I’ve never read the book of Dune so going into this movie all I was expecting was an exciting sci-fi adventure with a star studded cast made by arguably one of the best directors of all time, Denis Villenueve. The film does deliver that, and my goodness is it an impressive audio visual odyssey of epic proportions. However, it is an extremely dense movie with a lot of lore, politics, and backstory that sometimes the film gets too caught up in its source material making the pacing feel off. That’s one of the drawbacks of splitting this gargantuan book into 2 parts is that while the film is one the most masterful technical achievements in the last decade, the story and lore aren’t properly paced to make this film stand on its own. Nonetheless, this is a move that was made for the theatrical experience and requires two viewings for maximal enjoyment if you haven’t read the books.
Dune Part One (as it’s title card reads) follows the story of House Atreides and their journey to harvest spice, the most valuable commodity in the galaxy used for intergalactic travel on the planet Arrakis. However, the politics of the galaxy quickly threaten to close in on House Atreides and they must be prepared for the dangerous other tribes and Houses that threaten to take back and restore their own power.
That’s as simple as I can put the plot, but really there is a lot more going on around the characters in this film. The scope and ambition of Dune is quite unlike anything I have experienced before. It’s filled with interesting lore, scheming politicians, righteous heroes, magical individuals, and foreboding villains that really grab you into the world. Splitting the book into two parts allows for some of this lore to breathe and for the audience to understand the dynamics of where everything and everyone is at in relation to one another. However, the pacing of this material isn’t always necessarily the greatest. Like many other of Villenueve’s films (Arrivall, Blade Runner 2049, and Prisoners) this is a slow-burn of a film, one that takes its time to set things up and has quieter moments instead big bombastic action sequences. That’s worked extremely well in the past for Villenueve when he has had great writing and stories that grasp us in for the ride. However, given that this is only part one the story feels more like acts one and the beginning of act two rather than a film that has a complete three act structure. You become invested in the world and the lore, but don’t truly feel the depth of the story quite yet.
Upon a second view of the film, however, Dune Part One makes a lot more sense when you can pick up on more of the little details on the politics, lore, foreshadowing, and story conventions on display. My first view of the film was more so me taking in everything and being a little frustrated that I didn’t understand a lot of it as I have not read the books. A second view allowed me to notice more and allowed the film to stand up with the likes of Villenueve’s previous films which I love and hold so dearly. There is a great attention to detail, and the dialogue lets you into the scheming politics that’s similar to the likes of Game of Thrones. The conflict is richer than I initially thought, with a lot of morally grey areas, conniving backstabs, and at the heart of it a legendary prophecy that proves all the more intriguing when you see smaller foreshadowing and breadcrumbs to entice the audience. It’s a more nuanced plot and conflict than I initially thought, and i have to give more praise to the film than I initially thought given all this intricacy.
What is to be praised regardless of the narratives slower pace, is the audio visual experience and technical achievements this movie provides. The direction and cinematography is nothing short of masterful, as the team clearly has great reverence and respect for the scope this film can be. An excellent job is done to bring attention to the scale of certain creatures and structures in relation to the humans. The shot is framed with a gigantic sand worm towering over the sand dunes of the planet with two charterers standing helplessly on the ground. Additionally the way the spice clouds the camera’s lens and brings attention to the ships and battles going on the ground is a beautiful piece of scenery that reminded me of the Las Vegas scene in Blade Runner 2049. That scale is mesmerizing and jaw dropping to watch on screen, and can only be truly experienced with a theatrical edition. (A second viewing in IMAX was FANTASTIC, this film is made for the largest screen ever).
Similarly, the sound design, mixing and musical score paired with the awe-inspiring visuals will bring a tear to some of film lover’s eyes. Hans Zimmer commands with a bombastic score that locks you into the world and brings amazing attention to the details on screen. A special power known as “the voice” that is used by certain characters creates a terrifying experience when its used thanks to smart sound design to have the audience understand the power and impact this ability brings. The audio emphasizes the importance of certain scenes and helps elevate the scale that this film rests on. You feel the danger and strife certain characters are in just based on sound alone, entrapping you in the mind of the characters and allowing you to feel the plight of their struggle. Its rare a movie can have such a powerful impact from just one aspect, but Villenueve has demonstrated time and time again his emphasis on this scale and ambition.
The film boasts an amazing star studded cast in Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaacs, Stellan Skarsgard, and Josh Brolin. All deliver great performances and interesting characters, though the film never truly delves into its secondary characters and the personalities they behold. Most of our time is spent with Chalamet’s Paul Atreides and Ferguson’s Lady Jessica so we get some insights into their personality, struggles, and potential arcs. The secondary characters are fun to have around but don’t really have much of an arc or charisma to them (aside from Momoa and Skarsgard) that allows them to feel completely like real characters. This could be something that is explored more in part two but as it stands on this movie, I didn’t feel any connection to many of the characters despite excellent performances.
While the decision to split the gargantuan novel is undoubtedly a very smart decision to allow the source material room to breathe and ruminate on the big screen, it also poses the film’s biggest weakness. Lord of the Rings has 3 movies that feel as if they end abruptly but tell a complete story in each of its films. Dune Part One feels like an extraordinary amount of set up that can get lost in the details for Part Two. The enjoyment of this film absolutely hinges on whether Part Two sticks the landing. The film does stand on it’s own very well once you can take things in, but it is an extremely dense film that requires multiple viewings (or reading of the novel) to pick up on the subtle hints or details. While the plot and story can be frustrating on first watch, subsequent watches (especially now that Part Two is confirmed) will provide more enjoyment on the subtleties it pick up. The film’s ending is abrupt, but looking back I still thoroughly enjoyed the journey this first film took me on. One can argue that this would have done better as a mini-series on HBO Max but the experience would not have been the amazing theatrical experience.
But in the meantime, Dune Part One is a visually amazing movie that treats your eyes and hears to one of the most masterful cinematic experiences of all time. Even though the story and pacing drag given all of the lore and build-up, you can rest in the notion that this film is one made for theaters and needs to be experienced to be believed. Denis Villenueve once again proves that he is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s exciting to think of where he could go next in the sequel. This film doesn’t have the true emotional investment it needs to revered among the likes of Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, but it’s still an adventure worth watching. I hope to be back in a year or two to see how the journey coalesces.
(A-) Visually Arresting