Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One is a Masterpiece


Last summer, I discovered Frank Herbert’s Dune for the first time. At first, it was too much. But, after reading the sequel, Dune Messiah, I understood more fully the themes and characters established in Dune. Also last summer, I wrote an extensive essay on a film adaptation of Dune that was never made, including a scathing review of the disastrous adaptation from David Lynch. It was around the time I finished that article that the first trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune dropped, and I got way too excited. The next several months were spent devouring any news, clips, pictures, or interviews I could find from the upcoming film. The constant delays caused much heartbreak, but I was steadfast in my hope this film would be good. Finally, a glimmer of hope as I drove to Bellevue and waited two hours in line for a preview of the first ten minutes and a new trailer. Then, it finally came out… in France. And Belgium. And Switzerland. Then Hong Kong. Ukraine. Estonia. Egypt, Oman, Qatar, Thailand, Japan, and finally, East Africa. Even with my early screening pass secured, I had to wait over a month after the film came out around the world to see it for myself. These strenuous four weeks taught me a lot about patience, as well as the relative disposition of overseas box-office success. Finally, finally, I was in the car on my way to watch this film. My palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms… you know the rest. So when I say that my expectations for Dune were high, you know how much of an understatement that is.

When the film ended, I started crying and laughing at the same time, overcome with emotion. They had done it, I couldn’t believe it. They had actually done it. This was the adaptation us disheveled fans of the book were waiting for all these years. Dune would no longer be remembered as “that terrible movie from the 80s,” it would now be known as the greatest science fiction film of the 21st century. And this was only Part One.

The Dune: Part One theatrical release poster

Dune’s main protagonist is the young Paul Atriedies, the youngest of his house, and the son of the inheritor of the richest and most dangerous planet in the universe. Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet. On Arrakis, the most valuable material in the universe, Spice, can be harvested. Spice is the key to space travel, human computers called mentats, and is also a highly addictive psychoactive drug. However, in order to harvest this Spice, one must weather the harshness of the desert and avoid the deadly sandworms, so big they could devour a whole city in one bite. It is on this planet that young Paul, played by Timothee Chalamet, will learn of his destiny.

My first takeaway from the film was just how massive everything seemed. From the ships to the palaces, everything felt grand and majestic. It is very difficult to describe the scale, it is something that needs to be experienced by everyone on the big screen. My second takeaway was THE SOUND. My god, the sound design was impeccable. Led by the unique and other-worldly score from Hans Zimmer, the sound rumbled the seats and kept up the intensity in every scene, providing a counter-balance to the majestic visuals. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the score is how it turned bagpipes into the most epic instrument of all time for the House Atreides theme. It is here that I must stress how much of a theatrical experience this film is. If you watch it on HBO Max, you are not watching this movie. I saw it in IMAX and it was still not big enough to encompass the full scope of Villeneuve’s vision.

I was also impressed with the faithfulness of the source material. Nothing of import was cut, and the only changes were including more of the action scenes. The hand-to-hand combat was perfectly shot and choreographed, and the massive battle sequences were jaw-droppingly gorgeous and terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten full-body chills while watching a film before, but during Dune, it happened. My biggest fear going into the film was how they would handle the massive amount of exposition required for the plot to make sense. I needn’t have worried. Instead of giving a few massive exposition dumps at the beginning, the worldbuilding and background information is sprinkled throughout in a myriad of ways. At times, this feels like a constant explanation, but it is clear and concise, and necessary for the progression of the plot. For someone who has read the book, it can be a bit of a drag getting through the earlier scenes on Arrakis, knowing what is to come. But for a new viewer, the film is able to explain just enough to where everything makes sense, but it isn’t overwhelming. Despite the density of the source material, the writing team of John Spaits (Doctor Strange), Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and Denis Villeneuve consistently condense it into a manageable pace, if you are paying attention.

For viewers familiar with the book, the exposition would generally be expected to be a bit of a drag. Instead, Villeneuve includes an intelligent level of foreshadowing to keep loyal fans interested. Villeneuve is aware that if this film fails, the second part will not get made, so he plants seeds of intrigue throughout that leaves new viewers with questions. He also makes it very clear that this is Part One, and that there is more to come. Most of this part is set up, whether it be for the latter half of this film or for the next. That disappointed some audiences, but if you are aware that it isn’t a full story ahead of time, it makes perfect sense. If the next part isn’t made or, god forbid, isn’t very good, we might run into a situation like Game of Thrones, where the failure of the latter seasons ruined the success of the ones earlier on. However, I am confident that if it is approved by the studio, this production will do the book proper justice. Dune is Vilneuve’s favorite book and he will not betray it if this half is any indication.

This film has already been drawing comparisons to the only other comparable Sci-Fi epic, Star Wars, and I must say I see the similarities. The Force and The Way are very similar, as well as the Bene Gesserit and the Jedi, and even the desert planets of Arrakis and Tatooine. However, Dune was published in 1965, influencing Star Wars instead, which came out over a decade later. Dune was the original Sci-Fantasy epic, breaking away from the classic Sci-Fi concept stories of Asimov and Heinlein with its use of complex characters.

Overall, the cast who portrayed those characters was incredible. Alexander Skarsgard as the Baron Harkonnen was absolutely perfect, capturing not only the creepiness and revolting nature, but also the intimidation and intelligence that was missing from the David Lynch version. Other standouts include Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica, Oscar Isaac as his father Duke Leto, and Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck. Timothee Chalamet in the lead role struggled at first, but much like the character he was portraying, he hit his stride as soon as we arrived on Arrakis. We don’t see too much of Zendaya as Chani, and what we do see is mostly from Paul’s dreams, but she fits perfectly into the role and I can’t wait to see her shine in Part Two.

While the film isn’t 14-hours long and doesn’t include Orson Welles or Salvador Dali, there are still signs of the Jodorowsky influence. The most obvious is the Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime, which is fully based on the H.R. Geiger concept art. The idea of “insect-like” spaceships was also carried over in the form of the Ornithopters, whose wings beat like a dragonfly’s.

There is so much I would love to elaborate on, such as the incredibly detailed set and costume design, the brilliant and dynamic cinematography, the perfect VFX, and the flawless production design that made the film feel both old and futuristic, but this review is already long enough. To wrap it up, I need to reiterate what the director himself has said on many occasions. Go to the theater to see this movie. Its scope and scale are the main draws, and it just looks and sounds so good. Please, please go see it when it comes out on October 22. It feels like watching the first Star Wars in theaters, that in 40 years I will be telling people that I saw Dune in theaters when it came out. I have never experienced anything quite like it, and I will certainly be going back to the theater for a second, third, maybe fourth viewing. The second part of this story needs to be told, and there is hope for success with people returning to theaters. If you have been waiting for a film to bring you back, this is it. This opportunity might never come again. But, there is hope for part two, and as Chani says, “This is only the beginning.”


Dune (2021)

dir. – Denis Villeneuve

10/10. A perfect adaptation to the sprawling sci-fi epic, a mixture of massive visuals and unique sound, all honed down to the minutest detail, create an unforgettable theatrical experience.