When Denis Villeneuve signed on to direct a 21st century version of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune, he was no doubt aware of the book’s long and often tortured history in Hollywood. Once thought unfilmable – just ask Jodorowsky – it was finally adapted by David Lynch into a famously off-kilter film in 1984, and then a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries version also got some traction in 2000. But those takes didn’t quite manage to translate the more epic and spiritual qualities of Herbert’s work. Could Villeneuve, who had pulled off the seemingly impossible with his fantastic sequel to Blade Runner, finally do justice to the tale of Paul Atreides? Unfortunately, the answer is… not quite. For all its amazing imagery and A-list stars and very cool interpretations of the nerdier aspects of Herbert’s book, this version of Dune doesn’t fully coalesce.
The director, his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, and producer Legendary Pictures made the seemingly sound decision to divide the sprawling novel into two separate films, so in fact the onscreen title to this installment is actually Dune, Part One. The result of this split is not just a license to let many of the book’s smaller moments or supporting characters breathe more, but also to perhaps be too devoted to Herbert’s work. Heresy, yells the Frank Herbert fan! But we all know that what works in a novel might not work in movie form, and vice versa, and Villeneuve’s biggest misstep with Dune, Part One is how misshapen and plodding it feels in its second half, as if the movie doesn’t quite know how or where to end… before it just suddenly does.
Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, scion of the powerful House Atreides in a far-off future where a substance known as the Spice is the most valuable commodity in the known universe. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides (a heavy-with-responsibility Oscar Isaac), is sent by the Emperor to the desert planet Arrakis to take over production of the Spice. And so the whole family packs up and moves house, including the Duke’s military advisors (and Paul’s tutors) Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), and what appears to be every soldier and house servant who works for the Atreides. What awaits them on the planet also known as Dune? An uncertain future to be sure, but the Duke has a plan: Harness “desert power.”
Meanwhile, Chalamet’s Paul – as dreamy, misunderstood, and tortured as you could want the heartthrob to be here, and I mean that as a compliment – is having prophetic dreams of a mysterious girl, one of Arrakis’s native people known as the Fremen. This is Zendaya’s character Chani, who some viewers may be distressed to learn is barely in this movie beyond said dreams. Again, it says Part One in the title, so be patient.
The film opens with Zendaya’s voiceover explaining how beautiful her home planet is, and succinctly summing up the violent history of Arrakis, caught as it is in the middle of bigger galactic concerns due to its natural abundance of the Spice. This sequence is a triumph over the exposition that continuously threatens to bring any adaptation of Dune down, but unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t always succeed on this same front moving forward. Perhaps the tutorial that comes later about stillsuits – the life-saving, water-conserving garb of the Fremen – will be fascinating to the uninitiated, but those who are familiar with the source material may find that these moments gum up the works of Dune, like the sand of Arrakis that plays havoc with the Spice machinery.
And yet, Villeneuve frequently impresses with his ability to take tried and true sci-fi concepts and put some new spin on them. Take the Bene Gesserit – sort of space witches with extra-human mental powers, if you will. Paul’s mother, Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica, is a member of this order, and early on we see her tutoring Paul in the strange ability to mentally coerce others via a modulation of one’s voice. Here, Villeneuve relies on sound design to highlight the weird and offsetting manipulation of Chalamet’s words, but he also shoots the moment as a series of flashing images where time seems to be displaced. It’s off-putting and effective, placing us in the same mindset as the person who the vocal attack is being used upon.
The script also benefits from injecting occasional bits of humor into the universe-shaping events of the film, and the casting of charismatic actors like Momoa and Brolin help to drive those humanizing elements home. Both actors’ characters essentially serve as big brother/uncle figures to Paul, teaching him to fight and helping him ease into the notion that he is the heir apparent to this great family. Ferguson’s Jessica, meanwhile, knows that perhaps something even more heady awaits her son on Arrakis. Indeed, this eventually leads to a painful moment of accusation that Paul directs at his mother, and the look on Ferguson’s face tells us… he may not be wrong?
In fact, the cast is solid across the board, and full of familiar faces, from Javier Bardem as the leader of the Fremen to Charlotte Rampling as the scary Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother to David Dastmalchian, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and more. And then there are the villains. Stellan Skarsgård is effectively grotesque and sinister as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the bane of House Atreides, while his nephew, Dave Bautista’s “Beast” Rabban, is vicious enough that any memory of Drax will be long gone while watching this film.
A Dune Trilogy?
Director Denis Villeneuve recently told Collider that he could envision his take on Dune being a trilogy — but not more than that. “There is Dune’s second book, ‘The Messiah of Dune,’ which could make an extraordinary film,” he teased. “I always saw that there could be a trilogy; after that, we’ll see. It’s years of work; I can’t think of going further than that.”
And Dune is certainly capable of transporting us to its alien landscapes via its many technical achievements in production design, costumes, photography, sound, visual effects, and more. From the breathtaking vistas and strange space- and aircraft, to the enormous, frightening sandworms that will devour a ship as easily as they will a clutch of bad guys (and sometimes good guys), and right on down to the sparkly glimmer of the very Spice itself as it glitters across the surface of Arrakis, there is no detail spared in immersing us in this fantastical world.
Which is to say, there’s so much to love in Dune, but I didn’t come away in love with the movie itself. Villeneuve has proven himself to be a master of the kind of smart and stylish sci-fi that a modern Dune adaptation demands, and the film is a triumph when it comes to its visuals and sound. But there’s a shapelessness to the latter part of the movie that drags it down and distracts from its beauty; it’s a story that ends at Act 2, and it shows. Just as Duke Leto himself would find out, harnessing the power of Dune is no easy task.