Adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 seminal sci-fi novel Dune has been daunting a task from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted production in the ‘70s (chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune) to Ridley Scott, who intended to split the ambitious novel into two movies, but ultimately didn’t come to fruition.
We eventually did get David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation. Unfortunately, it was incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the source material. Plus, the director failed to mesh his surreal sensibilities whilst not receiving final cut. Although Dune did get a TV miniseries, which premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2000, there have numerous attempts to adapt for the big screen once again.
Having dominated the last decade with six directorial features under his belt, Denis Villeneuve finally gets to do his most ambitious and “passion project” as he partly adapts a childhood favorite (the movie we now have is the first of a two-parter).
Titled in the start as Dune: Part One, in the far distant future, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) accepts the stewardship of the dangerous desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, the only source of the most valuable substance in the universe: “spice”. As House Atreides takes control of the spice mining operation, knowing well that the opportunity is an intricate trap set by his enemies, the brutal House Harkonnen.
Meanwhile, the Duke’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is coming of age as he is initially set to be the heir to his beloved father’s noble house but ultimately a prophecy that will lead him into greater power.
The immediate problem you have with adapting a novel as complex as Frank Herbert’s Dune, is a similar case to The Lord of the Rings. How do you condense its world-building into something that is accessible to everyone? Instead of trying to cram everything into a single movie, hence the Lynch adaptation, Villeneuve covers roughly the first half of the book, specifically the rivalry between the two Houses, while setting up the bigger picture from the native Fremen people to the intergalactic politics that will play a huge role, should Part Two get made.
Like Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy, Dune finds that balance of embracing the outlandish nature of its source material, whilst streamlining the story to make it comprehensible to everyone. As much as Herbert’s novel influenced the likes of Star Wars, Villeneuve has acknowledged the influence of George Lucas’s space opera towards his Dune and no doubt audiences will see the similarities between the two properties.
A desert planet, a prophesied young male hero, superhuman abilities including commanding others with your voice, etc. However, unlike the recent Star Wars movies that seem to recycle its own past for the sake of fan service, Dune somewhat challenges us by plunging into these other worlds where humanity has evolved into various forms of alienated species.
I may have mentioned The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but the spectacle of Dune is more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the imagery of futuristic spaceships is revealed in slow, but grandeur fashion. Although you can watch it via HBO Max, seeing Dune in IMAX is a visually-enriching experience as Greig Fraser’s cinematography is always showing a never-ending canvas, whether it is the brutalist architecture of the interior sets, or the desert landscapes of Arrakis.
A special shoutout to the H.R. Giger-inspired designs of Giedi Prime, home of House Harkonnen. There is action, from blade-wielding armies to being chased by giant sandworms, but some of the most intense sequences involve the intimacy among its impressive all-star cast.
The sci-fi double bill of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, both dealt with characters struggling with memory and reality. Villeneuve continues this fascination here with Timothée Chalamet’s Paul trying to understand his own dreams that suggest a fate that is already decided upon him.
The dreams may feature Zendaya’s Chani as a mysterious beauty for Paul to romance in the future, they also inform the film’s strongest relationship, which is between him and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is torn between her role as a loving parent and a member of a sisterhood that has been manipulating humanity for their own purposes.
With so much of the visual storytelling blurring the line between reality and dream – enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s electrifying score and the intricate sound design – we get glimpses of where the story can go, from the later stages of the book to possibly the subsequent sequels. No doubt many will feel frustrated with this film’s abrupt ending and raising more questions than answers, hopefully Part Two will give the answers if it does get green-lit.
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