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When I first heard of the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, I was hesitant to get excited. Despite the pedigree of Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) at the helm and filled to the brim with a diverse cast of capable actors, Dune has long been considered a book that would nearly impossible to adapt to the screen. The reason most commonly cited is the Herbert’s heavy reliance on internal dialogue and symbolic imagery, which are not easy to replicate on screen but fit well within the narrative structure of a novel. I’m happy to say my fears were misplaced and Dune: Part One captures much of the essence of Frank Herbert’s magnum opus while only trimming some of the fat (so to speak) from the novel.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read unless you’ve watched the film
The first thing that stands out to me is how sumptuous the film looks. The art direction and cinematography are outstanding, particularly in the early stage of the film when it is centered on Caladan, the ancestral home of House Atreides. A verdant planet of storms, overcast skies, and majestic oceans, Caladan has a vibrancy that is the polar opposite of the stark and bleak desert planet Arrakis. The costuming department spent a good amount of time designing the Atreides look, which consists mostly of black and dark uniforms but gives the characters a regal air of stoic might.
We spend a fair amount of time on Caladan, learning who our main characters will be moving forward. Duke Leto Atreides, portrayed by Oscar Issac, carries himself as a stern but just man, warm to both his son, Paul, and his bound concubine, Lady Jessica. We see Jessica and Paul at breakfast first, where Jessica is training her son in the use of The Voice, an ability the Bene Gesserit use to force compliance in the listener. The Voice from the book is one of those areas that is the most difficult to adapt successfully and this film uses a similar effect as the previous adaptations by making the Voice a guttural sensory overload. It’s an impressive and quite frightening application of the talent, which the film makes sure to take the time to show us.
The other two characters that are introduced early on are Gurney Halleck, portrayed by Josh Brolin; and Duncan Idaho, portrayed by Jason Mamoa. Both actors bring their A-game to their respective roles, with Brolin showcasing Gurney’s talent for poetry and a brutal mentality toward fighting and survival. Mamoa plays up the almost-familial bond between Paul and Duncan, portraying Idaho as a fierce warrior with deep affection for his young charge. Both actors make the most of the screen time they have, providing the characters with vitality and purpose to make sure the audience remembers them easily.
Transitioning from Caladan to Arrakis, there is a fair amount of time spent with the Atreides as they try to settle into their new fiefdom, as well as their responsibility with mining the Spice, also called mélange. The Spice is the most valuable commodity in the universe, a psychoactive substance capable of extending life and allowing the Spacing Guild the ability to traverse the stars between the various planets of an interstellar empire. Without the Spice, the Empire would collapse into isolated fiefdoms. Unfortunately for the Atreides, the previous occupants of Arrakis, the House Harkonnen, have left them with antiquated and damaged equipment. This puts the Atreides family in an unwinnable situation, which becomes even more clear when it is apparent they are designed to fail, a collaboration between the House Harkonnen and the Emperor Shaddam the Fourth to remove the popular House Atreides from the board.
The villains of the piece are Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, played by Stellan Skarsgård as a calculating monstrosity of a man, and the Baron’s nephew Glossu Rabban, portrayed by Dave Bautista as a man with a barely controlled temper that threatens to boil over at any moment. Sadly, Bautista is not given a great deal to work with in this film, which is a damn shame. The Guardians of the Galaxy films and Blade Runner 2049 have shown that Bautista has the chops to be a remarkably nuanced actor if he’s given a script that gives him some room to breathe. That is most certainly not the case in this film. Hopefully, that will be rectified in the second half, if the film is produced. The Baron is treated here as a vicious, duplicitous beast of a man, capable of both cunning and extreme violence, which fits nicely with the character from the books.
The film charts a path through roughly the first half of the novel, including the harrowing attack against the House Atreides by the combined forces of the Harkonnens and the Emperor. The Sardukar are treated here as a warrior cult devoted to the Emperor and they are depicted as terrifying fighters (until they go up against Duncan Idaho and the Fremen). We are introduced early on to two prominent figures in the Fremen culture: Stilgar, portrayed by Javier Bardem as a gruff but honorable leader of the Fremen; and Dr Liet Kynes, portrayed by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, a servant of the Emperor who is tasked with overseeing the transfer of power from the Harkonnens to the Atreides. Both actors are able to show some of the facets of Fremen culture to the audience, with Stilgar demonstrating their capacity for stern yet principled defiance to a new feudal lord and Liet showing that her honor as a Fremen is more important than her adherence to Imperial rule.
Due to time constraints, we don’t get nearly as much detail on the Fremen culture as we do in the novels before their appearance. When Paul and Jessica arrive on Arrakis, there are people shouting the phrase Lisan al-gaib, the Fremen name for their Messiah figure, the Voice from the Outer World. It’s established quickly that this is a superstition instilled in the Fremen by the Bene Gesserit in an attempt to pave the way for the arrival of the Kwisatz Hadarach, the super being they have been selectively breeding for centuries. Whereas the David Lynch version of Dune leaned far too heavily into the idea that Paul really is this messianic figure, Villeneuve takes the approach from the novel that Paul’s ability to see the future does not make him a god in the flesh but a man capable of seeing possible futures. The sequence where Paul experiences his first concentrated visions of the future he will be a part of, the holy war lead by him involving the Fremen that will tear across the universe are treated as deeply disturbing (which it would be). The metaphysical abilities that are awakening in Paul are a sign he is the Kwisatz Hadarch, but not a messiah so much as a human being with revenge on his mind as he is introduced to the Fremen at the tail end of the film.
The film’s final time frame covers the escape of Paul and Jessica, the deaths of Duncan Idaho and Liet Kynes at the hands of the Emperor’s Sardakar, and the induction of the young Duke and his mother into the Fremen under the protection of Stilgar and his niece Chani (the young woman who Paul has been dreaming about over the course of the film’s story). The pacing of the film is the only real complaint I have for this movie, largely because we don’t spend as much time as I would have liked with the Atreides or the Harkonnens to really dive deeper into the characters. It’s a minor nitpick on my part but being that this is a feature film rather than a miniseries, there’s only so much time available to tell the story. With that being said, I was quite pleased with Dune: Part One and am eagerly looking forward to the opportunity see how Denis Villeneuve concludes the story if it is greenlit by the studio.