Reminding me of the ending of The Fellowship of the Ring without the assured satisfaction that the next part is definitely coming, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One is a beautiful looking film that sets out to accomplish the impossible: telling the first half of a story. David Lynch managed an adaptation in the 80s that stuffed the whole plot of the book into a single two-hour and seventeen minute film, but Villeneuve has about two and a half hours to tell just the first half. The story has time to breathe now, and even though the film is largely setup without much of anything regarding payoff, it actually feels like a story being told rather than a series of events.
I still hold the belief that one could adapt Dune into a single two-hour film. It would just require the cutting of a lot of stuff while finding the core of the story and nurturing that first and foremost. Villeneuve and his writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth went the much more traditional route of an adaptation of trying to include as much as possible. Well, that’s not entirely true. They cut certain supporting characters like Feyd-Rautha and the Princess Irulan completely, characters who do have some limited presence in the first half of the book itself. That is not to say that there is no core to this telling, and I think the core is right.
I’ve always maintained that the core of Frank Herbert’s Dune was Paul’s journey from boy to man to king to godhead, and that is the center of everything in Villeneuve’s adaptation, mostly revolving around the relationship between Paul and his mother the Lady Jessica. Sent into what everyone in House Atreides knows is a trap, Jessica has to build off of what the Bene Gesserit sisterhood had established on the planet, the idea that the Fremen savior was coming. Jessica knows that for her survival as well as that of her son, they are going to need to play into these superstitions. This is established early, and the evolution of the idea is how the film ends, providing something like an arc for Paul, though it remains truncated.
Around this is as much detail as can be stuffed into this movie, but Villeneuve’s steady hand along with the healthy runtime never makes the film feel overstuffed. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels like we’re getting too much information. In terms of the extra detail brought in, I think my favorite is the focus on Leto’s father and his death at the hands of a bull. Excised from every adaptation up to this point, it provides a sense of familial history about the dangers of taking unnecessary risks that helps color the family’s move to Arrakis. There’s also more attention paid to Duncan Idaho, the Atreides man sent to Arrakis first to make contact with the Fremen (which makes sense if the plan is to extend the films into a franchise where Jason Mamoa will pretty much become one of the most important stars in later installments).
One of the things I love most about the film is its design and sense of scale. I think I would prefer Jodorowsky’s more colorful variations on designs in the end, but the embrace of curves and impractical shapes for flying machines is a refreshing take on science fiction technology. The idea that a civilization tens of thousands of years in the future is no longer bound by how we move objects through space is nice, and the ovals, squares, and flapping wings of the ornithopters (finally realized in film properly) is all fun to look at. The different planets all have distinct looks that easily place the audience. Caladan is green and blue. Geidi Prime is black and gray. Arrakis is orange and white.
In terms of the actual story, I’m not going to run through it. I will note some things, though. The relationships between the core three characters of Paul, Jessica, and Leto is strongly handled. Jessica obviously loves her son, and Rebecca Ferguson is a standout in the film for her performance, bringing both feminine strength and emotional openness to a well-written character. Oscar Isaac is strong, reserved, and fatherly as Leto, pushing his son to be as good a man as he can be, but also worrying for his safety in the face of danger. As the lead, Timothee Chalamet is fine. He’s at a bit of a disadvantage because the central arc of the story is his, but it doesn’t follow through. He starts the film as an eager, confused young man, and by the end he has to step into his own, moving beyond the objectives of his mother. He spends most of the movie quietly taking in the world and changes around him, but he does get some moments to shine. The supporting cast is mostly very good, my favorite probably being Javier Bardem as Stilgar. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is largely a non-entity as Liet, though. I imagine someone with gravitas holding the role again (like Max Von Sydow in Lynch’s film), especially with Liet’s expanded role in this film, and those scenes could just end up working better.
In terms of some of the more fantastical aspects of the film, I think the film really captured some sense of otherworldliness that helps sell the universe. The Voice used by the Bene Gesserit is guttural and primal, and the way we see it through Paul’s eyes gives it a dangerous factor as Paul loses even basic consciousness of what’s happening. The visions, though, are something I really like. Visions and prophesies in stories are usually pretty mundane, straightforward, and entirely accurate predictions of what is to come. The visions here have some kind of tangential relationship to reality, most exemplified by Paul’s vision of Jamis. In the vision, Jamis is a kindly and helpful Fremen, offering assistance to teach Paul the ways of the desert. Well, in reality, Jamis isn’t helpful at all, but he does teach Paul the ways of the desert. It’s a very interesting use of the concept.
I was loving the movie at about the halfway point, but by the end my reaction was more muted. I think there are two main reasons for it. The first is Yueh. He’s a linchpin on which the whole movie operates, and he’s barely present, relegated to a plot point and not much else. In a large film like this, downgrading Yueh may be necessary, but it makes the key actions feel kind of out of nowhere which is not great for such a large change in direction for the movie’s story. The other is the film’s structure. As just the first half, we’re left with the movie pretty much just stopping after the movie quiets down for a bit and we get one small spate of violence to end the film. It resolves nothing. Everything that’s been planted in the first two hours go unexplored. The Fellowship of the Ring had a similar issue, but it felt like the end of a beginning. Dune just feels like it stops in the middle of a scene, more like the end of The Desolation of Smaug.
Overall, I had a good time with the film. It’s got great design, a wonderful sense of scale, good performances, and interesting looks at the world all while circling the central idea of Paul’s journey. It’s hampered by some stuff here and there, but not enough to completely demean the film.
EDIT: Just an added thought that I had leaving the theater but forgot to originally include: Hans Zimmer’s score is borderline embarrassing. It’s 90% just noise. Zimmer can be very good. He obviously knows music, but whenever he’s given carte blanche he goes extremely experimental and produces stuff that could be generously called interesting noise. This is that.