Starring: Timothée Chalamet (Little Women), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Josh Brolin (Deadpool 2), Stellan Skarsgård (Thor), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Devs), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man), Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Javier Bardem (Skyfall)
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049)
Writers: Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)
Runtime: 2 hour 35 minutes
Release Date: 21st October (UK), 22nd October (US/HBO Max)
There are many classic novels that have throughout history been said to be unadaptable due to their scope or complexity or just sheer esoteric nature. That’s not to say that many of these haven’t been adapted, but the success rate is variable and depends on who you ask. Whilst The Lord of the Rings received widespread critical acclaim once it was finally realised on screen, and The Bonfire of the Vanities went about as well as expected (i.e., terribly), adaptations like Watchmen or Cloud Atlas have had a more divided response. That said, no single novel has caused more frustration in the film business than Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi epic Dune.
Alejandro Jodorowsky made his attempt in the 70s but couldn’t even get it off the ground, then David Lynch’s 1984 version went so badly that he disowned it, with only the Syfy miniseries from 2000 receiving anything close to positive reception. It seemed for years that Dune would remain as the one truly unadaptable novel, but it seems filmmakers are not quite yet done trying. Denis Villeneuve, fresh off of modern sci-fi darlings Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is now on board with what many fans have been hoping will be the definitive Dune on the big screen. After years of development and a pandemic-induced delay, the result of the labours is a true epic in every sense of the word, but not one without major compromise.
From very early on, it’s clear that the filmmakers’ model for adapting Dune is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in that it takes a dense story full of complex lore and archaic vernacular and turns it into something more palatable for a mainstream audience. The translation is ultimately a success, making the story much more accessible whilst still retaining the core soul of Dune’s appeal. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, though it does move some events around and fully portrays scenes only described in the book, but it’s all in service of making the story more cinematic. The film also carefully handles the heavy exposition of the novel, imparting this information either through visual storytelling or through the eyes of protagonist Paul (Chalamet) doing research on the world of Arrakis. The story itself isn’t all that complicated or original once you wade past the political intrigue and world-building, but that’s only because so many sci-fi stories from Star Wars to Avatar have pillaged from it over the years. Looking objectively at what they’ve assembled here, you could not ask for a better on-screen realisation of Dune…’s first half.
Yes, following in much the same vein as Warner Bros. prior adaptation of the similarly-lengthy It, this is an adaptation set to be told in two chapters; the opening title even calls the film Dune: Part One. Whilst indeed a smart decision to avoid the rushed and jumbled storytelling of Lynch’s version, what this does mean is that the film can’t help but feel kind of unsatisfying without the second part immediately available. This is mainly because in regards to structure and pacing, this truly does feel like half of one big movie rather than a self-contained first part of a larger story; of any prior example of a novel split in two like this, it most resembles The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Villeneuve’s films are known for their slow pacing, but at times it feels like they are literally stalling for time, with a third act mostly consisting of Paul and Lady Jessica (Ferguson) wandering through an endless desert. There’s only one major action set piece to speak of about two thirds of the way through, with a few smatterings of heightened tension sprinkled throughout, but this is mostly just two-and-a-half hours of set-up for the next movie.
Most crushingly of all, the screenplay fails to find a satisfying midway climax on either a spectacle or emotional level, ending on a pretty tepid one-on-one duel and then a character pretty much turning to camera to say “we’ll be back in Part Two!” When even The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 has a more satisfying finale, you’ve got a serious problem. It’s hard to say ultimately if splitting the book in two was the best idea, but it’s a decision that ultimately feels like the compromise between creativity and finance. Making one four-hour epic in the vein of Zack Snyder’s Justice League might have been the best way to adapt the book from a storytelling perspective, but that would be taking what is already a box office risk and turning it into a Heaven’s Gate-scale disaster; remember, Villeneuve may be a critical darling, but he ain’t box office gold. Perhaps if the two films were made in tandem and Part Two was guaranteed to release within the next year, it would be more acceptable, but that second part is entirely reliant on this first film doing well, and that is far from a certainty. Don’t let all this doom and gloom get you down, because what they’ve made so far is absolutely phenomenal; on par with Lord of the Rings in terms of scale and faithfulness to the source material. The ending of Dune: Part One, though, would be like if The Fellowship of the Ring had ended on our heroes just setting up camp at Parth Galen, rather than the exciting forest battle and tragic turn of events that lead to the splintering of the Fellowship.
Whilst Dune is unlikely to entice a mainstream audience on the pedigree of the novel alone, its all-star cast just might. Timothée Chalamet makes for an excellent Paul Atreides, capturing that eerie mix of boyish wonderment and precocious intelligence that make him likeable and yet otherworldly. Yes, he’s a cold and reserved protagonist, but he’s meant to be and Chalamet manages to bring a sense of humanity to his otherwise unrelatable predicament. The film has majorly beefed up the role of Lady Jessica into as much a mentor to Paul as his male role models, and Rebecca Ferguson does a fantastic job of balancing that shaky dichotomy between teacher and mother. Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin are both great as Leto Atreides and Gurney Halleck respectively, but they aren’t in the movie as much as you might expect.
Stellan Skarsgård is absolutely disgusting in all the right ways as the diabolical Baron Harkonnen, though the visual of a giant slimy obese man floating about like a rotund vampire may induce more giggles than frights. Dave Bautista has a far more engaging and menacing presence as the Baron’s nephew Glossu Rabban, but alongside David Dastmalchian’s Piter De Vries, he is relegated to little more than a trumped-up henchman. Zendaya and Javier Bardem are great with what they are given as the Fremen tribespeople Chani and Stilgar respectively, but their roles are little more than extended cameos for Part Two. The real scene-stealer is Jason Momoa as the gung-ho swordsmaster Duncan Idaho, who brings his natural charisma to the role and adds some much-needed relief to the otherwise very serious proceedings. Going through every cast member would take far too long, but it’s safe to say all do an exemplary job no matter the size of their role; a true testament to the “no small actors” axiom.
More than his love for the material or experience with the genre, what most excited many about Denis Villeneuve tackling Frank Herbert would be how he conceptually translated the world of Arrakis to the silver screen, and on that level he does not disappoint. Dune is a painstakingly realised and lusciously detailed movie on a visual and auditory level; a masterwork of every technical craft unseen since the efforts of Peter Jackson and Weta on Middle-earth. Every piece of production design is to die for, from the insect-like spaceships flown by the members of House Atreides to the cavernous lairs of the Harkonnen family. So much of the technology of Dune should be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with sci-fi, but the unique ways it visually realises force fields and breathing apparatus makes the whole world feel far more original than it is underneath; the accompanying stellar sound design and exemplary visual effects work only amplifies this feeling.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography, whilst occasionally too dark during night-set scenes, is jaw-dropping whenever it fully takes in the scope of worlds like Caladan and Arrakis, but the real show-stopper is Hans Zimmer’s gargantuan score. Whilst still undeniably his work, it sounds wholly unique and unlike anything you’d expect from him and it just kills. It’s a truly distinctive mixture of sounds and rhythms pulled from all kinds of cultures and eras, mashed together into something that still sounds like a blockbuster score but from far off in the future. I haven’t heard anything quite like it, though if I had to I’d compare it most to Kenji Kawai’s music for Ghost in the Shell, or Ludwig Göransson’s work on Black Panther. Seriously, who else but Zimmer could work bagpipes into their music and make them not only sound futuristic, but also badass? If nothing else, if you find the storytelling at all unsatisfying, there is always something about the film’s presentation to latch onto and enjoy on a pure aesthetic level.
When you get down to it, Dune has all of the right ingredients to make a genre-defining piece of filmmaking on the level of the original Star Wars, but regardless of its phenomenal pedigree, it is incomplete and with no guarantee it ever will be. At times, it almost feels as if the filmmakers are stalling for time, stretching out the story to further justify the two-part structure, when it might have been better off keeping it tight and finding a better note to leave off the story for now. It’s a film that will certainly appeal to diehard fans of both Frank Herbert and Denis Villeneuve, but it’s going to be a hard sell for the average moviegoer, and it’s their support that will make or break moving forward with Part Two. It is, after all, an arthouse blockbuster in every sense of both words. Only the eventual worldwide box office will let us know (it seems to be doing pretty well internationally so far), but if it fails, Dune may go down in film history in the same breath as Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (and I’m one of the five people who liked John Carter). It’s a movie that may well improve in retrospect when and if the second part is completed, but for now, the best thing I can say is that Dune is an unfinished masterpiece.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10