Review: ‘Dune’ overcomes its ‘unfilmable’ expectations


Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Picture of the ominous, desert-laden studio poster for “Dune” outside Reading Cinemas in Grossmont.

by Morgan Ray, Staff Writer


The phrase “‘Let’s make a movie out of ‘Dune,’” is enough to strike fear into the hearts of the brave.

Adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 monolith novel has been one of the most daunting tasks in sci-fi cinema history; from the bonkers tale of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s unrealized vision to the ambitious yet highly abbreviated 1984 David Lynch adaptation, which he has since disowned.

However, in the words of Lady Jessica, “fear is the mind-killer.”

With Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”, “Blade Runner 2049”) taking his crack at the storied space desert epic, have we finally received a worthy adaptation of “Dune”…or rather, “Dune: Part One?” 

Villeneuve’s “Dune” will be a two-parter, with “Part Two” due for fall 2023. “Part One” introduces us to Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir to House Atreides, who’s haunted by strange visions of a mysterious woman (Zendaya) that compel him to the planet Arrakis. Perfect timing, because House Atreides has been assigned control of Arrakis, a lucrative source of spice (a.k.a. interstellar fuel), thereby replacing the planet’s brutal overlords House Harkonnen. Upon arrival, Paul’s visions only get stronger and it becomes clear that House Atreides’ presence has an entirely different purpose.

“Dune” has long been deemed “unfilmable” because of the vast amount of material an adaptation needs to cover — even summarizing the film isn’t easy. Hence “Dune: Part One”’s nearly three-hour run time, but is it better to do the source material justice at the expense of audiences’ attention spans?

Let’s be clear; there’s a lot of information to take in and it can be a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, “Dune: Part One” trusts its audience and the screenwriters feel no need to explain themselves; unlike the 1984 version, where literal playbills were passed out to explain what/who everything was. If anything, letting theatergoers piece everything together will make them more immersed in the world of “Dune” and they’ll be sufficiently primed for “Part Two.” Hell, at this point, we might actually need three parts

It’s clear that “Dune: Part One” is enamored with its source material. Even the uninitiated can sense this film was created by actual fans of the book and this passion radiates from every gorgeous frame. Hans Zimmer’s potent score sweeps through scenes like a desert breeze and the visuals, oh, the visuals! 

The costumes (Jacqueline West, Bob Morgan and Stacy Horn), cinematography (Greig Fraser) and production design (Patrice Vermette) are a stunning reminder of why we watch grand sci-fi epics. With such imagery, you’d be tempted to completely forget about the performances, which would be a grave mistake. Timothée Chalamet‘s moody performance continues to confirm all the hype surrounding his name, the supporting cast is absolutely stacked (Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, etc.) and if you haven’t been paying attention to Rebecca Ferguson, you should be.

Plotwise, “Dune: Part One” gives its dated source material a much needed revamping. For one thing, it’s quite literally driven by female voices: the much more prominent role of Lady Jessica (Paul’s mother), the gender-flipping of Dr. Kymes, even Zimmer’s score with its female choir. Regarding protagonist Paul, Villeneuve’s adaptation embarks on his “Hero’s Journey” with more caution than its contemporaries. Paul is aware of the power mechanics and privilege that brought his family to Arrakis, but will his visions bring him to perpetuate that cycle? How much of his “destiny” does he truly have a say in? Can this adaptation avoid making Paul Atreides a “Gary Stu” and/or keep itself from falling into the insidious “white savior” trope? This new “Dune” cycle could be setting itself up for a colossal victory or a catastrophic failure.

“Dune: Part One” has an odd duality; it’s definitely holding back, but this adaptation is still giving everything it’s got. It’s just a matter of whether “Part Two” can find a way to land these beats. There’s a crucial moment where a key character says “This is only the beginning.” That much is clear. For now though, House Villeneuve remains relatively triumphant.