One of the first articles I ever published with Emerald Rangers was a review of David Lynch's 1982 version of Dune. Adapted from the revolutionary science fiction written by Frank Herbert, Lynch's version is notoriously strange and challenging to describe as either a good film or a good adaptation of its source material; with even Lynch himself being unsatisfied with the product he created.
Thinking upon this, Dune as a series has actually garnered a reputation as a franchise which destroys directors and defeats all attempts at adaptation. The source material is just incredibly dense, with many adaptations struggling to properly include everything required to pass as a serviceable adaptation without getting lost in the weeds of Herbert's worldbuilding or missing out on many of the subtextual themes and surrealist imagery which is so fundamental to the entire franchise. It is a precarious precipice to balance upon and I think it is absolutely incredible that Villeneuve was so fearless in his willingness to tackle this issue.
One reason might be his incredibly smart move of dividing this story into two parts. That's correct. Dune is actually only Dune, Part I and I am so fucking thankful for that. If I were to adapt Herbert's series into a visual medium, I would've chosen to do an HBO style TV show in the vein of Game of Thrones, but a two or three part film (if Villeneuve's desire to adapt Dune: Messiah goes through to complete Paul's story arc) is also a fantastic way to balance the story and still allow it to be dense enough to get everything that is so cool about Herbert's world can be on display.
So Villeneuve is on the right track in terms of dividing the story, but does the rest of the film hold up? Or does it fall into the same traps as its predecessors. I normally desire to cover the film as it stands, but for Dune, I think analyzing what it does better than previous adaptations also speaks to what it does well.
Also I think it is important to point out that this is the first film that I have seen in theaters since COVID-19, so what an amazing film to be reintroduced to my favorite setting in, huh?
- Directed by Denis Villeneuve
- Produced by Legendary Pictures
- MPAA Rating: PG-13
- Running Time: 156 Minutes
In the year 10,191, Duke Leto Atreides is chosen by the Emperor of the Known Universe to take custodianship of the desert planet Arrakis from its ancestral holders and the rivals of House Atreides, House Harkonnen. Arrakis is a vitally important planet to the Imperium due to it being the only known source of a drug known as melange (or spice) which is utilized not only to enhance life and mental faculties but also enables space travel.
Duke Leto takes his entire family, including his son Paul and concubine Lady Jessica to Arrakis, with the hopes that increasing spice production will ensure House Atreides' future prosperity and popularity to rise. Little does Duke Leto know that the Emperor and the head of House Harkonnen, the calculating Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, are working together to bring down House Atreides.
When treachery leads to the fall of House Atreides and Paul and Lady Jessica being driven into the barren wastes of Arrakis, they will have to seek out the mysterious Fremen people to hopefully assist them in their quest for revenge against the Harkonnen's and the Emperor. Along the way, Paul will have begin a journey of self-awakening that is seemingly prophesied by a holy order to which Lady Jessica belongs.
This film is absolutely beautiful and has an epic scale to it. The world truly feels lived in and real, due I'm sure to Villeneuve's insistence on capturing the fine details and insisting on a show rather than tell mindset. This enables much of the denser subject matters and concepts at play in the film to be explored without directly commenting on them or having long-winded monologues explaining them (as Lynch's Dune was forced to do with its 3 minute long speech by Princess Irulan). Despite this good practice of storytelling, I would be remiss if I didn't point out going in to the film that this is only the first half of what is at least a two part film (as of writing this article Part II has been confirmed to be in production so...yay!). If you go into the film with that expectation, I think you will have a good time.
Despite the source material's sometimes difficult and dense material, Villenevue used a great combination of surrealist filmmaking techniques and clever dialog choices to get across the proper information. I think the exploration regarding the artificiality of the Kwisatz Haderach prophecy is especially good as that was always some of the most difficult parts of other adaptations.
It isn't perfect of course, as there are elements of the story that do end up getting cut for time or not explained in greater detail, most importantly being the betrayal of Dr. Yueh.
In the book, it is a fundamental part of the story and a major element of the book that explains how Yueh is even able to betray them because he is actually programmed and trained through brainwashing to be unable to do harm to another being, even through inaction. Here its mentioned but only in passing and it misses much of the nuance that the book originally gives it, though this is actually a flaw that all adaptations of the film make so I can't really fault them for it. Yueh just betraying the Atreides in order to protect his wife and get revenge on the Baron still work in the context given by the film, though its a little light on clues that I think a deleted scene or two might've aided in explaining. Not a major take away, just something that I couldn't help but think upon.
Thankfully, the weirdness of Yueh's plot is countered by the sheer magnificence of Stellan Skarsgard's performance as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. In the past, this character has had something of a cartoonish reputation due to the performance of Kenneth McMillian just chewing all the scenery in the 1984 Dune film. As such, Skarsgard was going to have difficulty bringing this science fiction Machiavellian to life and in this, I think he succeeded brilliantly. Rather than aiming for some mustache-twirling disgusting monster, Harkonnen in this film is far more understated. He is treated as a product of gluttony and decadence rather than a pox-covered monster. And in personality, I couldn't help but see a great deal of close connection to Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones, the quiet manipulator utterly certain of their own authority and so never feels the need to establish it in any scene. Despite Baron Harkonnen having a very small physical role in the movie, his presence is always felt throughout, leaving him an amazing villain. In fact, he might very be one of the best and this is in a film where the Emperor of the Known Universe won't even show up until Part II, so color me excited for that.
Actually, the entire cast is absolutely extraordinary. The film does a perfect job of balancing out a large diverse cast of characters in such a way that they are all noteworthy without being reduced to archetype or caricature. Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho are immaculate soldiers but each is distinct in their desires and love for House Atreides and how they show their loyalty to Paul. Duke Leto carries himself very much like Ned Stark, and his fate is surprisingly similar. Jessica and Paul are very much the main characters of the film and the majority of the film focuses on their survival through the desert in the efforts to find the Fremen people.
Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet have to carry almost the entire second half of this film and I actually think they pull it off quite well. Paul Atreides is a difficult character to portray without falling into bad archetypes (due to Herbert's purposeful characterization of Paul as a subversion of those stereotypes) and Chalamet balanced the worldliness of the future Kwisatz Haderach and the impetuous youth of a teenager in a pseudo-feudalistic world.
The performances of the actors fit so well with the feel of the world from a visual and sound design level as well. This film really needed to make Herbert's world feel both futuristic and impossibly old and it absolutely blows that away. One moment, I could see a scene ripped right out of Game of Thrones and in another, see massive spaceships traveling throughout the stars. It is surreal and helps to ground the world in a set of established rules. The fact that I also saw this in IMAX also helped with the immersion. Because the music by Hans Zimmer is, without any surprise, orgasmic and so much fun to listen to even on its own. Regardless of how the story finishes in Part II, I know that the visuals and sound will be top fucking notch and beautiful to witness.
Any adaptation of Dune must inherently have an aspect of trippiness to it, given the heavy plot connections to the ideas of precognition of future events and the fact that melange is described as being hallucinogenic. Paul's dreams and visions, which are quite often, feel both compelling and disturbing, especially when they seem to overwhelm the character in a very sympathetic way. It makes me excited to see what Paul goes in the next installment.
And I think that is ultimately the great success of this adaptation of Dune, Part I. It actually makes me excited and compelled to finish the series and see how all of these plot points resolve. Yes, it is a little frustrating that this film honestly feels more like a prologue than a fully realized story. It is the natural consequence of the demands of adaptation and I think Villeneuve ended it in about the only place that such an ending could properly go.
I guess we all will just have to wait until October 2023 to see how this story continues. I for one am deeply excited and will give this film a tentative score below in terms of story, since we haven't seen that story in its entirety. I'll decide the final opinion then.
- 8/10*** (Until Part II comes out)
FINAL SCORE - 9/10***
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