Movie Review: ‘Dune Part One’

Plot: Based on the landmark 1965 science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert, thousands of years in the future humanity has colonized most of the known galaxy. This is in no small part due to the spice mélange, a substance that extends life, expands consciousness, and allows for interstellar travel. Found only on the planet Arrakis (known as Dune), the vile and brutal House Harkonnen, led by the brutal Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), has controlled the planet for nearly a century. However, fearing for his own power and rule, the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV assigns the rule of Arrakis to House Atreides. Seeing the noble and compassionate Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) as a potential challenger to the throne, the Emperor pits the houses against each other. Amidst this political chaos stands Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), the Duke’s son and trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit. It is Paul who the Fremen of Arrakis believe may be the Lisan al Gaib, a prophesized messiah that will lead them out of bondage. Moreover, he may be the Kwisatz Haderach, a supreme being of immense power that the Bene Gesserit have been trying to breed for generations. As Paul’s world begins to fall apart, he must seize his destiny, as nothing less than the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

Review: Both the literary community and fans of the genre consider Frank Herbert’s Dune to be the best science fiction novel ever written. An exciting and deep tale, the novel explores a myriad of political, religious, philosophical, and economic topics. The complexity of the book has dissuaded many a director from attempting a cinematic adaptation, especially after David Lynch’s much-maligned 1984 film. (Yes I know it has its fans, I’m not one of them.) Enter Denis Villeneuve, a visionary director who is a self-professed fan of the novel and has wanted to adapt the book since he was fourteen years old. Yet after two straight stone-cold sci-fi classics (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) could Villeneuve deliver a third?

The answer is an emphatic yes.

Broad in scope, visually captivating, yet also deeply personal and intimate, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune succeeds on every level. From the opening scene where Zendaya’s Chani delivers a voiceover about her home planet, to the closing moments where Paul joins the Fremen, Dune is a feast for the eyes and a searing story for the soul. Villeneuve’s flawless direction and storytelling ability drew me into the narrative in a way I hadn’t experienced since The Fellowship of the Ring.

Many will paint Dune as Game of Thrones in space and to some degree that’s true, what with the warring houses vying for power. Yet it’s so much more. It’s about fathers and sons. It’s about legacy and gender dynamics. It’s about manipulation and the problematic nature of manufactured messiahs. It’s about loyalty, fate, compassion, greed, and the nature of leadership. Somehow, someway, writers Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Villeneuve were able to distill one of the most complex books ever written and make it accessible to the average viewer. While there is some exposition (after all you must set the table in a film like this) it is presented in a natural way that never feels pedantic. Paul, Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho, Stilgar, and so many more jump off the page and onto the screen with the power of an ornithopter.

It also doesn’t hurt that Denis Villeneuve employs pitch-perfect casting here. Everyone is at the top of their game. Brolin soars as the battle-worn and grumpy Gurney Halleck. Jessica Ferguson almost steals the show as the stalwart but sometimes vulnerable Lady Jessica. Oscar Isaac is everything you would want in Duke Leto – compassionate, noble, a born leader, and fierce when he needs to be. And Jason Momoa was born to play Duncan Idaho. His relationship with Paul is a major highlight of the film. Their chemistry and dynamic make a scene late in the movie particularly gut-wrenching. The acting talent in this movie is bountiful and everyone gets their time to shine.

Timothee Chalamet also makes for a fantastic Paul. Some people will complain that he isn’t the charismatic leader that he should be, however, it is important to remember that this is only part one. There’s a decent amount of growth to come before he becomes Paul Muad’Dib. He’s still just a young man struggling with the pressures of being the heir to House Atreides and possibly the Kwisatz Haderach. Nonetheless, there are several scenes that solidify he’s a perfect Paul, such as a moment in a tent between himself and Jessica where he sees a vision of a galaxy-wide jihad with him at the forefront. His fight with the Fremen Jamis at the end was just as compelling, with Paul forced to kill a man for the first time. However, the most impactful moment involves the infamous “box of pain” scene from the novel involving Paul and Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling). To see Chalamet’s facial expressions shift from irritation to agony, to determination, to resolve was a sight to behold. Editor Joe Walker’s work was on fine display here as the scene tensely cuts back and forth between Paul, the future, and Jessica’s agonized wait outside of the room.

In a career that’s produced some of the best scores of the last thirty years, once again composer Hans Zimmer delivers the goods. It is as if the concepts of longing, intimacy, destiny and wonder all became musical notes and manifested themselves into the Dune score. I don’t anticipate a better score being released this year. Believe me when I say this is one of the best soundtracks in the history of cinema. Villeneuve’s film is epic in scope and needed an epic score to match.

From a visual standpoint, Dune is everything you’ve come to expect from Denis Villeneuve and more. The costumes, the set design, the use of practical effects, the fight choreography – all of it blends together into an unparalleled artistic tapestry. And if Villeneuve is the master painter, then cinematographer Greig Fraser is the paintbrush. Stunning does not begin to cover it. There were several shots that left my jaw on the floor. If you have the opportunity (obviously pandemic notwithstanding) I advise seeing this on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system at your disposal. Dune virtually requires you to see it in a theater.

Dune proves once again why Denis Villeneuve is an elite filmmaker and storyteller. It’s a science fiction masterpiece and I relish the day Part Two releases in October 2023.

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Dune: 10/10