For the record, prior to 2021 Dune and I had never been friends. At all.
My first exposure to Frank Herbert’s pet universe was David Lynch’s steeply compromised, overwrought B-movie, which my mom and I saw on opening weekend in 1984. Our tickets came with a free, two-page mimeographed glossary of the universe’s designer jargon and proper nouns. I was there because sometimes I liked science fiction films and at the time I really liked Sting before his solo career. He wasn’t in the film nearly enough and even if he had been, I would have missed him anyway because every five minutes my mom kept asking me what various terms and names meant, which was no easy chore to perform in the dark. I hated that awkward, dull experience and have never watched a frame of it again. On a related note of relief, no other theater has ever greeted me at the door with homework.
Three years later, in high school I wondered if it might be possible to read, or at least speed-read in case of dreck, every novel in my local library’s modest SF section. That went well for a few months, albeit with mostly forgotten results (I do faintly recall treasuring the spacefaring dolphins of David Brin’s Startide Rising). Then I got to the H section. With some hesitation and lingering resentment I cracked open Dune. I lasted twenty pages at most before I surrendered and terminated the project. I never consumed a Dune product ever after, never read a word of Herbert’s since, nor any of his family’s, nor works by any other writer named Herbert. Not even H.G. Wells. It was the only way to be sure.
Dune: Part One, on the other hand, was different. I was hesitant to forgive the Dune-iverse for past wastes of time. I tried not to count it as Dune product, but instead filed it on a completely different mental index card: Denis Villeneuve Cinema. That wasn’t an automatic hall pass, though. I despised the ending of Sicario, fell away from Arrival in the third act, would describe Enemy as very much Not My Thing, and might reevaluate Blade Runner 2049 as a Roger Deakins visual masterpiece more than anyone else’s…but when Villeneuve signed onto Dune, I allowed myself a glimmer of hope anyway. If nothing else, it would likely look cool. If it were also coherent and not cheesy, then hey, triple bonus points. The 27-year gap between Dune experiences erased nearly every trace of my specific preconceptions or the original story itself, so for me it was a fresh start, surprisingly easy to follow and free of any basis for nitpicking its deviations from the source material or its safer choices compared to its precursors.
That story, then: near the end of the 102nd century in a galaxy far, far away — or it could be next door for all I know, as no starfield coordinates are provided — among a governed body of planets, one called Arrakis is the primary source of the most valuable substance in the universe, nicknamed “spice” because in their civilization the art of nicknaming was lost in the mists of history. Spice is a fantastic drug and it’s a spaceship fuel, like if someone figured out how to put gasoline in a bong, or how to make ethanol out of poppies. It’s possibly also a floor wax and a dessert topping. Previously the means of production and its native populace, the Fremen (maybe the irony was less on-the-nose in their language), were subjugated by House Harkonnen, one of the many political states into which this part of the universe has been divided. Same as any other drug trade, the masters were cruel, the servants were oppressed, but they had no supply chain issues like some worlds we could mention today.
Then one day the Emperor of the Universe — unnamed, unseen, unheard, possibly someone’s sock puppet — decides the Harkonnens shouldn’t be in charge anymore and reassigns full guardianship of Arrakis to House Atreides, who are clearly much kinder and more reasonable because their ruler is Oscar Isaac. As Duke Leto Atreides, he expresses no concerns about harsh working conditions or spice addiction statistics. If his boss wants him to assume control of an entire single-source multi-zillion-dollar industry, who is he to decline? It would be rude. But later when the duke expresses concern for some of his new employees when their lives are threatened by sandworms (Dune‘s most enduring pop culture legacy) and even steps in personally to help them, it’s clear he’s a kinder and gentler master, and of course sinister forces will judge him the wrong man for the job.
In between royal duties, Leto grooms the heir to the dukedom, his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet from Call Me by Your Name). Paul is young and scrawny and doesn’t sing naive tunes about how he just can’t wait to be duke, but his advantages include otherworldly bone structure and nascent mind-control superpowers inherited from his mom, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, terrifying in Doctor Sleep). Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a coven of space witches with a representative assigned to every House, presumably with the Emperor’s blessing. She overstepped her job description and became Leto’s concubine and baby-mama — possibly with loving intention as a secondary objective, but primarily for the sake of fulfilling a prophecy that foretold the birth of a Chosen One and all that entails in every Chosen One narrative ever. While her superiors had a different schedule and family tree position in mind, she took matters into her own magical hands and willed her child to be male to meet the prophecy parameters — i.e., male, royal blood, and superpowers. Usually characters who create their own Chosen One are villains and their results end in failure and/or explosions. Lady Jessica, as one might expect of Ferguson, has no time or patience for norms.
The naive expectation of a peaceful transition of power of course prompts House Atreides to visit their new subsidiary. Even the most benevolent drug kingpin/oil baron needs to keep up appearances and should inspect the business up close. After the requisite exchanges of politesse, naturally things begin going poorly. Army battles, explosions, melee, treachery, death, and future “One Perfect Shot” wallpapers ensue. The Harkonnens want their turf back and, side note, they’re happy for any excuse to blast the Atreides into oblivion and beyond. Even though the good guys have more A-list actors than the bad guys, do they stand a chance? Can your favorite superhero-movie stars save the day? Can there truly be peace in the dog-eat-dog world of the Dilithium-Opioid industry?
While the grown-ups negotiate their differences with extreme prejudice, our vantage point is farther down the chain of command and alongside li’l Paul, the boss’ son. He’s overwhelmed, regretting his eagerness to tag along, and not quite ready for a hero’s spotlight. Chalamet’s first time as the linchpin of a SF franchise starts from a position of limited impact and importance, the ruler’s son who’s just there to watch and learn what it’s like to claim a dominion but not necessarily be cruel about it. If the narrative didn’t spend so much time buddying up to him, you might not recognize him as Our Hero, especially with his seemingly fragile frame dwarfed by Dad’s top musclebound employees — chiefly Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin respectively as Fun Macho Uncle and Gruff Macho Uncle. The heavy lifting is their job, but they teach where they can for that big day when Paul will have to fend for himself. They’ve instilled ample fight-scene skills in him, but deny him any serious tests while they’re around. Once that changes, then we watch his first baby steps toward his calling as the One True Protagonist. Well, some of those steps, anyway.
Even before Arrakis, Paul already had his own issues to sort. His mind-control training with Mom is progressing at about a C-plus level, okay but not great. More troubling, he’s having prophetic dreams about a potential future love interest, friend, opponent, incidental contact, or haunting ghost (Zendaya of the Spidey series), but the framing, music, and tropes point toward “love interest”. Her fleeting image seems more of a distraction to him than a motivating temptation, which also summarizes the film’s treatment of her. (The final trailer contained half her total scenes.) But Paul is deeply confused as to why his vivid dreams seem like tantalizing setup for some other film where she’ll be more than just a dream girl.
With her mystery left mostly confounding, that leaves a wide berth for Ferguson to represent in a galaxy of mostly dudes. Lady Jessica doesn’t presume to any overreach in the responsibilities of the man she loves, but she’s no mere background lurker, either. She owns up to pulling some strings that led up to the status quo and, if she has anything to say about it, will see those plans and auguries bear fruit, ostensibly for the good of all. Mostly that means going full-on Mama Bear to defend Baby Bear in his next inspection by her Bene Gesserit regional manager (Charlotte Rampling from Broadchurch season 2) or being his personal bodyguard — a rather effective one, at that — when everyone else falls down on the job. In a story where we’re meant to care about upscale blue-blood tribulations, her altruistic machinations and survival skills lend a complexity to what could’ve just been the tale of one rich kid’s journey to his inheritance.
The film’s real star is, as the trailers and Villeneuve’s name primed us for, all those fanciful compositions of exotic terrains, alien fortresses, and perfectly spaced bodies. Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One) meticulously sculpt each vast swath of negative space into a welcoming canvas for the orderly arrival of lavish costumes and heavyweight machinery. Imagine flipping through a gallery of painted covers from old SF-lit magazines — Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF — and seeing them come to life. It’s stylized gravitas on parade, requiring a certain patience from viewer and filmmaker alike. For anyone who’s learned tremendous patience through the nonstop tests that are today’s slow-motion streaming shows, it’s nice at last to want something we’re watching to take its time, to enjoy the prolonging. Every set, every interaction is rendered on a grandly Celestial scale.
I can only imagine how those played at home in the cramped confines of HBO Max, but in sixth-row theater seats, full immersion drowned out any consciously held skepticism until we could retreat to our mundane realm…except the dim nighttime scenes, lately a bane of every screen that doesn’t require a premium upcharge. Nighttime scenes in virtually every theatrical release from 2019 to the present are abysmal unless you pay extra for the luxury of plain clarity.
I wish I could declare Dune: Part One a visionary trendsetter and sing its praises from the nearest rooftops, but in the week since my showing, the more I dwell on it, the more its pomp and circumstance shows wrinkles and cracks in its facades. Some concepts we’ve seen elsewhere in the works that Dune has influenced over the decades, which in turn overtook it in the pop culture landscape. (Massive army lineups! Sandcrawlers! Hans Zimmer bombast! Poe Dameron!) I also confess to finding informative points from accredited critics (such as Roxana Hadadi and Siddhant Adlakha) who took issue with the co-opting of real Eastern Hemisphere cultures as templates for “alien” worlds with only minimal changes and negligible reverence. (Hypothetically this could lead to some bizarre debates. Should white filmmakers only draw inspiration from white cultures? On the other hand, what if SF filmmakers were encouraged to create new cultures from blank slates that resembled absolutely no other in reality? Is that even possible for any artist who isn’t Grant Morrison, or is derivative homage the best that’s psychologically possible, thus guaranteeing every new world will irk someone somewhere no matter what? And so on we spiral into the discourse abyss.)
From my own limited perspective, and therefore perhaps too easily to my relief, this expensive reinvention of America’s original “Chosen One on Planet Sahara” space opera hurdled the low bar I set for it, and by “low” I mean I laid the bar on the ground and hoped Dune could at least step over it without tripping. In the moment, I was sufficiently enthralled by the performances from familiar personalities and the arty surroundings that enveloped them…until that ending. It isn’t closure, and it isn’t even a cliffhanger. We close with an extended sequence in which Paul faces a type of conflict that he’s been trained to handle someday, but hasn’t actually had to handle head-on till now. He does the thing, he learns a life lesson, you can see the gears of change grinding behind Chalamet’s eyes…aaaaand cut. Roll credits. The implication is Paul’s story is not over and there’ll be more to come, which was a gamble on everyone’s part. When I saw it, no such assurance was guaranteed. For all I knew, this very well could’ve been The End, as has happened to more than a few almost-series that misjudged their own life expectancy. They’re lucky the gamble paid off, but at the time it felt like off-putting hubris more than confidence, leaving all that pageantry to end on a sour note. This is how you end a TV episode, not a feature film.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I’ve failed to mention a single villain, largely because, thanks to childhood scars, Lynch’s originals were far creepier and grosser to me. Stellan Skarsgård from the Thor series is Baron Harkonnen, simmering in a fat suit suited to levitation and bathing, intimidating in either mode. His sadly underutilized henchmen include Dave “Drax” Bautista and ubiquitous geek-film utility infielder David Dastmalchian (The Suicide Squad, Ant-Man, The Dark Knight, even two episodes of The Flash), who’s also quite fascinating to read in extended interviews.
I also gasped in joy to see Duke Leto employing Stephen McKinley Henderson, who was great in Alex Garland’s Devs and even better in Fences. Residents of Arrakis include Javier Bardem as the Fremens’ taciturn leader (same as Zendaya, he’s given short shrift and nearly replaceable by a title card reading “See Next Film”) and Babs Olusanmokun (Black Mirror‘s “Black Museum” Death Row convict) as a guy who thinks Paul isn’t all that.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Dune: Part One end credits, though I noticed in the assistants’ section that listed “Assistant to Mr. Brolin” and “Assistant to Mr. Skarsgård” and so on, Zendaya was not referred to as “Ms. Zendaya”. The Special Thanks section also gave shout-outs to creative luminaries such as Guillermo Del Toro and Brian K. Vaughan, among others.