Review: ‘Dune’ (Part One, The Spice Must Flow)

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

6 comments

  1. To be fair, David Lynch filmed many, many hours worth of material for the 1984 film. However, it wasn’t his choice for most of that film to hit the cutting room floor. In fact, it was the studio who requested the cut down. It’s part of the reason David Lynch wanted his name removed from the final theatrical cut. The studio wouldn’t agree. He did have his wish granted for the extended TV release when his name was removed and replaced by one of the last uses of the ‘Alan Smithee’ pseudonym.

    It’s too bad the studio, in 1984, didn’t have the foresight to agree to a multipart film series seeing the amount of film left on the floor. It certainly would have made the film more cohesive (and longer). However, one change that I didn’t really like was turning House Harkonnen into mostly disgusting blobs when I believe they were intended to be much more regal in nature, in similar form to House Atreides. Considering Jessica was the daughter of Baron Harkonnen, that blob issue doesn’t really make sense.

    The funny thing is, a few months ago I listened to the Dune audiobook. I found the 1984 film pretty much followed the book in lock step all the way to the end, save more description in the book and less details in the film. The DL Dune film did tell the vast majority of the Dune story to completion without missing the major beats.

    As for this updated film, I’ve not yet seen it. Though, I guarantee it will be compared to both the 1984 movie and 2000 TV Miniseries versions. Whether it will be ‘better’ is really a matter of opinion. I actually liked the 1984 movie. I’m probably one of the few who did. The reason I liked it was its cerebral nature. It required you to think through the plot even after the film was over. In other words, it took two or maybe three viewings before you “got” everything that was going on in the film. There are a lot of subtle, but important details throughout that film that are easily misunderstood.

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    • our group was divided on Dune.
      the two guys who read the books liked it.
      none of the girls did. hate might be a better word.
      the two guys who did not read the book kinda/sorta
      found it boring. boring, slow, and pointless.

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      • I suspect one reason the females didn’t like it was the general treatment of females in that universe. Females in the Dune universe are more-or-less not treated as equals to the males. The men hold the power, the females are treated as servants, concubines and forced into arranged marriages. The female group, which held any power in Dune universe, the Bene Gesserit, were almost universally hated. The Bene Gesserit were tolerated only because of their foreseeing abilities. Dune is a hard read, to be sure. However, it doesn’t help the way that the female gender is portrayed in the story material. This situation also doesn’t much improve in the later novels.

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      • Fair point. These issues rarely comes up in Disney princess stories — especially the modern ones with princesses saving themselves — but hard science fiction is less forgiving. Disney’s John Carter upgraded Dejah Thoris from damsel-in-constant-distress to “also a scientist,” but there’s less wiggle room in Dune. 💀

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      • To be fair, Frank Herbert completely avoids the “Damsel in Distress” theme throughout the Dune novels, at least the the ones I’ve read so far. He instead treats the characters more matter-of-factly and realistically. Meaning, when Alia goes insane because of her inability to handle her inherited memories, she isn’t treated as needing saving. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They treat her as damaged goods. Instead, she is effectively moved out of the way to “minimize” her damage. Her position of power within House Atreides combined with her abilities, does cause many to treat her with kid gloves, but never as a “Damsel in Distress”.

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