Imagine if Star Wars: A New Hope, Part One ended overlooking Mos Eisley as Obiwan says, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) has a look of destiny about him. As the son of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), he is expected to one day lead House Atreides by learning to navigate the politics between ruling houses and temper the expectations of their Emperor. When Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is commanded to vacate the desert planet Arrakis — also called “Dune” — Duke Leto is granted the opportunity to mine for Melange, a psychedelic substance necessary for space travel referred to as “spice.” Unfortunately, the abrupt opportunity is a trap for House Atreides, and Paul is about to discover why his dreams of a native Fremen named Chani (Zendaya) are only the beginning of his legacy…
Director Denis Villeneuve’s much anticipated rework of Frank Herbert’s Dune was held back from theaters an entire year, and film production reportedly stopped while waiting for a release date. Unlike David Lynch’s 1984 Dune trying to cram an entire book into one movie (and cutting it to ribbons trying to make it fit), Villeneuve wanted to take the time to tell the story. Film technology has come a long way in almost forty years, too, so better tools are available to realize the beloved science fiction novel. The trailers tease the vast scope of the saga and how small mere humans are in comparison, but since we’re only getting part of the first book, how complete can Part One actually be?
The new Dune is, for lack of a better word, incredible — not just Arrakis but the entire production design. The dragonfly-looking ornithopters, for example, have never before looked so plausible or realistic, even down to the labels on the instrument gauges; the level of detail is astounding. Even taking its time, however, key parts of the story are still glossed over, particularly the political intrigue and machinations; its always a little sad when modern audiences can’t be trusted with in-story reasons why characters engage in action sequences. What does appear on-screen is exhilarating, making the runtime feel much shorter than it is by the time the credits roll.
Unlike The Fellowship of the Ring telling a lot of story up to a known stopping point, Dune Part One feels more like a down-payment on the promise of more. Zendaya’s Chani is barely in it, Chalamet’s Paul is just getting interesting before the credits, and the film ends on a glimmer of hope when things are darkest. It’s the bottom of the first huge hill on a spectacular roller coaster launching into a dark tunnel just before bonking your head on a “to be continued” sign and being asked to leave the ride. Not a spoiler, but withholding “Part One” from the title is like leaving “Of Mars” off of John Carter; you’re not fooling anyone, folks.
It isn’t fair to compare the Lynch film — with a production aesthetic eerily similar to Krull if you really think about it — to the Villeneuve film’s stillsuits and spacecraft following a decade of superhero movie effects. Dune 2021 looks huge; bigger screens and speakers are going to show and boom more. There’s also a lot of emotion packed into it — you can’t stage a coup without breaking a few people’s backs — and these folks enjoy seizing the day and night. The worst part now is the wait — locking down the cast, getting new things built, and actually filming and editing the thing — but as of this writing, Dune: Part Two is slated for Fall 2023.
Dune Part One is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images, suggestive material, and whoa… sandworms! You hate ’em, right? I hate ’em myself!
Three skull recommendation out of four