After extensive script development, years of pre-production, a lengthy shooting schedule, several postponements and three trailers, Denis Villeneuve’s epic retelling of Frank Herbert’s expansive tale of warring guild factions, native uprisings, and underhanded dealings recently crossed the finish line.
More than just arriving, Dune rolled into theaters (and HBO Max) like a sand storm of pent up demand hitting against the Shield Wall.
The wait was worth it.
Villeneuve takes time to develop the story of Paul Atreides, the unique, young heir to House Atreides.
When the film opens we find Paul and his family on Caladan, an Earthlike planet with a temperate climate, rugged coastlines, and massive oceans and seas. The film quickly introduces us to Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, and his mother, Lady Jessica. We also catch a glimpse of the Atreides’ rivals: the Harkonnens, as well as some scene setting of the arid planet Arrakis and the Fremen who live there.
There is a massive amount of detail that Villeneuve has to unload on the viewer in the film’s first few scenes, yet he does so without making anyone feel like they’re undergoing a Vulcan mind meld. We learn right away that Paul is having dreams of some far off place, an arid place, and a mysterious woman that Paul doesn’t know. We also get a hint about Paul’s training in weaponry, entirely made up of swords and knives, along with the body shields that, once activated, protect an individual during personal combat. They deflect quick slashes; slower stabs and cuts can get through. This is very important because Paul wants to accompany Duncan Idaho on the first expedition to Arrakis and Arrakis is a very dangerous place.
Dune Is In The Details
There are layer upon layer of information in this film. These layers turned Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic book into a series of doomed projects. Others tried, others failed, or failed to even get their over-wrought Brobdingnagian projects off the ground. This film deftly weaves together all of the disparate and potentially confusing elements into one very engaging tapestry. Full props to everyone involved.
Villeneuve succeeds for the most part because of the screenplay written by himself, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth. The writers recombine the details of Herbert’s massive tome into scenes that convey all of the important elements without drawing things out to excruciating lengths. For instance, Paul has to demonstrate a talent for survival early in the film. Almost as soon as he has arrived on Arrakis and has settled in, a sinister hunter/seeker device enters his quarters to hunt him down. Paul uses his environment to turn the tables on the robotic device and delivers its remains to his staff. The scene succeeds. Afterward, when Paul adds to this foundation of skill, we don’t doubt for a second how he got there.
The director also succeeds with the cast that he and his crew assembled. The ensemble cast brings together Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. The cast is huge because the story is huge. They are all professionals and bring their chops to this film.
The best of the best are Chalamet, Ferguson, Momoa and Bardem. Chalamet conveys Paul’s confusion and fear during the first quarter of the film, then gradually ramps up his confidence as he passes challenge after challenge. Ferguson, who plays Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, is tender when needed, and firm when necessary. She provides a much needed introduction to the social, religious, and political force that are the Bene Gesserit. Jason Momoa is a once a light-hearted friend and mentor to Paul, as well as a physical force to be reckoned with during the combat that must result because of the friction between the uplifting Atreides and pitch dark Harkonnen.
Lest one believe that this review ignores the talents of Zendaya, she is put to much better use right now in any of here Spiderman movie roles. However, let’s talk again after the second part of this film franchise is released. Her screen time will have increased considerably by then!
What dazzles the most during the opening salvo of Dune is the film’s production design. The sets look like what we should find on watery Caladan, morbidly dark Giedi Prime (home planet of the Horkonnen), and caustically dry Arrakis. The distinctive shapes of vehicles and spaceships help to deliver the visual punch that a movie like Dune needs.
Most impressive are the ornithopters that Paul and his family fly all around Arrakis. Looking like steel and glass dragonflies, they are at once both mechanical and biomorphic at once. There are a myriad other vehicles, from the mining vehicles that harvest spice to the gigantic whale shark-inspired interstellar ships that remain orbit.
And then there are the sand worms. During most scenes, less is more. But when we actually see a sand worm, the results are impressive! A sand worm is large enough to devour a spice mining rig; no human should even cosider trifling with it.
Ending: Dune vs. The Empire Strikes Back
The film has taken a hit with some viewers and reviewers in the way that it ends. In some way, Dune ends the same way that “The Empire Strikes Back” ends. If you recall, Darth Vader was stronger than ever, Han Solo was encased in carbonite, and Luke and Leia were jetting off into an incredibly murky future. Dune’s Part 1 ends with the lead characters in a similar fix – uncertainty abounds, the ability to fight back is limited, and we’re left to wait and see how things turn out. The only difference between Star Wars, Part II and Dune (Part 1) is that we haven’t had an entire feature film to help us understand the aims and goals of the main characters. Ah, well … that’s just the way it is.
One other warning – at various times the words spoken by the cast are less than easy to understand. It’s appropriate in scenes where people are whispering incantations under their breath as they pray for the survival of some friend or relation. This adds tension. However, there are other times where the repeat 15-second button on the keyboard needed to be pressed and the volume raised to catch a phrase or two. Not really what one wants to do while enjoying a film, and something that’s really difficult to do in the middle of your local cineplex.
Waiting For A Second Movie Is The Mind Killer
Dune (Part 1) succeeds where everyone who tried to adapt Herbert’s amazing book failed. The only problem with it is having to wait roughly a full year for the next one. Like the massive sand worms are bound reappear in the second film, Part 2 is bound to show up soon on the horizon. Let’s just hope that we don’t have to wait through several postponements and three trailers before it does.
Check out Dune (Part 1) in a theater near you or on HBO Max.
* Source: YouTube – DUNE (2021) Review