Dune: Part One is the first half of the Denis Villeneuve’s film which has the thankless task of bringing Frank Herbert’s literary masterpiece published in 1965 to the big screen. We’ll soon find out if Warner Bros will decide to give green light to the second half of the movie: it would be a real shame to leave such an imposing work unfinished.
It’s evident that Villeneuve strongly believed in the project: not only he’s the director, but he also acted as producer and screenwriter (along with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth). As a result, Dune: Part One exudes passion and it’s not a cold product built on the basis of calculations and market surveys like so many other blockbusters nowadays.
I will only spend a few words on the plot, since I’ve already talked about it in the post on Herbert’s book first, and then in the review of David Lynch’s 1984 film. The Emperor entrusts the administration of the planet Arrakis to Duke Leto Atreides (Jason Isaac) and his noble House. The planet is the sole source of the most important resource in the universe: the spice. Leto moves there with his concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), his faithful lieutenants Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and all his army. It doesn’t take long before the centuries-old enemies of the Harkonnen House try to take back the planet they had ruled for over eighty years…
If you don’t want spoilers, stop here. If you’re familiar with the plot of Dune, know that this first film by Villeneuve takes us to the meeting of Jessica and Paul with the Fremen led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) after the attack of the Harkonnen and the Sardaukar.
What can I say about this film? Villeneuve did a lot of things well and had to sacrifice some elements of the book that would honestly have been difficult to include in the movie. I was thrilled by the battles and the hand-to-hand combat scenes that seemed to me to follow Herbert’s writing word for word. The planets Caladan (directly from Norway) and Arrakis (Jordan and Abu Dhabi) are beautiful, even if someone like George Miller would’ve made the Dune desert very, very different, much hotter and burnt than the cold one imagined by Villeneuve. This is not nitpicking on my part, it’s kind of a big deal that the heat and the sun can easily kill you on Arrakis and water is the most precious resource of all!
The movie features some superb costumes without any flashy details or bright colors (which are nowhere to be found, as said the photography is cold and desaturated to the maximum), which give a very good idea of the differences between the various Atreides, Harkonnen, Sardaukar, Fremen, Bene Gesserit and so on. And if what I wrote seems incomprehensible to you, know that Dune is a Universe full of factions, legends, languages, and that Villeneuve hasn’t oversimplified any of the jargon of the original book.
Hans Zimmer’s music creates a great atmosphere and it’s thrilling in the key moments of the film (a bit like in Nolan’s Batman films). The direction of Villeneuve is also excellent, this time assisted in photography by Greig Fraser (who worked on various Star Wars products, a curious coincidence given that George Lucas shamelessly copied many elements of Dune for his Star Wars, 1977 – let me get back to this in the PS below).
And finally, the whole cast seemed excellent to me: the only one who didn’t convince me fully is Josh Brolin in the role of Gurney Halleck (and where’s his baliset?), while Momoa, whose name made me raise my eyebrows when I first read it, proved to be a good Duncan Idaho.
There are many things that for reasons of time have not been faithfully adapted from the book and that’s a piety, but this isn’t an actual criticism I’m prepared to make because it was inevitable to cut stuff here and there to adapt the original material to the big screen. Villeneuve was probably right in taking away the characters’ thoughts (something that Herbert himself used less and less going forward with the books of the saga), and in not emphasizing too much the search for Leto’s traitor (even if this completely destroys the character of Doctor Yueh, Chang Chen), nor the economic and social part of the Atreides taking power on Arrakis.
I didn’t like Liet (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) being capable of riding sandworms (she’s not Fremen born, and in fact in the book he’s unable to do that), and I certainly didn’t appreciate the almost complete disappearance of the main physical characteristic of the Fremen, that is the fully blue eyes due to addiction to the spice, but I realize that these are subtleties that come from my love for Herbert’s book. A particularly sour note seemed to me the contrast between the ships of the Spacing Guild that seem to have come out of Arrival (2017) and the rest of the technology of the film which looks heavier (advanced but at the same time antiquated due to the Butlerian Jihad) and with a insect-like look due to the fact that… often the engines of the machines are biological, according to the Dune Encyclopedia, but whose details are not explained (not even mentioned!) in the books of the saga.
Leaving aside these details which are irrelevant for most of the world population, this film presents well the themes of revolution and imperialism, while for now it does little on the ecology front which is very present in Herbert’s work. Many details and many scenes suggest that Villeneuve owes a lot to Lynch a bit like Peter Jackson owed a lot to Ralph Bakshi, although it must be said that both Villeneuve and Lynch have simply constructed many scenes exactly as described in the book.
What else? Personally, I would’ve preferred the visionary part of the film to be a little more lysergic (Lynch got that right!), also because it would’ve been in line with the LSD experiences of the 1960s that inspired them (Terry Gilliam was needed here!). And I would’ve liked to see more Harkonnen: the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard) doesn’t do any of the heinous things he does in the book, Feyd Rautha isn’t there at all, and Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) is the only one demonstrating that we should all hate his noble House.
Beyond these small criticisms, I’m satisfied with this film by Villeneuve who did a great job of adapting a book which is really difficult to “summarize” into a film. It’s no coincidence that Jodorovsky was unable to shoot even a scene and Lynch doesn’t even want to talk about it… Ciao!
PS: If you don’t know Dune and at the cinema you feel like having a deja vu while seeing spaceships, sword fighting, a chosen one on a desert planet with two moons who convinces others to do things by using his voice, I remind you that the Herbert’s book was released 12 years before that movie directed by George Lucas. To be honest, Herbert was inspired by Lawrence of Arabia (1962), with a man coming from abroad who becomes the leader of desert people and leads them in a war, which we’ll see in the second part of Dune if it will ever be made… so it’s useless to talk about who copied from whom!