*****SPICE-LADEN SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
Dune It Again.
The path of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel to the screen has been almost as harsh and dangerous as conditions on the desert world of Arrakis. Over the last five decades we’ve seen (and almost seen) a surreal, aborted Alejandro Jodorowksy adaptation (circa 1975), a colorful 1984 David Lynch misfire and, more recently, an ambitious, faithful, smaller-budgeted pair of SyFy channel miniseries (2000’s “Dune” 2003’s “Children of Dune”). For a generation, the Lynch film was the only “Dune” motion picture in the galaxy, and it was often savaged by critics for questionable storytelling choices, major liberties taken with the ending of the book, and other unexpected flourishes, such as the use of the rock group Toto on the soundtrack (following Queen’s “Flash Gordon” song, four years earlier). In recent years, the Lynch version has been reappraised by some as an underrated, punk-flavored gem, but either way, it’s still far from an ideal representation of Herbert’s book.
Note: The story behind Jodorowsky’s psychedelic, pre-“Star Wars” adaptation of “Dune,” which featured spectacular production art by ALIEN’s Ron Cobb, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, is well-chronicled on the must-see BluRay/DVD “Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune”; available on Amazon.com. No Dune fan with even a passing interest in film production should miss it.
SyFy channel’s “Dune” miniseries was more faithful to Herbert’s book, but also hampered by made-for-TV production values of 20 years ago, and a somewhat lackluster cast. The second miniseries, “Children of Dune” (2003) abridged two of the “Dune” sequel novels (“Children of Dune,” “God Emperor of Dune”) and would amp the star power with Susan Sarandon and then-newcomer James McAvoy. All of these earnest attempts to adapt the dense mythology of the books seemed to be hindered by one factor or another, never quite capturing the epic scale of Herbert’s work…
How You Dune?
Note: For this review, I’m going to assume the reader has at least a passing familiarity with the story, so I won’t go too deep into its labyrinthine machinations and world-building. Much like the mythology of “Star Wars” (which was partly inspired by Herbert’s book) or “Lord of the Rings,” “Dune” has a lot of plot to absorb, and I haven’t read it fully in about 37 years. Suffice it to say, this review will focus more on the characters and details of the movie rather than the book, of which “Dune Part One” covers roughly one-half.
In the most succinct, “Star Wars-opening crawl”-way that I can, this is the story of “Dune, Part One”:
In the year 10,191, the arid desert world of Arrakis (aka “Dune”) is, at turns, exploited by the different ruling Houses of the galaxy. The inhabitants of Dune, the native Fremen, are metaphors (and actual descendants) of the Arabs of the oil-rich Middle East. These Fremen have long ago adapted to the harsh conditions of their chosen planet, creating a whole technology designed around trapping and recycling precious bodily fluids for water. Arrakis is rich in a substance called “spice” that is critical for interstellar spaceflight and galactic commerce, as well as for its health benefits and psychotropic properties. In 21st century terms, it’s a combination of petroleum and opium in one valuable substance, and the entire galaxy thrives on it…yet it’s only found at Arrakis.
The House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides, his concubine Lady Jessica (a member of the Bene Gesserit clan of “witches“) and their son/heir, Paul, has been appointed by the Galactic Emperor to oversee the mining operations on Arrakis, following the abrupt departure of the brutal House Harkonnen. What is not known is that the Emperor is in collusion with the Harkonnens, led by the obese, monstrous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, to destroy House Atreides once and for all.
Unknown to the Emperor, Paul is gifted with the powers of the Bene Gesserit, and is also an unwitting part of a Fremen prophecy of a future Madhi–the one who will liberate them from the oppressive rule of the Galactic Houses and lead them to paradise. The teenaged Paul, haunted by dreams of a mysterious Freman girl and of his role in the prophecy, is eventually put to the test when the House Atreides’ operation on Arrakis is destroyed by a devastating Harkonnen/Imperial attack. Duke Leto is killed, while Lady Jessica and Paul are left to fend for themselves in the harsh climate of Arrakis, after allying themselves with the Fremen. They must also survive the gargantuan sandworms, which are attracted to rhythmic sounds, like immense killer sharks, swimming in oceans of sand…
To Be Continued in Part Two (hopefully…?).
Who’s Dune Who.
Unlike previous actors in the role of Paul Atreides, actor Timothee Chalamet (“Interstellar,” “Lady Bird”) is the first incarnation of the character who actually looks like a teenager, despite Chalamet being nearly 26 years old in real life. In fact, Chalamet is actually older than Kyle MacLachlan was when he played Paul Atreides back in 1984. Chalamet’s Paul is rendered in a cooler emotional color palette than the the more headstrong, warmblooded versions previously seen–that cooler shading is in keeping with many other characters in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” universe.
Note: Charlotte Rampling (“Georgy Girl,” “Zardoz”) adds so much presence to her brief but vital scene as Gaius Helen Mohaim, who tests young Paul’s fear with the pain box. The fact that Villeneuve cast an actor of her stature in such a small but important role demonstrates the film’s commitment to quality in every corner, unlike the lower-budgeted SyFy channel miniseries, which used many unremarkable actors in key roles, significantly siphoning that production’s star power.
Such emotional distance can be a plus or minus, depending on personal preferences; some prefer the warmer characterizations of early “Star Wars” or “Star Trek,” while others are okay with the more emotionally distant inhabitants of the “Dune” universe. Personally, I find this to be a limitation more of the book than the film, as the immense cast of characters populating the “Dune” books are written more like finely crafted chess pieces rather than flesh-and-blood people, and I accept them on that basis. At any rate, Chalamet does a fine job with the material, and his more boyish-looking Paul Atreides is much closer to my original mind’s eye vision of the teenaged character.
Rebecca Ferguson, on the other hand, plays Lady Jessica with more heightened outward empathy for her son than prior versions. Ferguson first got onto my radar with her scene-stealing (and soul-stealing) role as the villainous “Rose the Hat” in the better-than-expected “Shining” sequel, “Doctor Sleep” (2019). Once again, Ferguson plays a character with a strong psionic bent in this film as well. Ferguson is, like many other elements of this adaptation, a near-perfect incarnation of Lady Jessica. Lady Jessica’s Bene Gesserit clan (often casually slandered as “witches”) seek to breed a perfected being of power, which may (or may not) be her son, Paul. We should see a lot more of Ferguson in Part Two, as the pregnant Lady Jessica eventually gives birth to Paul’s powerful, spice-afflicted little sister. If I have any issues with Lady Jessica in this version, it’s that we don’t see as much bonding or affection with her doomed paramour, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) as we saw in the 2000 SyFy miniseries. A minor issue.
Note: Perhaps there will be deleted scenes of Jessica with Leto on the eventual BluRay release…?
Speaking of the Duke, sci-fi favorite Oscar Isaac (Disney’s “Star Wars” trilogy, “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” ) gives his Leto Atreides a bit more earthiness–a quality missing from prior incarnations. As with his Star Wars character, Poe Dameron, we learn that Duke Leto’s burning ambition as a young man was to be a pilot, but he was thrust into the family business because he was the heir (much like Paul at the end of Part One). It’s a shame that Oscar Isaac’s character has such a premature expiration date, as he makes the Duke so likable–despite his being a metaphor for a well-meaning yet oppressive western power in the Middle East (delivered via the metaphor of Arrakis).
At the Duke’s side is Josh Brolin as trusted warmaster, Gurney Halleck, a disciplinarian who tries to whip young Paul into fighting shape. Gurney’s harsh training later proves invaluable when Paul and his mother are forced to fend for themselves in the dunes of Arrakis. Halleck’s fate is left uncertain at the end of Part One, but if they follow the book (as they have so far), he should return in Part Two. Unlike Patrick Stewart, who played Gurney in the 1984 version, we don’t see him play his baliset–a musical instrument similar to the Russian balalaika that the character played in previous versions. Not a necessary ingredient for the Dune story, but it added another dimension to prior onscreen versions of the character. Actor Josh Brolin (“Avengers: Endgame”) has a steely quality that makes him very believable as Paul’s drill instructor-like mentor. Brolin’s Gurney Halleck isn’t there for emotional support, like Duncan–he’s all business.
Actor Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences” “Lincoln”) has a short, but memorable near-cameo sized role as Atreides’ aide Thufir Hawat. Hawat’s white eye-roll while accessing information is one of the many subtle flourishes that suggest great technological advancement in this universe without being overt.
Note: Lots of jokes online about the use of bagpipes in the introduction of the Atreides House when the Duke gets his marching orders to Arrakis from the Emperor’s herald (Benjamin Clementine). Personally, I didn’t find the pipes terribly distracting; same with their use in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982).
Fans of singer/actress Zendaya (Marvel’s “SpiderMan” movies) who are not familiar with “Dune” might be a little disappointed by her seemingly smallish role in Part One. The movie opens with her character Chani’s voiceover (replacing the Lynch version’s Princess Irulan Corrino), and we later see her in Paul’s visions and in a few more scenes when Paul and Jessica contact the Fremen. But, of course, Chani plays a much greater role in the story’s time-jumping second half, after Paul and his mother ‘go native.’ One of the greatest advantages of the Villeneuve version over all others to date is the greater casting freedom, with key roles going to a more diverse actor pool. Having Zendaya play Chani while keeping Paul as a young white man of privilege also better highlights Dune’s metaphor of white American/European powers arriving to control resources in foreign lands–places where such powers generationally take what they want at the expense of the natives. Chani’s new narration at the beginning of the 2021 film makes it clear that she sees the Harkonnen departure and the Atreides’ arrival as the substitution of one oppressive power for another. While Paul Atreides is still the ‘white savior’ cliche (see: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), we see a more nuanced side of the Fremen missing in previous adaptations to date.
In stark contrast to the cooler temperature characters populating Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” we have Jason Momoa as trusted Atreides’ ally and personal friend to Paul, Duncan Idaho–a character I never truly saw come alive onscreen until this version. Momoa’s immediate warmth, charisma and energy combined with his warrior’s physicality make me wish (like Isaac’s Leto) that his character’s presence in this movie wasn’t so abbreviated. Idaho’s final look to Paul before he takes on massive enemy forces singlehandedly is one of both love and resignation. I freely and unashamedly admit to a bit of a man-crush on the charming Momoa, because he adds so much to his films through sheer force of his personal magnetism. While the character of Duncan Idaho returns in later books of the series as a clone (and so much more), he is sadly, at least for the first Dune book, a goner. Here’s hoping Part Two of “Dune” can at least work in a flashback of some kind, just to have a bit more of Momoa’s presence.
Note: A friend of mine (with whom we were watching the movie) jokingly and ironically quipped that “Aquaman is stuck in the desert.”
The only character to differ significantly from the book’s description is that of Fremen scientist, Dr. Liet Kynes, who is now played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster–giving the character a very different vibe from the late Max von Sydow , while retaining the essentials of the character. Sharon Duncan-Brewster also adds a bit more energy and immediacy than elder stateman von Sydow, to the movie’s benefit. The character of Kynes was a logical choice for an upgrade, and her newfound gender and look is in keeping with this version’s greater casting diversity. Such diversity (as stated before) helps better illustrate the contrast between Fremen locals and their “colonizers” as well. I also remember Duncan-Brewster’s memorable role in Doctor Who’s “The Water of Mars” (2009); another role she performed with an unusually altered ‘alien’ eye color.
Note: Speaking of eye color, the cobalt-blue “spice eyes” (which, in-story, develop over prolonged exposure to the planet Arrakis’ spice) are more subtle in this version than in previous rotoscoped or CGI versions. They no longer look like a visual effect, and more like a naturally occurring condition.
Javier Bardem plays Stilgar, Fremen leader of the Sietch Tabr tribe. Bardem effortlessly conveys the character’s bitterness, cynicism, and mistrust. When Paul Atreides proves himself by slaying a distrusting rival (“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” costar Babs Olusanmokun ) in personal combat, Bardem’s grudging acceptance of “off-worlder” Paul feels more earned somehow than in previous versions. Once more, this is in keeping with Villaneuve’s cooler emotional palette for his Dune characters–the energy is more simmering than scorching. I first became a fan of Bardem’s when I saw him in 2007’s “No Country For Old Men,” where he played evil incarnate. Since then he’s gone onto greater, deserved acclaim. As my wife pointed out, the cooler emotional shadings also give this version of “Dune” a realistic vibe that is largely missing from the over-the-top dramatics of the others.
The duplicitous yet sympathetic Dr. Wellington Yueh is played by actor Chang Chen (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), who gives the trusted doctor an undercurrent of pain beneath his cool professionalism. His simple act of holding a hand to various parts of his patient’s bodies is in keeping with the movie’s notion of technology merging with human beings in a much more personal way than we have now–as if Yueh is the human equivalent of Star Trek’s medical tricorder.
One of my rare, mild disappointments with this otherwise superlative version of “Dune” lies with its villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard). Nothing against the terrific Skarsgard, whose work I’ve enjoyed for decades (beginning with 1990’s “The Hunt For Red October”), but this new version of Harkonnen (buried beneath a thick, realistic fat suit) is much more monolithic and two-dimensional than the bizarre, kinkier incarnations played by a boil-infested Kenneth McMillan in Lynch’s movie and SyFy channel’s Ian McNiece, who played up the character’s proclivity for beautiful young boys. Villeneuve’s interpretation of the character–completely hairless, like all other Harkonnen males–is more like an obese Darth Vader. Yes, the new Baron has a scarier presence (despite his bulk), but I also miss the sheer bawdiness of those other versions. This is a small nit, of course, and as my wife (and resident Dune Wikipedia) wisely pointed out, those prior versions of Baron Harkonnen simply would not have fit with this current interpretation. Overall, I am forced to agree.
Note: Like all the male members of the Harkonnen clan seen in this version, the Baron also has an artificially booming voice; once again, this could be suggestive of that integrated body tech implied elsewhere in the movie.
Former wrestling star Dave Bautista, who broke into mainstream acting success with his role as the literal-minded muscleman/alien “Drax” in 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” is once again essaying a hairless muscleman as the Baron Harkonnen’s henchman, Rabban. While Rabban doesn’t have so much to do in Part One as he will later on, Bautista’s casting in the role is spot-on perfection. Bautista also proved himself as a sympathetic replicant in a pivotal early scene of Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (2017); an astonishingly good sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic. It’s no wonder that Villeneuve would use Bautista once again. In fact, a part of me would’ve liked to have seen Bautista as Baron Harkonnen–and I believe Bautista has the acting chops to have made that work, but we’ll never know, of course.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one element of “Dune” that been’s homaged in various pop culture forms (“Tremors,” “Return of the Jedi,” “Beetlejuice”) since the publication of Frank Herbert’s book–the much-ballyhooed sandworms. The visuals for these creatures is delivered with a grace and power that reminds me of a blue whale navigating the ocean. Despite their immense maws and tendency to devour people and machinery with equal ease, there’s a beauty and majesty to the sandworms seen in Villeneuve’s “Dune”–and an intelligence as well. Like other elements of this adaptation, they are definitive.
A Dune Deal.
While I very much enjoyed this cooler, more realistic version of “Dune,” I’ve also seen a few criticisms (including my wife’s) regarding the film’s occasionally lethargic pacing. As a fan of 1968s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and 1972’s “Solaris”, I was personally okay with Villeneuve’s more meditative speed in which he chose to tell this story; it allowed the hypotonic imagery of the movie to seep into my pores a bit more than if it had whizzed by at warp speed. Personally I miss the days when movies would linger on an image for a more than a few seconds, so the pacing of “Dune” was not an issue for me at all. In fact, I welcome more leisurely-paced films like it.
I also appreciated the movie’s gorgeous location photography in Norway for the cold, watery world of Caladan, and the bleached skies of Abu Dhabi for Arrakis (with some shots lensed in Wadi Rum, Jordan, as well). This is a “Dune” that fully embraces the epic, “Lawrence of Arabia-in-space” scale of Herbert’s novel like no other. Villeneuve makes ambitious use of the production’s $165 million budget (and that’s just for Part One…yikes!) to deliver “Dune” on a scale never achieved until now. For full disclosure, I watched the movie at home, in the dark, on a 7 ft./2 meter collapsible screen from an HD digital projector with a Bose sound system, and it was thoroughly engrossing–just as much as if I’d seen it theatrically. If doable, I’d advice readers who are not yet comfortable with theaters to watch this film on as large a screen as possible in a darkened room with no distractions–it definitely helps.
While individual tastes may vary, I believe Denis Villeneuve has created the definitive motion picture adaptation of Frank Herbert’s unwieldy book. Some may prefer the punk flavoring of David Lynch’s eccentric, truncated film or even the deliberate theatricality of the TV miniseries (where Arrakis looked more like leftover indoor planet sets from “Star Trek”). “Dune” has never before been presented with the scope, power or magnitude of Denis Villeneuve’s take on this sci-fi classic.
This is as good as it gets, and I’m completely fine with that.
EDIT: And, of course, after I published, I read this:
Really good news! Made my morning.
Where to Watch “Dune: Part One.”
“Dune: Part One” is on HBOMax through November 21st, and, of course, in wide theatrical release as well. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID crisis. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now over 739,000 as of this writing (with nearly 5 million deaths worldwide), so please continue to wear masks in public, and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize risk of serious infection. If you choose to see “Dune” theatrically, please wear masks and follow any other protocols requested by theater management; it’s a small price to pay for keeping yourself and your loved ones healthy and safe. Take care!