Title: Dune: Part One Director: Denis Villeneuve Writers: Jon Spaihts (screenplay), Denis Villeneuve (screenplay), Eric Roth (screenplay) Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendeya, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem
Dune. Arrakis. A desert planet, more than 20 000 years into the future. The desert sands go on seemingly forever, broken only by the rare rocky outcropping. Two people, mother, and son, tiny against the vast desert, move silently and without rhythm across the dunes to the relative safety of the rocks. They are the last survivors of a noble family, moving at night to avoid the giant sandworms that dwell in the endless sands.
But they are sensed by the vibrations of their footfalls. Despite trying to hide the rhythm of their steps across the sands, a giant worm, hundreds of meters long, has found them. They run!
It is finally here. Like many other films these last couple of years, Part I of Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction masterpiece was delayed a long year from its initial release date. But was it worth the wait? Absolutely yes! With all my heart, yes!
Frank Herbert’s novels set in the Dune universe are widely seen as classics and counted among the very best in the science fiction genre. Recounting the stories of young Paul Atreides and his lineage, they weave an epic story of religion, fanaticism, environmentalism, eugenics, and the dangers of blindly following charismatic leaders. Dune is both a statement and a question, and the novels have been discussed and interpreted since the first one was released in 1965. Beginning with Dune, Herbert wrote five more books before his death in 1986; all set in the same universe.
There have been some attempts at adapting Frank Herbert’s novel onto the screen. The most well-known example is David Lynch’s unsuccessful, embarrassing, and often painful 1984 Dune. Much has been written about Lynch’s attempt at adapting the Dune, and the result is now a cult film in its own right. Herbert’s novels have also been adapted into series, mini and otherwise, with various degrees of success.
They all pale in comparison to what Denis Villeneuve has given us. It is an epic film, with grand vistas, massive spaceships, and huge battles. And like several others of his films, Villeneuve has also brought in some of his almost arthouse sensibilities. Scenes can go on slowly, even dreamlike, without much dialogue. There are dream sequences, and hints of the future that might or might not happen. Villeneuve has taken the best from his previous films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 and crafted something unique.
Much has also been written in other media about our main protagonist, young nobleman Paul Atreides. Played excellently by Timothée Chalamet, Paul must overcome the dangers of the unforgiving desert on Arrakis, also called Dune, after his noble house is destroyed by their arch enemies, the House Harkonnen, and their leader, Baron Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård under layers and layers of makeup). As written, Paul is an interesting and often problematic character, prompting questions about the “white savior” stereotype, the dangers of fanaticism, and blindly following leaders. Frank Herbert clearly meant for us to ask these questions, and Villeneuve’s adaptation never forgets this.
Dune‘s huge cast also delivers some stellar performances. Paul’s father and leader of House Atreides, Duke Leto, is played with a sense of stoicism in the face of impending doom by the always excellent Oscar Isaac. His mother, the Duke’s Bene Gesserit concubine struggling to balance the love for her son with the duties of her Sisterhood, is played by Rebecca Ferguson. Other names include Zendaya, Josh Brolin, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, and Javier Bardem. Most of these roles are subtle and nuanced. There are also strong guys, more here to growl and bash heads than anything else, such as Jason Momoa as Paul’s friend and combat trainer Duncan Idaho, and the giant Dave Bautista as the brutal Harkonnen warrior Glossu “The Beast” Rabban.
Sitting down to watch the about two and a half-hour-long first part of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, I expected excellent science fiction. But I didn’t realize how far exceeding my expectations this film would take me. I recently read the first book in Frank Herbert’s novels, and I rewatched David Lynch’s attempt at an adaptation. And even if it is interesting, in a somewhat morbid way to compare this new adaptation with Lynch’s version, I wish I hadn’t. Forget about it, and don’t watch it before watching this.
As for Herbert’s novel, I’m glad I read it before watching Villeneuve’s new adaptation. Even though the film follows the book closely, some scenes and themes were made clearer and better explained on the page. It is not a must, of course, as there is plenty of exposition in the film, but as in all of Villeneuve’s films, there are details aplenty, which are better explained in the novel.
More than anything, Villeneuve’s is an epic, emotional and gripping story. It has huge, epic scenes, with everything a science fiction fan could wish for. From the Atreides homeworld Caladan (shot on the west coasts here in Norway) to Arrakis itself, it has grand vistas and enormous battles, combined with the subtle and nuanced. It will be remembered as one of the best, even the best, films he has directed. This film is only the first half of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation. I hope we won’t have to suffer through the same kind of delays before we can experience Part II and the continuation of Paul’s story.