Film Review: DUNE – Part One (2021)

Fear that Dune might not meet expectations was, for a long time, the mind killer. Thankfully, that slow death has not come to pass.

Much has been written, on an anxious level, suggesting that the much-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel should not have been divided into two-parts, a la the recent take on Stephen King’s It, for fear that Dune’s first half might underperform and thereby leave this magisterial tale unfinished. Regardless of box office, one wonders as to the logic of this thought process. Dune has quite clearly been devised, soup to nuts, as a two-part project, and Denis Villeneuve here takes the time he needs to both construct the world around the desert planet Arrakis and the central story of young Paul Atredies with two films in mind. This is not the complete Dune. This is, to quote Zendaya’s Chani, “only the beginning”.

In that sense, we have to approach Dune as such, and judge Part One on the merits of being an incomplete story. Perhaps the greatest strength of this first half is that it contains a beginning, middle and end that satisfies, even while concluding with everything but a ‘to be continued’ legend. Villeneuve successfully manages to introduce Herbert’s vast, complicated futuristic universe, and establish the broader narrative concepts and themes, while providing a rounded cinematic experience. For the first of a two-part story, this is no mean feat, and his achievement lies as deeply in a visual and auditory as it does a structural sense. Dune is a frequently breathtaking, often arresting feast for the eyes which warrants the format it was designed to embrace – IMAX.

It is rare to find filmmaking so assured, so cohesive and so faithful to deeply beloved and classical source material while at the same time providing such a cinematic experience. Dune is a stunning piece of work in that context, one that could well be for the ages.

If you’ll permit me, a momentary side-step into my own personal experience with Dune.

It is no understatement for me to say that I have been waiting for this movie all my life. Having first read Herbert’s original novel as a teenager in the 90s, and it swiftly becoming and indeed remaining my favourite book of all time, the prospect of a definitive adaptation of this incredible science-fiction tale was tantalising. The David Lynch version from 1984 is an enjoyable curio but little else, while the 2000-era Sci-Fi Channel productions of Dune and Children of Dune are flat, bloated, cheap and average endeavours at best. Dune had, to my mind, never been done justice on either a cinema or TV screen, and numerous attempts to mount a new film version had for many years collapsed under the weight of expectation and scale. Some suggested it was unfilmable.

To my mind, we were just waiting for Villeneuve, who surely stands as the singular active director in the world right now best placed to take this material on.

Ridley Scott might well have made an excellent version decades ago but not only are we now, in cinematic terms, able through visual effects to truly depict the worlds of Arrakis or Caladan or even Giedi Prime, but equally Villeneuve has emerged through a litany of increasingly ambitious projects over the last decade to be a modern master of the visual form. Pictures such as Arrival or Blade Runner 2049 provide a clear and logical cinematic language that, decoded, leads right to Dune. It is, undoubtedly, a film Villeneuve has unknowingly been in training to make for years.

He has discussed with Little White Lies just how important Dune as a book and a project has been to his entire life:

I read Dune when I was very young, specifically at the moment when I was starting to dream big about cinema, following filmmakers, starting to be very interested by what a director was doing, being drawn to the filmmaking process. And I remember starting to do storyboards and early drawings of Dune with my best friend at the time who wanted to be a director as well. We were obsessed with this world. I’m not saying that I was dreaming to make a movie about it right away, but definitely I was inspired by it. For me it was one of my big dreams. If you had said to me, ‘Ultimately what would you like to do as a filmmaker?’, I would have said Dune. When I landed in Hollywood, and people were asking me, ‘What would be your dream?’, it’s always these four letters that are coming out of my mouth. It’s a book that stayed with me through the years for several reasons, and still today every time I open it, I get the same kind of deep joy reading it.

The knowledge and joy Villeneuve speaks of are clear when watching Dune and witnessing a director, in line with an array of talent he has worked closely with in previous pictures, bring a rich textural, vivid and often epic landscape to life.

One of the reasons some have claimed Dune to be impossible to adequately put on screen lies in the sheer amount of world-building necessary to truly convey what Herbert was attempting to say in a book which speaks to a multitude of ideas: ecological devastation, exploitation of natural resources, colonialism, capitalism and indeed the destructive religious belief in messianic prophecy. His book, let alone the broader franchise, is far-reaching, mythic and grand, and much of that scope lies in his writing. Herbert was never deeply descriptive about the world he was devising but in his words are power and profundity that the camera can never quite capture.

Nonetheless, what Villeneuve understands is that two things can be constructed to allow Herbert’s work to speak for itself: a vivid interpretation of the world he contracted, and a faithful devotion to the journey of Paul Atredies, the son and heir of a noble feudal house in an imperial future who becomes embroiled in both the machinations of corrupt societies and secret organisations, as well as mystical prophecy placing him in the role of ‘the One’, a messiah destined to lead a subjugated people into a destructive jihad. Dune might have vast and innumerable structural components but certainly across the first book, and the second, the story concerns the journey of Paul, here played very well with a measure of innocent naïveté and increasing petulance and hubris by Timothee Chalamet.

In portraying the world of Herbert’s novel, Villeneuve employs a combined measure of the macro and micro, weaving grand vistas into personal moments and revelations. He opens with the perfect shot; a hazy Arrakis desert filled with dunes as spice, the natural resource sought by powerful galactic forces, drifts and crackles across the landscape. It is at once beautiful and foreboding, and there is an immediate sense of the strong semblance of place he provides in Dune. Arrakis is hot, arid and possessed of an untamed allure. Caladan, the native home of House Atredies, has a Scandinavian chill and remoteness that takes for granted an abundance of nature’s clearest resource of all. Giedi Prime is at once dark and twisted but equally haunting and metallic, representing the black heart of the evil Harkonnen oppressors. Even outside of story, the look of Dune’s world tells us a great deal.

Most of this comes from Herbert, with Villeneuve simply the conduit, but the director and his team—particularly cinematographer Greig Fraser—must be given credit for how sumptuously they immerse the audience inside a world that is at once familiar and equally just as alien (despite Dune being a world with no literal alien beings). From a design standpoint, a great deal of work has gone into evoking a multitude of existing human cultures whilst, at once, ensuring the stylistics of Dune remain acutely of a different world.

Production designer Patrice Vermette has discussed some of the intentions and influences behind this approach:

…There is this idea of colonial settlers attempting to impose their culture on the landscape, and that needs to be a part of the landscape. I hope we’ll get to dig more into that in future films. Within the architecture of the royal residency in Arrakis, we tried to implement these cultural links by imagining that they were produced by the local Fremen who were working for the governor. There’s a fresco with an interpretation of the worm, and a mural about the origin of the spice as a source of exploitation. When you go into a church you have the story of Christ, or when you go into the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, you have imagery that tells the story of the place.

From a cultural standpoint, there are natural viewpoints that will undoubtedly differ depending on your place of birth and location as to how Dune has been received.

There have been accusations of Arab appropriation in the depiction of the Fremen which are solid and justifiable arguments, as Herbert’s novel was written during an age in which the final vestiges of colonial empire were being challenged across the globe in the mid-1960s, and the notion of empire—whether British or otherwise—was being replaced by unilateralism, self-rule and emerging globalisation. Yet it is important to understand Dune not as a defence of colonialism but rather a treatise on how it oppresses and subjugates natural cultures but also environments. The only reason Arrakis is not a verdant paradise is because a distant Imperium has the power and will to colonise and strip-mine it in order to enhance their way of life.

Paul Atredies might be the son of such a colonial oppressor but he, equally, is no classical hero on a Campbellian journey. Paul’s destiny is equivalent if anything, in modern narrative terms, to that of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones; a young ruler beset by prophecy who is, and will be, warped by their own sense of divine providence. Paul might be played by teen-heartthrob Chalamet—destined after this for a Johnny Depp-esque career of pop cultural highlights—but he is no Luke Skywalker. Dune might have inspired George Lucas’ blend of space opera and high fantasy but Paul is the son, if the iconography of Dune is anything to go by in how the Atredies look and operate, of a fascist. Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto might be honourable but he is also a loyal Imperial servant who has no compunction about taking from Arrakis as much spice as the Harkonnens did.

“On Caladan, we came to rule by air power and sea power. On Arrakis, we need desert power” Leto tells his son in advance of their destination, and in that sense Dune establishes the veritable ‘heroes’ of our story as imperial invaders seeking to control a native, arid land for their own economic purposes. “The spice must flow” is a famous line from the book, not voiced in Dune’s first part, but don’t bet against it appearing in the second; it underlines the deep parallel in Dune between spice and oil, and while it would be reductive to reduce the Fremen simply to a Middle Eastern analogue, we are predisposed in their depiction to see them as equivalent to a native population forced to live in caves and serve powerful colonial masters in the nature of Middle Eastern countries rich in oil throughout history.

The fact they will later become jihadists waging a ‘holy war’ is only to likely further enhance these comparisons. 

The only reason we are coded to see the Atredies as the people to root for is, in part, because those plotting their downfall are worse.

The Harkonnens are almost prototypical evil villains; they are described as ‘inhuman’ and, for all intents and purposes, they might as well be alien. Sallow of complexion and gross in action, the Beast Rabban (a wonderfully growly Dave Bautista) happily lops off the heads of his captors, waspish advisor Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian) looks every inch a futuristic Nosferatu as he schemes, and the Baron Harkonnen (a pitch perfect Stellan Skarsgard) is a bloated, stretched, stone-hearted capitalist almost too repulsive to bear witness. Their inhumanity allows the sympathies of the otherwise colonial and militaristic Atredies to further emerge.

Moreover, the emotional heart of the movie, Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica—Paul’s mother—is herself compromised by the ‘witches’ she serves, the mysterious female Bene Gesserit order who conspire with leaders and work in secret, manipulating bloodlines to bring about a Messianic leader moulded in their image. Villeneuve ensures Jessica is always virtuous, with the love and protection of her son first and foremost in her mind, but she too is the pawn of darker forces, represented by Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (a delightfully chilling Charlotte Rampling). Indeed, everyone is a pawn in the broader games and manipulations within Dune, be it Jessica or Leto or the Baron. Indeed, the only person who realises they are a pawn is Paul himself.

Here lies the inherent reason why Dune, to my mind, for all of the visual and creative power behind the film, is only likely to be a success thanks to savvy marketing which has worked to highlight the allure of the cast over the nature of the story. Dune is supposed, ultimately, to be a dark, twisted story about corruption, power, destiny and fanaticism. It is not the story of overthrowing a fascistic empire, a la Star Wars. It is not the prosperity of a democratic and unified space-faring fusion of humans and aliens, as we see in Star Trek. Dune is about a distant future humanity who are entirely subjugated by a man born of messianic prophecy.

It is about the rise of totalitarian religious fundamentalism that subjugates empire, rather than the destruction of empire itself.

In that sense, Dune does not, and will not, sit happily alongside the pervasive franchise world-building we have seen become ubiquitous in recent years, no matter how much Warner Bros might try.

Herbert’s world is creeping, dark and at points unutterably strange, and Villeneuve certainly does evoke that in places; take the use of the Voice, the ‘weirding way’ used by the Bene Gesserit to mind control men, or the huge pet spider the Baron entertains which appears to hold intelligence, or even the Imperial Herald who arrives on Caladan and descends from the ramp of a spacecraft richly carpeted. These are ideas and evocative moments more redolent of horror than science-fiction, and Villeneuve—with the Harkonnens and Bene Gesserit particularly—teeters frequently on the edge of both Shakespearian grandeur and Neo-Gothic expressionism.

Point being, Dune is not supposed to be a populist entity, and Villeneuve has to juggle in this first part the blend and fusion of Herbert’s deeper, uncanny concepts within the broader universe, while paying only lip service to others. We barely understand the lore behind Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) for example. We had scant material for Dr Yueh (Chen Chang – thankfully appropriately culturally cast after the 1984 version) or the Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel). We know nothing yet of the Spacing Guild and their Navigators. 

Plenty of the stranger and more esoteric ideas in the Dune mythos Villeneuve saves in order to ensure audiences aware of the books are satiated while newcomers are able to grasp Paul’s journey, the relationship with Jessica and convivial human interactions with Duncan Idaho (a swaggering, Han Solo-esque Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (an appropriately intense Josh Brolin). This manages to ground the film in a manner Lynch’s film struggled to do, and the arch coldness of the original text would make little time for. Villeneuve is conscious of the balance he needs to employ and does so admirably. He has the confidence to know audiences will be willing to accept deeper layers of the mythos if they have been drawn in during this first part.

At the same time, numerous key moments from the source material are present, correct and often perfectly calibrated. The ‘gom jabbar’, a seminal early test for Paul in the book; the rescue of the spice harvester crew and introducing the legendary spice worms of Arrakis as equivalent to a Jaws-like sea monster to be feared and avoided; the battle of Arrakeen in all of its explosive glory; the ornithopter journey through a fierce sand storm – these are all moments faithfully adapted from the source material brought to life in variously visceral ways, and Villeneuve ensures the world-building and exposition needed to engage with the world of Dune is organically woven in, for the most part, to Paul’s journey of internal and external discovery.

There will be a second part, even if it has not been officially announced as of yet. Villeneuve ensures Paul has visions of his future that display scenes from the second part that have clearly, already, been lavishly filmed. It would not behoove Warner Bros to leave this story unfinished from an economic perspective, not to mention they are looking to breed a franchise around the property. They would not have advertised the film as Part One without the intention to finish, at least, this story. The initial box office receipts appear to have born the confidence out. The spice will continue to flow and once we see Part Two, we will have likely a five hour plus complete Dune picture that, surely, will exist as a definitive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s work.

Whether Denis Villeneuve’s film is a masterpiece, time will tell, especially after Part Two. The first part of Dune is that rare beast in the modern world of cinema. It is a piece of art designed to be witnessed on the biggest canvas possible, and a frequently breathtaking example of what cinema can do.

2 thoughts on “Film Review: DUNE – Part One (2021)”

  1. I must disagree with you. I first read Dune when I was about 16 or 17 just after it was published. I have since read it countless times, most especially when a new sequel was published. I love the Frank Herbert books, but those by his son and friend fall flat. I did not and do not find Leto to be a fascist. My view was always that the Butlerian Jihad “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of the human mind” had brought about the fall of interplanetary relations. It left each planet on its own with the strongest of each becoming their Duke. The planets had become disconnected. The Harkonnens were, at heart, a nasty bunch and rose to power by force. The Atreides, however, were more reasonable and ruled with empathy and compassion. This is illustrated when Leto rescues the men on the harvester. I felt, at first reading and continuing to this day, that the story was one of a Dark Ages in the universe with planets rather like Europe with the many Lords. The story of the spice have often been compared to today’s problems with oil–I think this is a good comparison. The Harkonnens are the brutal controllers of the only source of the spice which allows interplanetary travel via the Spacing Guild while also proving useful to the Bene Geserrit in their efforts to bring about an enlightenment. To me, the Bene Gesserit have been working quietly, behind the scenes with the goal of finding the “One” who would be able to bring the varying houses and planets into peace and cooperation. It must be noted that it is apparent that at one time there were computers and robots, which allowed easy communication between the houses. The Bene Gesserit access to the memories of all who lived before them, combined with their ability to determine the best genetic matches to achieve their goal, make it clear that these women are the true power in the universe.
    As the story continues through the series many things are explained, but I don’t want to spoil those books by discussing them. I remain of the opinion that fascism is not the underlying force. Instead I think the story is one of unchecked power with some mysticism tossed in.
    Luke Skywalker will never be a Paul Atreides, Leia will never be Chani. Star Wars was not only rip off of Dune (yes, I am aware of the long list of other works with similar themes). It was a pale shadow of a great work of science fiction. Star Wars played to the teenagers and children and now to the adults they have become. Dune is deeper, more adult lacking in a cute Yoda that children can play with. Herbert was a genius and actually wrote of things that did not exist then, but are considered today. It is scientific fact that a fetus and its mother trade cells back and forth each protecting the other. Hence the oddity that women sometimes do not suffer their particular illnesses while pregnant! There is also some evidence that a mother’s memories until the time of the baby’s birth are given to the baby. Advances in pharmacology may well see a drug that will enhance that ability! Perhaps our own version of spice is being developed as we speak! Imagine a drug to “open our minds.” Sounds much like Leary’s thinking about LSD. The Bene Gesseret by virtue of their name are not evil. Bene means good, gesso fiber or plaster and ret water. Whether intentional or not Herbert gave them a name indicating that they were good at joining pieces and utilizing water. Odd linguistic usage at the very least.
    Herbert was a brilliant man who wrote incredible works of fiction with his Dune now among American classic literature joining Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Salinger. Dune is a book with plots hidden in plots twisting on words. Minor plots or mentions later become significant Overall Dune is truly a masterpiece.

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