Many cinephiles know the history of Dune’s film adaptations. The famed sci-fi novel was almost made into a psychedelic film in the 1970s by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which fell apart. A decade later, David Lynch was able to release an adaptation starring Kyle MacLachlan, which received mixed reviews. Now, Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has managed to make that film. Half of it at least.
Dune’s official title is Dune: Part One, and this is a gigantic sci-fi film with a huge ensemble cast led by Timothée Chalamet (from Little Women and Call Me By Your Name). He plays Paul Atreides, the heir to House Atreides. They’ve recently been given control of the planet Arrakis (informally known as Dune), which produces an element called spice. Spice, a psychoactive substance used for interstellar travel that also allows humans to see the future, is the most valuable substance in the galaxy.
After House Atreides (led by Duke Leto Atreides, played by Oscar Isaac from the Card Counter) takes over the planet, the former ruling house (House Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen played by Stellan Skarsgård from Mamma Mia!) teams up with the Emperor and his private army to take over the planet again, and slaughter House Atreides. But Paul has been having dreams of a crusade coming to the galaxy, and he finds himself teaming up with the Indigenous people of Arrakis to take back his family’s legacy.
This film marks a high point of the director’s career. Denis Villeneuve has dreamed of making this film since he was a boy. He cut his teeth making a few films in Quebec such as Polytechnique and Incendies, before heading to Hollywood. He started there with intense dramas like Prisoners and Sicario, before moving onto sci-fi with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049.
Several of his collaborators appeared in this film, including actors like Josh Brolin (from Sicario), Dave Bautista (from Blade Runner 2049), and people behind the scenes like composer Hans Zimmer (from Blade Runner 2049) and editor Joe Walker (from Arrival). And the culmination of his career is a particularly proud moment for him, as he’s won the TIFF Ebert Director Award at this year’s festival.
As for Dune, this two and a half hour film only adapts half of the original novel. It’s a massive book, with a large galaxy filled with different Imperial houses, and a gigantic cast of people, most of whom only appear in 2 or 3 scenes each. That’s one of the biggest issues of the film, the material is almost too big to properly adapt to film.
Part of the reasoning behind making it a two-part film was to help expand the universe, to properly portray it. But was that necessary? Lynch’s version was roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes, and does an admirable job of adapting the entire novel in that time frame. This newest version is slightly longer than Lynch’s, but covers far less material. Ending at roughly the halfway point of the original novel, the film feels like it ends with the first act. Upon watching, it feels more like what has become a too-standard move of Hollywood, splitting a narrative into two films to double the profit.
While the act of splitting the narrative into two films seems like it would help to explain the expansive and gigantic story, that’s not the case here. This is a complicated narrative about the finite details on interstellar economics, psychic messiahs, colonial relations, and gigantic worms. And despite the 2 and a half hour run time, this film does a insufficient job of explaining the complicated mythology for first-time viewers. For example, what is a Kwisatz Haderach? For those who have no experience of Dune, you might need to take some detailed notes while watching the film. Perhaps it should’ve been made as a miniseries, similar to the SyFy adaptation from 2000.
That said, in terms of big budget Hollywood films, this looks incredibly gorgeous. Shot predominantly in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and Wadi Rum, Jordan, this film makes the desolate desert look like an endless ocean. Zendaya’s (from Euphoria) character Chani opens the film saying that Arrakis is truly beautiful when the sun is low. Regardless of where the sun is, this planet is always beautiful to look at, especially on a big screen.
Perhaps this film in combination with Dune: Part 2 (if it does get made) could make for a truly fulfilling watch. But on its own, this is a film meant for fans of the text. Fans will definitely enjoy this serious adaptation, and the expansive world building, but I can’t say the same for newcomers to this 50+ year franchise.