“Even when it’s hard to keep everything in order, this is still a breathtakingly imagined and executed film.”
by Ken Bakely
At its best, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (Part One) feels like watching a grand, lumbering machine slowly gasp into motion, its pieces spinning and whirring. Regardless of how much you might know about what it’s going to do and how, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the sheer scale and intricacy of the work at hand. I come to this as someone whose knowledge of Frank Herbert’s novel is tentative at best, but the film takes great pleasure in meticulously laying out its vast, sprawling complications; there’s space to breathe, space to reflect, and space to just admire what you’re seeing. Set in the distant future within a spacefaring civilization, Dune follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), an heir to a powerful dynasty. He’s the son of Duke Leo Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and the primary concern affecting them right now is the production and export of Spice, a mythically powerful drug, grown only on a harsh desert planet they’ve been tasked to rule. Spice’s value is beyond words – everyone wants control over it, making the House of Atreides a big target for an interplanetary war, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Paul, coming of age, is training to become a warrior, under the tutelage of Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin). The full magnitude of what awaits seems beyond his limited experience and capacity, but the pressure begins to fall on him rapidly as the conflict intensifies.
It’s quite difficult to succinctly describe the plot of Dune, even in the context of this adaptation, which only adapts part of the novel. The density of the material is obvious from the outset, even to a relative newcomer, and that presents a pronounced challenge for Villeneuve, who also wrote the adaptation with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. There are certainly times when it feels like the film is simply overwhelmed, wandering uncertain, though it has much to do and say – but it’s far more instructive to note that Villeneuve has the critical luxury of runtime on his side, one of many things that David Lynch lacked in his polarizing 1984 production. At 156 minutes, and as the first of two planned installments, this Dune can take its time in setting up its world and putting the pieces together. For all the moments when the movie might feel aimless, there are more when it feels encompassing and pointed, making good use of its time in bringing to life the fixtures and politics alike of a distant, but recognizable universe in which the interests of imperialism and capitalism still drive the conflict.
This is weighty material that must be carefully balanced with the more direct content of the plotting and action onscreen, and again, for the most part, the film succeeds. Even when it’s hard to keep everything in order, this is still a breathtakingly imagined and executed film. Villeneuve navigates everything from vast desert landscapes to imposing interiors with liquid precision – not to mention the more fantastical creations that factor in – and cinematographer Grieg Frasier frames the production in stark, earthy tones, emphasizing the harsh conditions. Hans Zimmer’s score rumbles and startles (though your mileage may vary if you’ve grown somewhat fatigued by the composer’s droning intonations). In front of the camera, Chalamet excels in the starring role, understanding the complexities of a character whose duty and proscribed destiny necessarily clashes with a greener soul. He leads a cast impressive both in its scope – the cast is rounded out with key roles played by Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Zendaya, among others – and its versatility, angling through Herbert’s thick lore while keeping an eye on the story’s underlying themes.
All of this amounts to a movie that, for all its chances to wander and reflect, still feels filled to the absolute brim. Early viewers have noted their anxiety of watching Dune before the second part was greenlit; by sheer accident of fate, I happened to watch the film the day that official confirmation was received, and did not have to deal with such uncertainty. This makes it as good a time as any to get around to seeing it, allowing the work to exist on its own terms, and those terms are impressive. Critically, it doesn’t ever feel truly lost within itself; every part always roots back to the greater whole. Villeneuve’s style is deceptively sparse – perhaps indicating a setting where the appearance of order barely covers, and then ceases to cover at all, the violent interests underneath. To this end, his storytelling is confident and fairly clear, much as his realization of this world stuns in its far-reaching detail. To try to make these movies at all is a particularly harrowing undertaking, and can’t say that this one always works, but it’s so frequently transfixing and bold that I come away from it knowing I want to see more.