeneuve with the job of adapting Frank Herbert’s rich, influential, and dense source material, and I think that was a very smart decision.
Frankly, I can think of no more appropriate director for such an expansive and influential science-fiction story with such a complicated behind-the-scenes history than Denis Villeneuve. Because this is certainly not the first time that the French Canadian film director has been entrusted with the future of a beloved and complicated science-fiction franchise. In 2017, his first masterpiece Blade Runner 2049 — his second science-fiction film after Arrival — was a hit with fans of the franchise and the vast majority of critics, even though it frustratingly failed to succeed at the box office.
However, that does bring me to the fact that Denis Villeneuve and Warner Bros. now have a pretty big challenge on their hands, as this adaptation of Dune only really covers roughly the first half of Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel of the same name, and the marketing for the film is being a little bit coy about this fact. Although you wouldn’t know it from most of the posters or trailers, once the title card appears on-screen in the film it is revealed that this film is actually only Dune: Part One. Warner Bros. did not have Villeneuve film a Part Two back-to-back or simultaneously with the production of the first film, so the future of this story rests in the hands of moviegoers — and, as is the case in the United States, subscribers of HBO Max, where it will release on the same day that it opens in North American theaters. If you want a Part Two, then you need to support this film, as well as hope that at least some neophytes do too. And let me tell you, I think you’re going to want a Part Two.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One takes place in the distant future and it follows the House Atreides — Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), and Leto’s heir, their son, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet) — as they leave their lush home world of Caladan for the dangerous desert planet of Arrakis — which, other than its native people, houses these massive and deadly sandworms — that Duke Leto Atreides has accepted the responsibility to now preside over. The desert planet is a valuable world, as it is covered in ‘spice,’ which, other than being some kind of drug, is also a prized commodity that is essentially as valuable as — or more valuable than — oil.
Therefore, naturally, the previous stewards — led by Baron Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård) — do not take kindly to the fact that they have been ordered to relinquish said stewardship to another powerful house. This is a universe with a lot of political drama, and, like always, men in power just want more. So, the Harkonnens do not take no for an answer, and Leto would do well to look more over his own shoulder. Meanwhile, Paul, who has recurring vivid dreams of the native people of Arrakis (the Fremen), is tested by the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of witches clad in black cloaks, who, like others, believe that he may have the potential to become a prophesied Messiah.
As you may gather, this story is, at least to some extent, following in the footsteps of the Hero’s Journey monomyth, but the story also functions within a universe rife with the same kind of political intricacy of something like Game of Thrones. In splitting Frank Herbert’s novel into two, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One does a lot of table-setting and he succeeds with the world-building, even though he doesn’t explain the politics in great detail. Though there are certainly information dumps — like the opening Fremen monologue delivered by Zendaya’s character, or the documentary ‘film-books’ that Paul watch to learn about his new home world — a lot of the intricacies are explained in passing or are merely meant to be inferred by the visuals, or by character quirks (as is the case with the unexplained Mentats).
Still, though, the opening on Caladan did feel a little bit heavy to me, before the Bene Gesserit Gom Jabbar-test kicked the film into gear. That is when I thought the film found its footing, which isn’t to say that the film is fast-paced. Audiences expecting something akin to the pacing or tone of a Marvel movie will be surprised to find out that Dune‘s tone is, appropriately, much more serious (its detractors may even call it pompous) and that the film is essentially a slow-burn science-fiction film that takes its time to set up the universe, in the hope that newcomers to the story will catch up without too much unnecessary exposition. The film is not impenetrable for new audiences, but if you want to give this movie a chance then it requires that you dedicate the time to it, which is one of the reasons why I think it may work much better on the big screen than as a streaming film on HBO Max when it comes to your first viewing.
The other reason is due to the awe-inspiring artistic craft that has gone into building this world from top-to-bottom and to emphasize the right things. The action is emotionally involving, the visual effects are spectacular, and almost everything you see — the locations, the architecture, the ships — just looks so real, as if you could reach out and touch it. The film deserves to be seen on the big screen because of the film’s inventive and sometimes rather otherworldly production design and art direction. It deserves to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan’s costume design choices (the militaristic Atreides outfits, the desert-appropriate attire of the people of Arrakis, the mysterious Bene Gesserit cloaks, and much more).
However, the two biggest reasons why Dune: Part One deserves to be seen on the big screen are that the sound of the film and the cinematography require the right kind of speakers and the right size of screen. The startling sound design — I’ll get back to that — and Hans Zimmer’s brooding score (with bagpipes and female voices) help to bring you that otherworldly and epic feeling that director of photographer Greig Fraser, whose cinematography greatly emphasizes buildings and ships’ sizes as well as the film’s scope, has succeeded in evoking. With state-of-the-art elements such as these, as well as a rich world and story, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction epic is an immersive experience that I wanted more of when the film cut to credits roughly halfway through the original novel’s story.
Perhaps somewhat frustratingly, the ending may be slightly abrupt, and it is, by design, only an incomplete ‘part one,’ but, when the film cut to credits after its almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime, I didn’t want to get out of my seat. I was ready to watch the second half right then and there. I was hungry for more. So, hopefully, enough people actually choose to see Dune: Part One so that we can get the appropriate continuation of this truly exciting new adaptation of one of science-fiction’s most influential stories.
One of the major challenges of adapting science-fiction fantasy stories is that you sometimes have the difficult task of bringing complicated concepts, terminology, or powers to the big screen and make them watchable or exciting. Denis Villeneuve then, on top of that, had the added pressure of having to make elements that clearly inspired Star Wars feel distinctly different in Dune: Part One, and I really do think Villeneuve and his crew have done an admirable job of visualizing all of this in smart ways. Phrases that science-fiction neophytes might raise their eyebrows at are used sparingly or explained clearly — and some descriptions are omitted entirely for audiences to infer their meaning or role — and I think Villeneuve’s film succeeds in establishing the fantastical, or even supernatural elements, of the universe in interesting ways.
The way the film demonstrates “The Voice,” i.e. what Star Wars turned into the ‘Jedi Mind Trick,’ is really memorable. “The Voice,” feels like a startling wave of noise, and, on a couple of occasions, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The Bene Gesserit ‘witches’ are mysterious and fascinating. Paul’s visions are plentiful and fascinating. And the energy-field like armor that is seen in Dune works and looks much better in this film than it did in the 1984 film. While I can only say that I’ve read about a third of the original novel, I would say that Villeneuve’s adaptation is fairly faithful. The love for the source material is evident.
Dune: Part One is, of course, also gifted with an A-list cast consisting of both relatively seasoned veterans like Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin, as well as up-and-coming stars like Zendaya, who is used sparingly here, and Timothée Chalamet, who brings a youthful energy and determination to his character before he learns to step into the role that is thrust upon him here. Denis Villeneuve’s films have sometimes been criticized for being too cold, and this film probably won’t win over his naysayers, as you very rarely chuckle and since most of these characters feel more like archetypes marked by stoicism or nobility etc. than fully-fledged individuals. But the performances that worked the best for me were the ones delivered by Jason Momoa, whose ‘Duncan Idaho’ is an open, outgoing, and friendly mentor to Paul and more-than-capable soldier, and Rebecca Ferguson, who brings a motherly anxiety to Lady Jessica that I thought was quite compelling.
I really can’t say it will do this for everyone, but, as I was sitting in the movie theater, I found myself being reminded of the kinds of films that first made me fall for these grand, epic science-fiction or fantasy stories. I’m not saying that the film is ultimately as good as all of these, but it brought back positive memories of falling in love with the films that shaped my taste in these genres, such as Stargate, Star Wars, or the Lord of the Rings. Those were the films that made me interested in archaeology, egyptology, space, and storytelling, and I hope this film can do for others what they did for me back then, but I digress.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One welcomes you to an intricate and awe-inspiring science-fiction universe brought to life via epic visuals, a menacing score and startling sound work, and an A-list cast dedicated to Villeneuve’s faithful adaptation. Although it is breathtaking, hair-raising, and immersive, this technical achievement is also deliberately paced and incomplete. I fear that it may test the patience of science-fiction neophytes but it will impress aficionados. It was right up my alley, so I can only hope that it finds the type of audience it needs to allow for the sequel it is dependent on to be made. To those people that also fear that Warner Bros. may not greenlight a sequel, I say that we must not fear. Because fear is the mind-killer.
9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.