An immersive cinematic experience11/3/2021
“Dune: Part One” is a spectacular film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of (the first half of) Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic is as ambitious in scope as it is difficult to unpack.
However, this is to be expected; “Dune” is far from the most accessible of stories. Set in the far-distant future when Earth is no more and humanity has spread out across the galaxy, Herbert’s Duniverse is a strange mix of old and new. Humanity exists as a feudal society with noble houses ruled by an Emperor. It’s a society where the Spacing Guild holds the monopoly on space travel, and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood spin political webs while protecting their centuries-old breeding program. Politics, ecology, eugenics, colonialism — “Dune” is a lot of story to cram into a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
While an incredibly fun and engrossing film in the moment, it leaves you feeling like you just watched the most epic pilot to a new show. I found nothing objectionable in “Dune” as a movie. (As a vehicle for discussion, there’s loads to find objectionable: eugenics, white saviors, colonialism, to name a few swirling around our protagonists.)
There is no hand-holding through the setup of this movie. Instead, the viewer is thrust into the middle of the story, even before a single studio logo appears on screen, with a growling and guttural voice (or rather, Voice) telling the viewer about Dreams. In particular, much import has been placed on the dreams of young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac). Chalamet plays the young Duke in waiting with a teenaged sensibility: brooding one moment, snarling and on the verge of tears the next, only softening long enough to look adoringly at his father.
While this portrayal may grate on some viewers, it’s important to remember that Paul is 15 when these events transpire. Yes, Paul is a brat, but seeing his spice-induced visions — both compelling and repellant — at least gives him a reason. What person, let alone a hormonal teen, wouldn’t be a little nuts with a holy war playing itself out in their heads? “A great man doesn’t choose to lead,” Leto says to his son. “He’s called to it.” It’s a lesson that Paul doesn’t understand yet, standing on the windswept rocks overlooking his oceanic home world.
Leto, played with brilliant empathy and heady, earthy magnetism by Isaac, is a leader who understands where true power lies. Not in money, or in resources, but in people. Leto inspires an almost fanatical loyalty in his men, like Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and the Atreides sword master Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), who seems to be the closest thing young Paul has to an actual friend. Leto’s integrity and charisma are such that even his consort, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), defied the orders of her sisterhood to give him a son — a son who now dreams of possible futures.
Villeneuve is the rare director who truly grasps the power of scope, both in terms of storytelling and of visuals, and how one informs the other.
“Dune” transitions from lofty, open-air rooms to cramped vehicles and billets like lungs expanding and contracting with every breath. Large ships pour out of the massive, tubular Heighliners of the spacing guild, which seems to be a reflection of the giant sandworms that swim in the depths of Arrakis’ desert. More often than not, scenes set in these massive spaces feel all the more dangerous, while the sweaty confines of a two-person tent become claustrophobic. The grand, sweeping shots of both rain-drenched Caladan and the crystalline desert of Arrakis are so astounding that you forget there are characters on screen.
Standing opposite Duke Leto, Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron Harkonnen is a genuinely terrifying adversary. He’s no giggling madman, but a ruthless opponent — cold and sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. While the fat suit is less grotesque than David Lynch’s puss-filled Baron, the image of him rising from his oil bath won’t quickly leave your mind.
Even with such strong performances, spectacular sets and heart-stopping action sequences (walk without rhythm, and you won’t attract the [Shai-Hulud]), “Dune” ultimately hinges on the success of this movie to get Part II greenlit. (Which, as of this writing, hasn’t been confirmed.)
To call “Dune” an immersive cinematic experience is a massive understatement. It’s a spectacular film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Villeneuve is both a wonderful storyteller and worldbuilder in cinema. He brings the highly imaginative and unique world of Herbert’s book to life with amazing cinematography and visuals. The scale is immense yet everything feels real. Get ready to be transported to the enthralling world of Arrakis. ♦