“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” And fear has defined the legacy of the many attempted adaptations of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic, Dune—a long trail of disappointing or failed projects. In 1971, producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the rights to adapt the novel but couldn’t bring it to the screen before his death in 1973. A year later, Alejandro Jodorowsky began developing a 14-hour-long feature adaptation, but the project’s ambition and conflicts ultimately brought it to its knees. Under producer Dino De Laurentiis, Ridley Scott (Alien) dropped out of an extensive pre-production process and made Blade Runner (1982) instead. Soon afterward, an up-and-coming David Lynch (Eraserhead) took Scott’s place, the end result being Dune (1984), an underwhelming effort that Lynch disowned.
However, it’d be remiss of me to neglect the second part of the above quote: “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me […] Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.” And now, only Denis Villeneuve remains. The Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) filmmaker is, contrary to his grasp of the genre, a recent arrival to the science-fiction genre, but by no means should that be cause for concern. He’s proven his staggering propensity for brutalism, surrealism, and clinical depictions of profound human truths in the genre with those aforementioned blockbusters—and perhaps it’s what makes him uniquely suited to adapt Herbert’s magnum opus.
And so, 50 years after Jacobs’s attempt at adapting Herbert to the big screen, we’re finally brought to Dune: Part One (as titled on-screen)—an awe-inspiring work of unfettered sci-fi maximalism. Establishing the vastness of Herbert’s universe with breathtaking scale and embracing the novel’s surrealism, Dune: Part One is at once Villeneuve’s sprawling ode to the world of Arrakis as well as an incredibly robust foundation for the perhaps-upcoming Part Two. The primary exchange it makes is in giving up the condensed completeness of a standalone feature for a toweringly immersive and inevitably expository experience, but the enthralling, miraculous end-result makes the halfway point all the more worth reaching.
Herbert’s universe is packed with details that Villeneuve both adheres to with immense grace and conveys in such a way where keeping track of all the minutiae isn’t a significant challenge. The year is 10191, and House Atreides (an interstellar noble house which holds a fiefdom over the ocean planet Caladan) is asked by their Padishah Emperor Shaddam to rule Arrakis, a vast desert planet and the source of a superhuman substance referred to as ‘spice’. In doing so, they’ve replaced their bitter rivals, House Harkonnen, who are locked in fierce competition with House Atreides to harvest as much spice as possible from the planet. Within the Atreides family are Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his clairvoyant Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet)—among their ranks are aides Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa).
Dune understands that the setup to Herbert’s story is about juggling numerous expository elements, and each key component establishing the narrative is phrased by its incredibly economical screenplay with both efficiency and fascination. For one, Paul has several dreams—or perhaps, as he finds, prophetic visions—throughout the film about a young woman named Chani (Zendaya), who persistently appears to him as a recurring image. Chani belongs to the indigenous Fremen people of Arrakis; an adaptable, religious, and rugged race with whom House Atreides forms an alliance for spice-harvesting purposes.
Meanwhile, House Harkonnen—led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (a delightfully sinister Stellan Skarsgård), Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), and Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian)—forms a conspiracy with the Emperor in order to sabotage House Atreides, a plan the Atreides clan seems already privy to by the time they land on Arrakis. As House Atreides grows acclimated to Arrakis and House Harkonnen prepares to enact their catastrophic scheme, Paul begins to confront the fact that his newfound and intensifying gifts indicate a destiny beyond House Atreides entirely, one that links him to a divine power he appears next in line to embrace. There’s more to the story that hasn’t been mentioned, but every piece of the narrative, as well as the terminology (“Lisan al-Gaib,” “Kwisatz Haderach,” “Gom Jabbar”), are explained in such a way that they not only become relatively accessible over time to newcomers, but maintain continued relevance to the story at hand.
Complementing this expert control of information about Herbert’s world is this film’s utterly overpowering production design, justifying Villeneuve’s claims of this film truly being worthwhile on the big screen (for moviegoers willing and able to venture back into theatres during COVID-19). It’s worth reiterating how deeply Dune indulges in sci-fi maximalism, and also how breathtaking everything on-screen actually is when sprawled out in front of one’s eyes. The entire stronghold of Arrakeen, particularly its massive regal exteriors and interiors, is made of striking pieces of enormous brutalist architecture; the massive spaceships, spice harvesters, and other such vehicles are presented in all their colossal glory; the film’s monochrome aesthetic brings further attention to cinematographer Greig Fraser’s wide shots and Villeneuve’s control of chiaroscuro. And of course, we can’t leave out the sandworms, first revealed in the film with jaw-dropping spectacle in a deeply suspenseful sequence, and dwarfing some of even the most gargantuan things presented on-screen.
Equally colossal is the film’s star-laden ensemble cast, with each of its actors fully embodying their characters’ basic essences to great effect, rather than the screenplay providing them with needlessly overwrought complexity. Chalamet and Ferguson are arguably the film’s two greatest standouts, with the former starting out with Paul’s muted hesitance and confusion about the birthrights thrust upon him, until the film’s jaw-unhinging, action-packed centerpiece rattles him awake and allows Chalamet to give Paul a more forceful certainty as he begins to embrace his destiny. Ferguson’s right there along with Chalamet, as well, portraying Lady Jessica as a mentor to Paul in the clairvoyant ways of the Bene Gesserit, until she realizes his abilities could be far, far greater than anything she anticipated, and assumes a stirringly vulnerable yet ever-so-protective role in Paul’s story of growth and transcendence.
The supporting cast deserves mentions of their own, too. For Isaac and Skarsgård, their respective roles as Leto Atreides and Baron Harkonnen are about conveying their houses’ foundations—the former’s flawed nobility and the latter’s greedy cunning. As for the Atreides family’s aides, Brolin brings a kind of eagerly devoted loyalty to Gurney Halleck, while Momoa offers Duncan Idaho a confident, quick-witted charm to his skillful ease in combat. Imperial ecologist Liet Kynes, meanwhile, has undergone an adaptational gender change from the novel—and is played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who effectively portrays both Kynes’s air of relative mystery and her thorough experience with the land of Arrakis. And even despite only seven minutes of screentime—the majority of which is made up of voiceovers in Paul’s visions—Zendaya’s Chani is filled with such intrigue that it only further leads one to wonder what kind of a role she’ll assume in Part Two.
Make no mistake: Dune isn’t a complete story, nor may it feel complete for some in the sense that several filmgoers have disapproved of the seemingly abrupt way it caps off the first half of its narrative. For viewers who also remain almost totally unfamiliar with Herbert’s novel, the opening few scenes of this film and the information provided then can feel like they toe the line between vagueness and show-don’t-tell before more specific details are explained efficiently later on in the film’s massive runtime. But for an adaptation establishing a new interpretation of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan universe down to its minutiae, and for a film that accomplishes quite a lot of significant narrative progress in the process, Dune: Part One is an immense achievement in that it’s the first film to have surmounted the insurmountable by finally adapting the unadaptable, all while understanding Herbert’s ideas about nature, violence, evolution, and destiny.
With the exception of its hopefully upcoming second instalment, epic sci-fi films of this caliber have been and will likely be truly, genuinely difficult to come across. And by its nature, it’s impossible not to stare in awe and admiration at what this film’s accomplished already, even despite being a prelude of sorts for what’s yet to come.
USA • CANADA | 2021 | 155 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Denis Villeneuve.
writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve & Eric Roth (based on the novel by Frank Herbert).
starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa & Javier Bardem.