- Movie Rating -

Dune: Part One (2021)

| November 8, 2021

I had no reason to ever think that anyone could bring about a film version of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” that would do justice to his work.  It’s too bulky, too complicated, too over-stuffed.  There are too many things that are tempting to leave out in favor of longer action scenes.  It might almost seem unfilmable.

The fact that this is Dune: Part One is kind of a relief.  It means that the director Denis Villeneuve has time to flesh out the characters, the motivations, the factions, the histories.  It means that he has time to really create an immersive universe without a lot of time constraints and box office checkpoints. Villeneuve is the right director for this material.  He’s a brilliant filmmaker whose science fiction films are mercifully made with patience and intelligence – he previously made Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, which was my favorite film of 2017.

This version of Dune is no-less a visionary marvel, a work of grand design, of character and of storytelling that draws a very clean narrative from an overly-complicated book.  I was worried that many of the book’s minute details might get lost in the translation; there are many characters and many factions to work through.  Thankfully, the script by Villeneuve, Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts is surprisingly easy to follow.  The device to help us along is a filmbook given to the hero Paul (Timothee Chalamet) which explains a lot of the alliances and a lot of the environmental hostilities, but they are spare in using it – it is helpful but it never becomes a crutch.  Plus, it spares us the droning intrusion of a pesky narrator (though I wouldn’t have minded if they’d hired James Earl Jones).

The screenplay does a beautiful job of cleaning up the complicated narrative of a book that always seemed on the edge of geo-politicalizing itself to death.  The parallels to real-world issues are only centimeters thick, thankfully this movie plays that hand without smacking you around with it.  The film takes place in the distant future of 10191.  Varying universal factions are vying for a shimmering substance called Spice (read: oil) which is in the possession of the native Fremen (read: the Arabians) on the desert planet of Arrakis (read: The Middle East).  Meanwhile the noble people of House Atredis want to form an alliance, while the greedy Baron of the Harkonnen wants it for his own purpose (read: outsiders from the west).

I’m not making light of this.  It’s really a terrific construction, brought through director Villeneuve in a way that is not only uncomplicated but is surprisingly intelligent.  I was caught off-guard at how this universe is presented.  Not only do we understand the politics, but Villenuve gives the film a kind of mechanical logic to spaceships and weapons that I haven’t seen since the early Star Wars pictures.  I was impressed by the generosity of this script, which allows us to understand how things function.  For example, the dust and sand of Arrakis are so hostile that one cannot stand in the desert without all manner of assistance lest one succumb to heat and dirt and sandworms (“Ya hate-um, right?”).  The script takes us through the process, of what the environment suits do and how they function.  I was impressed by the Tropters, a dragon fly-like vehicle that acts as part-helicopter and part-harrier jet.

Of course, these elements are nothing without the characters and for this story they are thin enough that we’re focused on their motivations, and their personal struggles are simple enough that they get out of the way of the story.  The story is as old as the hills.  The House Atredis is led by Lord Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs) who has been given a son (Chalamet) by his long-time concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Fergusen) who was a member of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood (think nuns with Sith powers) who remind her that because of careful eugenics, she was only supposed to produce daughters but somehow the Y chromosome broke through and, well, nature abhors a vacuum.

Paul keeps having distorted visions without context or meaning that could either by portents of the future or just random visions of nothingness.  We know better (there’s a sequel coming).  What is important here is that much of the vision, and of the motivations of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) are left gently off the table.  The movie, in fact, only really deals with the first half of the book but you never feel that the material is being stunted.  The movie is full enough that the movie does feel complete without cutting itself short.

In fact, keeping the narrative clean, means that we have more of an opportunity to enjoy the tapestry on display.  The vision of Arrakis’ hostile environment makes Tattooine look frankly kinda quaint.  The rolling sand dunes, blistering sun light and jagged rock formations look less like location shooting than like a truly alien world, one that men only venture to for a substance of life.

I have only taken one trip through Dune: Part One but I know I’ll be back.  There is too much to soak in here for just one go-around.  In a year that has been rather lacking in the department of American cinema (the industry is still recovering from COVID and is likely to for several more years), Dune Part One is a massive experience, one that illustrates the kind of grandeur that we lost during the pandemic.  It’s big, it’s epic, it’s thrilling and it’s one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Sci-Fi/Fantasty