The 2021 adaptation of Dune is labelled Part 1 as it is only about half of the sci-fi opus, but it’s still a complete epic on its own. This is the second cinematic attempt at adapting Dune after David Lynch’s 1984 version which took the entire book and slammed through at 2 hours and 15 minutes while this one is 2 hours and 30 minutes and only half of the novel. It is missing some of the idiosyncratic weirdness of Lynch’s version, nobody is whispering their thoughts or close ups of some guy saying “The tooth! The tooth!”, but this Dune lets the scope breathe and doesn’t overwhelm by constant exposition. Besides, it’s Dune so there’s still great family house conflicts, space politics, dream visions, psychic powers, large battles, and gigantic sand worms popping out of the ground so it’s still plenty weird enough.
In the far future, the Emperor has handed House Atreides ownership of the planet Arrakis aka Dune, to mine precious spice used to fuel ships. This does not please the former owners of Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his nephew the Beast (Dave Bautista). Arriving on Arrakis is Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet). Paul has prophetic visions of Arrakis and a mysterious woman, Chani (Zendya). Paul learns about the planet from his teachers/friends, Gurney (Josh Brolin), Duncan (Jason Momoa) and Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). The spice mining upsets the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem), and even more dangerous draws the attention of giant sand worms. But when the Harkonnen arrive, everything goes sideways leaving Paul and his mother stranded in the wastes of Dune.
Paul starts off as a buttoned down kid who is focused on his studies but visions are upending his world view. He’s tortured by what he sees, not knowing if he can stop fate and shocked when they come true. There are moments where he expresses some fiery rage of the great leader he is destined to become, and even when he doesn’t say anything Chalamet’s glare expresses volumes. Paul knows things about Arrakis without having ever set foot there which makes him a prophesied messiah to the locals.
His relationship with his family is heartfelt which makes the ordeals they go through have dramatic impact. Isaac is sage father and tries to be caring towards his subjects, even putting his life and his son’s on the line to save workers from an incoming sandworm attack. As the mother, Ferguson conveys she loves her son even though she actively puts him in dangerous situations, like when he has to confront a freaky magical woman who tells Paul to put his hand in a box that only contains pain. Outside of the room, Jessica is agonizing over her decision while repeating “Fear is the mind killer” as a mantra. Their connection grows stronger as the movie goes on, showing they would do anything to protect each other.
There is a lot of explaining that goes on here but it’s never overbearing like the 1984 adaptation. Director Denis Villeneuve (The Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) presents a truly lush world that is often grand and sometimes terrifying. Each house faction has a distinct visual style. The Harkonnen look rather nasty and Skarsgard as the Baron seems mostly inhuman as he literally floats and gloats while Bautista as the Beast snarls effectively. Bardem and Zendya as the local Freman tribes seem like deadly spectres that can arrive from nowhere, Bardem as the tribe leader puts a distinctly cool spin on his lines. It is effective when Paul finally sees the woman who has been literally haunting his dreams, as the visions of Paul and Chani seem otherworldly.
Brolin and Momoa as Paul’s teachers/buddies have some very good moments, especially when Gurney is teaching Paul how to use a blade in a shield fight. The shields deflect high velocity blades but anything that moves slowly can penetrate the shielding which looks cool. Duncan has been out in the wilds of Arrakis and Momoa infuses him with a carefree spirit. Probably the most shocking part is that he shaves halfway through the film as it is unheard of to see a Momoa action hero doing stuff without a beard. Kynes gets to say some exposition with some oomph and her exit from the film is memorable.
The coolest stuff involves anything with the sandworms, enormous creatures that swallow entire mining vessels whole. They’re teased out by glimpses in sandstorms and teeth until near the end when Paul and his mother see one very up close and personal. The Harkonnen attack on Arrakis is nasty with lots of unexpected twists. Paul’s visions are nicely abstract and cool promises of what could come in the next film. A lot of the elements introduced from novel Dune in the ‘60s would later pop up in Star Wars, desert planet, sandworms, spice, Emperors, telepathic powers and more so it’s neat to see the original inspiration.
Dune: Part One is a great adaptation of a classic novel done with a stylistic flourish. Even though it’s an abbreviated take on half a story, it still has a satisfying ending. The world of Dune is spectacular with lots of crazy images of a desert world full of horror and hope.
Dune: Part One
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Zendaya