There are few projects that will draw attention to themselves just by a title and a film adaptation of Dune is one of them; whether it’s the “cursed” status it has from Jodorowsky and Lynch’s previous attempts or just the sheer ambition required to translate the novel to the film medium, making a Dune movie would have always intrigued the public. Similarly, there are a few directors who will excite the public just by announcing their next project and Dennis Villeneuve is amongst that elite; in fact, I consider him to be the best director working today. His films are always fascinating, exciting, beautiful, yet never feel shallow or dumbed down – he balances excitement and thoughtfulness so perfectly he should be in the upper echelon of directors like Spielberg or Kubrick. Thus, the inevitable meeting of the “cursed” project with the “perfect” director has happened, but how did it turn out? As of writing this review, the movie has been out for a week or so (for my area at least) and it already has a sequel greenlight – granted, this was always the intention but it was not a certainty and the fact that it happened as quickly as it did, should clue you into its overall quality.
Directed by Dennis Villeneuve and written by Villeneuve, Eric Roth, and Jon Spaihts, Dune (now Dune: Part One) covers the first half of the novel and tells the tale of Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) of House Atreides in the year 10191 as his family inherits the planet of Arrakis – a desert planet that has a valuable source called spices that hold the financial power to allow its ruler to become extremely powerful. Paul is the heir to the current Duke and father Leto (Oscar Isaac), but also seems connected to a prophecy foretold by Bene Gesserit (a covenant of sisters that have supernatural powers) due to a decision made by his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) and member of Bene Gesserit; as Paul is trained by his father and his associates Duncan (Jason Momoa) and Gurney (Josh Brolin), he is also taught the ways of the Bene Gesserit by his mother, but he begins to be plagued by visions and dreams of the future.
As one can surmise, Dune is a complex and deep novel that would be impossible to even attempt to keep under 3 hours for the whole story; there are characters, factions, political and family dynamics, themes, and worlds to introduce, explain, enhance, and eventually pay off. That is, without a doubt, the best part of Dune; it accepts this impossibility and instead focuses on making the setup as entertaining and meaningful as possible. Most of this work comes down to the talent behind the camera, mainly the film editing by Joe Walker, the cinematography by Greig Fraser, and the music by Hans Zimmer; simply put, this movie looks, feels, and sounds incredible. There are so many stylized visuals and an obsession with using practical effects where ever possible to make the world feel alive, to make the fight scenes more intense and riveting, to make characters more foreboding; the pacing rarely misfires, and the movie never felt like stalling or lingering to get a point across; Hans Zimmer is a legend, who already had a brilliant score come out this year for the latest Bond yet Dune’s soundtrack is beyond praise. All the work spearheaded by Villeneuve, whose usual eye for detail and refusal to tone down elements, trusting the audience to catch the breadcrumb trail and enjoy the experience, makes Dune something special. This does feel like the beginning of a new classic series of films in the making, like the original Lord of the Rings, but since the other part(s) have not been released yet, there are people who will be annoyed by the cut-off; I’ll admit I was surprised and left the theater gingerly because I felt like there had to be more. However, I would also be lying if I said that on my way home and in the coming days, every time I thought about Dune and what it was on its own did not leave me satisfied; the story of Dune may only be beginning, but the origin story of Paul was successfully and brilliantly delivered.
As with most Villeneuve movies, I was hooked by the visuals, engrossed by the story, and what Dune lacked in a memorable ending that brilliantly caps off the themes and characters of the story, it makes up for with a world and characters that are deep and demand thought and interpretation to get the whole picture. I’m not saying people who dislike Dune are wrong; I often complain for the same reasons when watching the latest MCU movie, but cinematic techniques work or fail entirely based on execution and context. As I would complain about narration in a movie that doesn’t trust the audience members, I praise Mr. Robot for using narration and an unreliable narrator to great narrative effect. Where I feel Villeneuve outdid himself this time though was in the action set-pieces; there aren’t that many, but what is there is epic and beautifully captured in a way that heightens the drama and excitement of set-piece moments and adds to their narrative effect. Having said that, there are a few notable omissions from this cut of the movie, like scenes in the trailer or setups for something that never pays off; it’s a shame and I hope those scenes were not removed to be included in the second part and I hope we get to see them in the inevitable director’s cut. Moreover, * wear shame hat* I’ve never read Dune before, so all this wonderous, politically intriguing, and brilliantly conceived world-building is all new to me; I have no idea how close it sticks to the actual novel or if people who’ve read it would be satisfied by this adaptation. It is sci-fi more in the vein of a Sunshine or Space Odyssey, rather than Star Wars, so that world-building, those characters, the ideas and themes, they are the bulk of the experience, so to those with that information already in their heads, I don’t know if this will satisfy them.
Having said all of that and still maintaining that Dune is a brilliant film and the beginning of something special, comparing it to other Villeneuve movies (even in the sci-fi genre) leaves Dune in a bit of a weird spot. So many elements are done better with visuals, sounds, stories, moments and scenes, that are second to none; but, since the movie decides to deliver its knockout ending based purely on character arcs and thematical twists yet the actual story is only halfway done, it also feels incomplete. In a lot of ways, it has the same problem that I’ve already discussed; when Endgame part one came out, I really liked it despite it feeling like part one of two (which was obvious), but when part two came out I didn’t like either part as much. Dune can (and does) stand on its own, but it does so half-naked; there is still so much to do and I am already excited for October 2023, but it is still something that feels incomplete. I don’t mind waiting (well, actually I do so give me part two now!), but I also don’t think it’s fair to brush off a significant criticism because I adore what came before it, especially when compared to the stellar filmography of the director. What’s crazy exciting for me though is the fact that despite this gap, Dune is by far the best movie of the year that I’ve seen thus far, and if the other part(s) match or exceed the quality of Dune Part One, then we are in for something truly spectacular come 2023.