Update: Dune Part Two has been greenlit and is targeting a theatrical release date of October 20th, 2023.
Frank Herbert’s Dune was considered by many purists, fans and critics over the years to be unadaptable thanks to its philosophical text and rich lore. But Denis Villeneuve has succeeded where David Lynch didn’t: he’s made a thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of the source material that really needs a conclusion. We have a spoiler-free review up already, so if you haven’t seen the movie, go check that out first before reading this one.
Half a Movie
The reason I say that is that Dune Part One, which is how the film is titled on screen, feels very much like half a movie. Not only that, but it feels like the first act and a half of an overall narrative. That would be acceptable if Part Two was a sure thing, but the sequel has yet to be green lit (although it’s looking promising thanks to strong box office numbers and optimist comments from Warner Bros execs). But should the worst happen, we’ll be left without the conclusion to this story that very much doesn’t have a traditional three-act structure. Imagine that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films ended with Rohan marching to Helm’s Deep and everything beyond that was uncertain. You’d feel pretty unsatisfied and that’s more or less what’s happening here, with Paul, Jessica and the Fremen marching into the desert, with Zendeya’s Chani stating that “this is only the beginning”. Also, as the film is adapting the first half of the first book, there’s an awful lot of information and the uninitiated to Herbert’s world may feel a little lost, as the script doesn’t dabble too much in exposition, which is refreshing to see but also understandably vexing for those who don’t know their Mentats from their gom jabbars. The end result feels like an art-house movie disguised as a blockbuster epic, which may not be for everyone. But for those going in with that mind, initiated or not, should find themselves completely immersed into this world.
Denis Villeneuve has assembled quite the talent for Dune and everyone seems to be on their A-game. The cast is stacked and everyone has some sort of moment. But the supporting cast is very much in support of Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, who carries the movie on his tiny shoulders. Chalamet presents us with a Paul who seems both wise beyond his years and masterful in many skills while also seems like a student in many regards. He still has lots to learn and that gives him vulnerability and depth of growth. His performance is nuanced and understated but powerful at the same time. Helping him on his journey the most is his mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), concubine to Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and a member of the Bene Gesserit, who are essentially space witches. She’s been teaching Paul in the ways of The Voice, a compulsion technique I found utterly terrifying thanks to the sound design around the skill. It was booming but almost sinister sounding and I wasn’t ready for how abrupt The Voice came into play. Coupled with the IMAX sound system and I too felt the compulsion, there’s no time to argue against The Voice. While Jessica teaches Paul more mystical training, Leto teaches him about the political machinations he’ll face on the planet, preparing him for leadership. Brolin is much more stoic, but optimistic about being a good leader on the planet and cultivating a working and healthy relationship with the local natives, the Fremen. Helping Villeneuve with the screenplay are Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, who successfully translate the dense source material into something more manageable without sacrificing the good stuff. Content like Paul’s visions and dreams are cryptic enough at first glance, but upon evaluation, offer more than simply meets the eye.
While those three actors are the core of the film, there are many supporting characters in the movie. Chief among them are Josh Brolin as Gurney, the weapons master of House Atreides, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Paul’s good friend and swordmaster, Stellan Skarsgård looking vile as ever in his bodysuit as Baron Harkonnen and Chang Chen as Dr. Yeuh, who ultimately betrays House Atreides at the behest of the Harkonnens in exchange for his wife’s safety. Yeuh still tries to help out the Atreides by helping out Duke Leto in the midst of the betrayal, securing him a false tooth with a gaseous poison in it, with the intent of killing the Baron and the Duke in one act of mercy and one of revenge. Sadly for all, the Baron survives the attack, but loses most of his attendants. Thankfully, Dave Bautista’s Glossu Rabban wasn’t around, ensuring he’ll be around for the maybe-sequel. Bautista only had a few short moments on screen, but the actor’s presence was great and I wanted to see more. In fact, I wanted to see more of most of the cast. This is very much Paul’s story and everyone else is there around Paul, meaning most of the supporting cast only gets a few scenes at the end of the day. That said, there are memorable moments throughout, such as Duncan’s death scene and the introduction to the sandworms. Characters who don’t get too much to do include Zendeya’s Chani, whose barely in the movie but will be the co-protagonist in the maybe-sequel and Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, a Fremen chief. Should there be a part two, these characters, along with many new faces, will feature more prominently in the follow-up.
Around halfway through the movie, so the end of the first act if we treat Part One and Part Two as one giant story, there is an assault on Arrakis, the planet known as Dune where the Atreides have been tasked by the Emperor to oversee, and it’s a visual feast. There’s plenty of action, but Villeneuve doesn’t linger too long on the action. It’s more like set dressing for what’s happening on a smaller scale. And for its colossal scope (seriously, go see this movie in IMAX), the story is ultimately about one boy and the people who help him. There are implications for a much larger story to come, but this first part actually feels quite intimate. But while Chalamet might be small in stature, the scale of this movie is definitely not. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One, the best-looking Star Wars movie) has made a visual feast for the eyes. Dune transports us to a place in a way I’ve not felt since perhaps Lord of the Rings. Nothing here feels staged or like movie magic. It’s amazing how practical and lived-in these structures feel. The horizon seemingly goes on forever and the sets feel like they complement the on-location shoots, rather than enhancing them. A large part of that, I think, is thanks to the wide shots and filming in real locations, such as Jordan, Abu Dhabi and Norway. Fraser should definitely be considered as the winner for the upcoming Academy Award for cinematography. Complementing the visual feast is one for the ears. The sound design in this movie is insane and Hans Zimmer, always out to outdo himself, has created a soundtrack that feels wholly different from anything we’ve heard in awhile. Not only did he create sounds just for this movie, to give an “out of this world” aural sensation, but he always Incorporated bagpipes into the array, because why not. From the moment the movie begins, the vocal work and the percussion let you know that this score will be different and that rings true for the duration. I’d have to see how well the music works on its own, but as a companion to the visuals, it’s great stuff.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to Dune. While not impossible for newcomers, it’s definitely a movie that throws its audience into the deep end and expects them to swim. It’s also very much half a movie and if we don’t get a conclusion, this will sour the experience of this movie. But with the expectation that the sequel could very well happen (Hans is currently working on the score, the script is being written and Denis Villeneuve is hopeful to start filming in 2022), this stands as a triumph of storytelling, acting and cinematography. Villeneuve and his team are halfway there in adapting the unadaptable.