If you’re not a fan of the science fiction genre, on the page or onscreen, you may feel a little baffled right now about why the arrival of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One is being hailed as such a big deal. There are people out there saying that they’ve been waiting for this movie all their lives — or since Frank Herbert’s novel Dune was published in 1965, whichever is more recent. Few works in the SF canon have been so profoundly influential — including on such filmmakers as George Lucas, whose Star Wars universe made free use of many of Herbert’s narrative and worldbuilding concepts. And previous attempts to film the “unfilmable” novel (Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 1970s, David Lynch in 1984) have fallen distressingly short of the movie that lives so vividly in readers’ heads.
For such fans, this latest attempt at capturing Dune onscreen is indeed a big deal. The technology now exists to render the story’s epic scale, especially when it comes to visual effects. It’s huge. It’s loud. It’s splashy. It spares no expense in its ambitious standards of filmcraft, especially when it comes to art direction. I’ve seen some claims that it’s “the best science fiction movie ever made.” This reviewer for one wouldn’t call it nearly as good a SF movie as Villeneuve’s intriguing 2016 how-to-communicate-with-aliens puzzle Arrival; but if Star Wars floats your spacecraft, you might like this new Dune as well or even better.
Set a long, long time in the future in a galaxy far, far away, what set Dune and its sequels apart from relatively lightweight space operas such as Star Wars are their thoughtful themes: the human costs of colonialism and greed; the globally destructive environmental impacts of monocultures; the inexorable way in which Chosen One heroes’ journeys tend to devolve into violent fanaticism. (It’s also almost entirely lacking in the bickering-space-buddies humor that was a big part of the appeal of the initial Star Wars movies, alas.) The story is loaded with metaphors that appear visionary for the time in which the novel was written — notably the motivating force of “spice” (read: petroleum), the addictive substance excreted by the giant sandworms of the desert planet Arrakis, which prolongs life, induces ecstatic visions and also enables interstellar navigation. And the planet’s inhabitants may look and sound like Bedouins, but they’re also clearly a socialistic, collectivist culture.
At the outset of Dune, aristocratic families vie for control of Arrakis, the only source of the priceless spice. Worried about the growing power of the Atreides dynasty, the emperor pretends to oust the brutish Harkonnen family — who have ruled Arrakis for decades and sought to wipe out its indigenous people, the Fremen — and invites Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) to step in. Leto suspects he’s being set up, but dares not decline the honor. Soon after the transfer of power, the Harkonnens, backed by elite imperial fighters, predictably reappear and destroy most of House Atreides. This coup supplies most of the spectacular visual effects of the movie.
The two Atreides survivors are the most crucial members of the family, however, as they are the products of controlled genetics experimentation that has gone on for eons, in hopes of producing the Kwisatz Haderach: an heir with psychic abilities that span time and space. Leto’s concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is an acolyte of the Bene Gesserit, the all-female religious order behind the cosmic eugenics program, and has imparted much of her esoteric training to her son Paul (Timothée Chalamet).
For their part, the Bene Gesserit have planted prophecies about Paul amongst the Fremen, laying the groundwork for his acceptance as the leader of their jihad against their colonial oppressors. Paul doesn’t like where this is headed, but following the path laid down for him is the only way he can see to get Arrakis terraformed one day back into a green and biodiverse planet, under control of its indigenous people. And since he’s plagued by alarming prophetic dreams of alternate futures, along with the internal voices of his Bene Gesserit foremothers, he’s pretty much stuck with the Chosen One gig whether he wants it or not.
Dune: Part One follows Paul and Jessica up to the point in the story where they are given sanctuary by the Fremen, so the movie’s impressive worldbuilding stops short of conveying the crucial role of water as a communally shared resource to these fierce, hardy, ingenious desert-dwellers. Presumably, we’ll get to the fun anthropological stuff in Part Two. After two-and-a-half hours of screentime, in fact, the stage is barely set for the meatier parts of Paul’s character arc, in which he is confronted with ethical choices that can yield no happy outcome, no matter how he chooses.
Chalamet does a fine job with the task he has been set so far, taking Paul from a spoiled, heedless youth to a hardened fighter accepting the yoke of a heavy destiny. I had more trouble with Ferguson’s (or the director’s) depiction of Jessica — quietly powerful and authoritative in her own right in the novels — as little more than a fretful pawn in the Bene Gesserits’ game; let us hope for more character development in the sequel. Isaac, while he lasts, admirably supplies the Duke’s dignified resignation to his political fate.
There’s some terrific casting amongst the supporting players, especially Javier Bardem, who wields the gravitas necessary for the Fremen chieftain Stilgar, as well as Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa, as House Atreides’ two most capable and loyal retainers, Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is impressive as a gender-shifted Dr. Liet-Kynes, planetary ecologist and diplomat overseeing the change of extraplanetary leadership on Arrakis. Stellan Skarsgård is suitably villainous as the repulsive Baron Harkonnen. The jury is still out on the young actress Zendaya, who plays Chani, the Fremen girl who appears frequently in Paul’s flashes of foresight, but otherwise hasn’t yet had much to do.
You may have heard that Dune is a movie to be sought out on the largest screen possible, despite its simultaneous availability on HBO Max. If you’re in it for the big, bold action spectacle, absolutely go for the IMAX treatment. But you might want to pack a pair of earplugs. Home viewing provides the advantage of being able to tweak down the music when it drowns out the dialogue. Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune is as bombastic as Zimmer scores ever get, which is considerable, and in this case, often pointedly discordant as well. The soundtrack was my chief complaint about this film, and my companion’s as well.
Overall, Dune: Part 1 is enjoyable, even admirable — an overdue onscreen rendering of a much-loved tale that does not significantly disappoint. Best SF movie ever? No. A must-see for people who don’t normally gravitate to science fiction? Also no. But there are far worse ways to spend a couple of hours of leisure time.