Dune: A Stunning but Incomplete Epic
Any discussion of Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic has to, for better or worse, start with the structure. The onscreen titles highlight what the film’s marketing understandably does not: this is not Dune, this is merely Dune: Part One, with the conclusion presumably — but as of this writing, not definitively — coming sometime in the near future. Fittingly, given the seemingly predominant method of combat in the Duniverse, this bifurcation is a double-edged sword. The context-heavy density of the source material makes it almost impossible to streamline the story into lean action spectacle, meaning that rushing through the necessary table setting would likely breed detachment and confusion — to that end, Villeneuve (along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) probably made the smart decision to split the story across two films, giving the narrative time to breathe between the thrilling setpieces.
But that choice comes with an inherent downside: despite a reasonably natural stopping point in the middle of the novel, there’s no way to paper over the fact that the film simply doesn’t feel complete. To be clear, I don’t think this structure irreparably sinks Dune, it merely lowers an astronomically high ceiling for this opening chapter — this is probably about as close to greatness as you can get in a film that ultimately serves as two and a half hours of setup.
For those who are unfamiliar with the world of Dune, I encourage you to feel comfortable going in blind: perhaps the most impressive feat on display here is the ability of Villeneuve and his writing partners to efficiently and effectively orient the audience to one of the more (perhaps frustratingly) complex socio-political universes in popular sci-fi, as well as bring a slightly more modern sensibility to a text that has its struggles with gender, race, and cultural appropriation (the second half of the book has some further pitfalls in this regard, which will make that adaptation even more interesting). For a world filled with space witches, giant sandworms, mind control, emperors, and characters named Glossu Rabban and Duncan Idaho somehow coexisting, the who and the why are almost always clear — this alone cements Villeneuve as one of the most exciting big-budget directors working today.
It of course helps that he’s amassed a cast who, almost to a person, excel at selling on-screen presence that’s divorced just enough from their off-screen recognizability to make you believe in the characters they’re playing. It’s a canny (or if you’re feeling cynical, fortunate) maneuver, as the necessary world- and context-building means that character development for much of the ensemble is given shorter shrift that you might like — when that’s the case, it’s a major asset to be able to rely on the talents of Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, and Stephen McKinley Henderson (just to name a few) to present to the camera what might not be fleshed out on the page.
Stacked as the supporting cast is (a special shoutout to Rebecca Ferguson, who’s essentially the second lead and as incredible as always), the movie is positioned to belong to Timothée Chalamet in his first real shot as a blockbuster star. Chalamet fares admirably for the most part as the young Paul Atreides, a character stuck in a typically tired “chosen one” mold slightly livened up by all the strange space witch and drug planet hijinks (everyone loves questionable quasi-eugenics and mind-altering sand, right?) that surround the protagonist. Chalamet’s deceptive hypermodernity fits in well with Villeneuve’s alien atmosphere, though again the issue of the abbreviated storytelling rears its head: we need to see growth from Paul, but not too much, with the upshot being that the character’s progression feels a little disjointed.
Regardless, Chalamet’s performance confirms (in a bit of a real-world chosen one narrative of his own) he can carry a film of this size and scope, just as Villeneuve continues his upward trajectory as the next great blockbuster director. Setting aside for now the structural questions, Dune stands tall as a visual and auditory feast. Villeneuve has taken the Christopher Nolan approach of strongly encouraging audiences to seek this out in the biggest and best theater possible and he has a point. That’s not to say this film can’t be enjoyed on HBO Max, especially with a halfway decent TV and speaker setup; the survival of movie theaters aside (a very big aside) I think filmmakers like Nolan and Villeneuve actually do themselves a disservice when they impress upon audiences that their films are “meant to be seen on the big screen” — both directors excel at clear and exciting storytelling that translates effectively to pretty much all formats. But so much care has been put into crafting an immersive world, with costumes and sets that look like little you’ve seen before and sound design that rattles you with otherworldly vibrations that if one feels comfortable going to a movie theater right now, Dune is well worth the trip.
So that’s what Dune is: sci-fi spectacle of the highest order. But to circle all the way back, the problem remains that it just isn’t whole (in fact, one of the film’s closing lines winkingly notes that this is just the beginning) and lacks the clean beginning, middle, and end of, say, each of the Lord of the Rings movies, which feel like a natural comparison. Those films of course benefit from the existence of three separate books instead of splitting a single book into two, but the fact remains that it’s much easier to picture myself sitting down to watch any of those three independently than to revisit this first Dune entry: there’s an inherent issue with the pacing and the narrative peaks and valleys that intrinsically can’t quite be overcome. That being said, the bar has been set high by Part One, so much so that the hopefully forthcoming conclusion immediately skyrockets to the top of my most-anticipated list for whatever year it eventually releases. If Villeneuve can land the plane (or the ornithopter) with Part Two, I anticipate the two films might play best in a marathon setting where the movie doesn’t seem to stop right as it’s getting started. He’s got the setup out of the way now, let’s hope he has the chance to try and fulfill the potential.