A Brief Background to Those Other Dune Films
I, like many teens of the 80s, were first exposed to Dune through the divisive David Lynch directed vehicle. Through it, I ended up reading many of the books that the movie was based on. To this day I am still enthralled by the world building and history that was incredibly complex to my teenage mind at the time. I still have a fondness for the Lynch version of Dune, even for the extended television edit that Lynch refused to have his name attached to(the infamous Alan Smithee cut). The movie certainly has some merits, but it also deserves much of its criticisms for odd deviations from the source material.
Over the years since then, the SyFy Channel made a more book accurate version of the Dune novel and to varying degrees, it worked, but also fell short because of the limitations of a television budget. Also in those years, internet fan editors have made various versions of the David Lynch film using deleted scenes and re-editing footage from the extended and theatrical cut to more closely resemble Lynch’s original ideas for the film. While some do improve, it was still not definitive.
In 2017, it was announced that Denis Villeneuve would tackle Dune. Villeneuve is no stranger to more cerebral science fiction. He had previously directed Blade Runner 2049 and The Arrival, both big budget science fiction films but with not only cerebral themes, but an arthouse feel. Nevertheless, Dune is still a daunting book to tackle. It is incredibly dense in lore and universe building. There are countless characters, thousands of years of history, political wranglings, and plots within plots. All that is just in the first book.
In the very opening of of the film, it is obvious that this is meant to be a two-part movie as the title card clearly states Dune Part One. There is an opening narration laying out the situation for the planet Arrakis. For hundreds of years, Arrakis had been ruled by an empire that is there to exploit the planet’s only resource, the spice Melange. The spice can prolong life, has psychic mind altering properties, and is key to the abilities of the Guild Navigators to traverse between the stars safely. It is only found on Arrakis, which is also referred to as Dune. The natives of Arrakis, the Fremen are an exploited people, and have been waging an eternal guerilla war against their colonizers. Arrakis is the fiefdom of House Harkonnen, a cruel and oppressive house, from the heavy industrial planet of Geidi Prime. But that rulership abruptly comes to an end and they suddenly leave.
On Planet Caladan, home to House Atreides, Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto, suffers from recurring dreams of a mysterious woman in the desert. The noble house is now given the fiefdom of Arrakis in the stead of the Harkonnens. But no one believes to be a benevolent gesture but a trap. Yet to disobey an imperial order would be…well, not good.
Meanwhile, Paul is beginning to awaken to powers that have been passed on and taught to him from Lady Jessica, his mother and member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, an order that for generations have not only been manipulating houses of powers behind the scenes, but their bloodlines as well. Her having a son was against the order of the sisterhood and may have thrown their entire breeding manipulations into turmoil. The sisterhood also manipulates religion for its own means. Bene Gesserit lay down messianic rumors about the Atreides, in particular, Lady Jessica and Paul.
Denis Villeneuve drops you into a universe that is incredibly immersive. There are not many great scenes of exposition about the universe, other than the planet of Arrakis itself and the Fremen. We, as the audience, are along with the ride. For non-book readers, there may be a perception of little explanation on certain things that there should be. Book readers will spot Mentats and Suk doctors. But if you are not familiar with the source material you may not get a full sense of who these people are or their particular talents. We get some exposition on the Bene Gesserit, and they are both mysterious in appearance and incredibly intimidating. In one way, that adds to the immersive quality. But for some it may be a bit overwhelming, with definitely lingering questions. But we don’t need an explanation that there is such a thing as an Atreides hand signals, but we are shown that detail. We don’t need an explanation of the Bene Gesserit Voice, but a simple demonstration is enough for us to understand. In a sense this is film that definitely shows more than it tells. For better or worse, it adds to that sense of immersion, as if you were dropped into a foreign country without knowing the language. You may feel lost, but the discovery is the beauty of it.
If you are interested in Dune lore and history, Quinn’s Ideas on YouTube is an excellent resource for everything Dune.
Hans Zimmer is on hand to provide a score that may well be one of his best scores ever. I admit to not being one of his biggest fans. But it is clear, like Villeneuve, he has a passion for Dune. It is atmospheric much of the time and unsettling when it needs to be for scenes of tension. Zimmer actually passed on scoring Tenet for long time collaborator, Christopher Nolan to do the score for Dune.
Timothée Chalamet as Paul, may seem poorly developed. But Paul is a character that is being molded by the desert and we won’t see his full character arc until part two. Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica stands out as a not just a mother but as a woman of power within the Atreides house even if she is not married to the Duke. Oscar Isaac as Leto is a commanding presence as the Duke but still carries genuine warmth as Paul’s father. Jason Mamoa brings his unique personality as Duncan Idaho and Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as the gruff Gurney Halleck. Possibly the one actor having the most fun is Stellan Skaarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a role that even bookwise was pure villainy. He brings about cold menace and in some scenes seems to play homage to Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the mad Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, we do not get enough of Zendaya as Chani. Story-wise she will have a larger role to play in the second half of the story. That is certainly something to look forward to.
Frank Herbert’s novel was written in the 60s and was reflective of its time. Even so, the themes he addressed in the book, mass murder of indigenous people, colonialism, the exploitation of resources, and the manipulation of the masses through religious superstition, still ring true for our time. One can’t help but think of Afghanistan’s history against colonialism compared to the Fremen’s eternal insurgency against the Empire. Arrakis has the most precious substance in the universe and a huge empire is willing to wage war and oppress a people to exploit that resource. In the 60s it was a metaphor for oil. It still is in a way. Of course it is not a one to one parallel. Cynics may look at this as a standard hero’s journey, or even as a lone (or white) saviour trope, especially with the messianic lore. But remember, these messianic beliefs were seeded. Paul knows this and is willing to take advantage of it. Hardly something heroic. All other adaptations have ignore this aspect.
Let’s be honest. Dune is not a perfect novel, and neither is the movie. At times the book seemed more enthralled with it’s universe building and lore than of character. Some of the characterizations, particularly the behavior of the villains can come across as cliched. And the movie does fall into those same trappings at times. The disadvantage for the movie is that it is still only part one, whereas the book is complete. If you are interested in the rest of Paul’s journey, you’ll have to refer to the source material or wait until Part Two comes out. And considering the games that Warner Brothers have played with undermining its box-office to boost their HBO-Max subscriptions, we have no guarantee of that yet. With that being said, this is the best interpretation of the book. There could have been less scenes of Paul’s visions, at times it felt a little repetitious.
Dune, as a the book, remains one of the most important works of science fiction literature. In my opinion, Denis Villeneuve has crafted one of the finest science fiction films in a generation. Dune is definitely not a typical science fiction action film. It is a work of art that has action in it. And the action scenes are filled with not just CG and explosions but close-quarter combat of hundreds of troops. It’s not a CG fest of spaceships zipping around in dogfights, it’s dirty gritty knifework, making the action feel genuine. Among those hundreds of troops are the Saudakar, the blades of the Emperor. We are shown their planet of Salusa Secundus where these feared troops genuinely come across as intimidating.
But, of course, the big spectacle that Dune may be best known for is the desert mouse — just kidding. It’s of course the giant sandworms of Arrakis. We’ve already seen them in the trailers, but the scale of these creatures is truly intimidating as they are outright forces of nature that can wreck destruction in their wake. Yet, they are also very much a part of the planet, sometimes seen in the distance. But when they strike, they are feasome.
Villeneuve really takes his time in showing us this universe. Almost every exterior shot is epic in scope, detailing large vistas and landscapes showing enormous scale. It is visually stunning. Make no mistake about it, the universe of Dune created by Frank Herbert is epic in scope. Visually, it is a feast for the eyes. Much of the effects are practical and shooting was filmed on locations such as Jordan and Norway. The Director of Photography, Greg Fraser, is no stranger to big projects, as he has shot Rogue One and The Mandalorian. His compositions and shots of the desert landscapes are stark contrasts to the lush watery shores of Caladan. You almost feel the dust and heat of Arrakis pressing down on you.
Dune: Part One is what movie theaters were made for. If you can, see it on the largest screen possible (if you feel safe during the Age of Covid, that is), such as an Imax theater, or a Dolby Cinema, or XD with a big sound system. I saw it at a screening in a medium sized theater, and felt like I was there in Arrakis. I will definitely be seeing it again in Imax. Let the film take you in for the two and a half hour runtime. Sure, you can watch it day and date on HBO-Max, but you would be doing yourself a disservice. Unless you are incredibly wealthy with an actual movie theater in your home, the experience does not compare to seeing this on the big screen.