Dune: Part 1 (2021) Review: Know then, a whole lot of table-setting

Finally! I think?

After almost 60 years, we have a not-terrible adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. With it comes all the baggage of the source being stripped for parts over the years by other more profitable franchises that don’t warrant much more acknowledgement here beyond that. It is not Herbert or director Denis Villeneuve’s fault that, by the time this movie arrives, the “behold the Christ child who doesn’t know he’s a Christ child” trope has been done to death by other filmmakers who have sent their heroes into the desert to be tested. Because, while a whole legion of shows, movies, and books have drawn inspiration from Dune, we shouldn’t forget that Dune itself is heavily informed by well-established myths and religious influences that had been around for ages. It’s just now, in the year 2021, what else can Dune tell us that we haven’t heard before?

It’s going to sound like I hate this movie but I’m just being nitpicky. As a fan of the book, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the story and characters and setting come to life. No expense was spared and Villeneuve was methodically patient in how he and his screenwriters laid out the tale in their script. As a book-reader, I had a good time.

The title card says the movie is Dune: Part 1, a subtitle that wasn’t present in any of the marketing. What with it’s “oh come on, that’s it?” ending, I feel like a producer made them slap that on there to manage the expectations of an audience hoping this massive project delivers us somewhere. We’re given a lot of stuff and yet left wanting – not really in a good way. That’s too bad.

Two difficulties that Villeneuve faced: how to depict complex political and religious and economic cultural strategy, for lack of a better word, that is mostly all exposited through inner monologue of some characters with serious baggage in a universe that is fundamentally different from our own in almost every way, and how to depict Paul’s agonizing path to self-actualization as the hero whose every choice is cataclysmic in its consequences and could never be defined as good, perhaps, but maybe least bad. The limits of leadership and power – at every possible level of a foreign future galaxy.

That’s a lot. And if there’s one takeaway from this movie for book-readers or non, this movie can really be summed up as just an awful lot of stuff. When I said Villeneuve was patient, I feel like I’m being charitable. This is a long, slow, serious movie – hell, they took forever just to leave Caladan and then this blue-eyed girl keeps showing up in dreams and not necessarily giving us more information each time other than that Zendaya is a movie star who deserves screen time. The message is that this is important, but you don’t get to know why yet. Dune illiterate critics may be justified in wondering why this wasn’t a miniseries. I love it as a movie, but it’s incomplete so I feel like it can hardly even be judged with a complete grade when the credits roll and the audience is left simultaneously feeling like they got hit with a wall of information and little to no payoff. Preparing for the as-of-yet non-existent Part 2 is going to be a real stack of homework. Movies should challenge us, but should they be homework?

In many ways, the movie is trying to be many things at once, some more successfully than others. At its best, it’s an expensive arthouse picture, dwelling lovingly on watering palms in the desert, showing us film books of an ancient desert culture and the mythology of its mysterious ecosystem, and giving us extreme closeups of talented actors doing their damndest to show intense inner conflict with occasional resorts to truly wooden dialogue. Truly, it is easier for books to be polyphonic than movies. Thus, any Dune adaptation merely feels like an attempt, rather than a work.

With moderate success, it’s a political thriller instructing the audience on the rules of the galactic game and showing its massive fragility as various rugs get pulled out from under us. This was fun for me but probably a bit opaque for non-book people. For all its patience, did you really grasp just why the Harkonnens abandoned Arrakis only to return what feels like two weeks later to destroy the new stewards? For all of Timothee Chalamet’s smoldering grimaces, have we even scratched the surface of the treacherous tightrope walk Paul must do? I’d guess non-book readers would be justifiably confused.

Least successfully, it’s a sci fi action movie. The action scenes feel sprinkled in to wake up people from their galacto-political slumbers so we can enjoy Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa quips littered with swordplay. Seriously, I love these characters and actors, but did they need so much screen time? I can’t say for sure. Maybe the film would have collapsed under its own dour self-importance without them. Or maybe it would have been a reasonable length. This is Villeneuve’s passion project and he probably was forced by an editor to cut out way more than I realize. He wasn’t going to excise Duncan Idaho, no way.

Speaking of editing, I’m sorry to say it gets quite sloppy at times. From a craftsmanship perspective, some of the cross-cutting is too trigger-happy, leaving me confused why some scenes are abandoned and returned to with seemingly no rhythm at all. The fight scene choreography and filming is ok, I suppose, but it still feels like a smoother hand should have been in the cutting room saying what goes where. What was the rush in the editing room? They had an extra year!

The film overall looks ok, and I won’t quabble with any of the special effects. The wide establishing shots of various spaceships never got old. I’m a sucker for that shit. The worms didn’t show up as often as I thought, again giving me that glum, paradoxical feeling that so much of this story has reared its head above the sand while still leaving an awful lot buried.

Curiously, this is probably the least visually interesting movie of Villeneuve’s that I’ve seen. All blues and grays on Caladan, then dusky yellows for Arrakis. It was never going to top the gorgeous cinematography of Blade Runner 2049 and doesn’t even attempt that level of artistry. It is also just a lot busier than the simple beauty of Arrival. Better dream sequence editing in that one too.

The best action sequence, tellingly, is not hand-to-hand combat at all, though there is certainly a lot of that. When Duke Leto and Paul visit a spice mining rig with Dr. Liet Kynes, Villeneuve expertly films a nail-biting encounter with a worm while showing a crucial aspect of this world and expositing the character and heroism of the Atreides family. It’s a tremendous scene that gives us so much to root for.

700 words and I feel like I’ve barely touched on anything. Such is the nature of this project. My non book reading friend who accompanied me had two reactions: that felt like the first episode of a miniseries, and (forgive his snark) wow, I’m so happy that desert girl found her Avatar.

It would take too long to give a complete rundown of the cast but what’s there is quite good. Some do a better job than others with the wooden dialogue (for better or worse, this movie commits hard to being an overly-serious 60s style sci fi epic, and while that model is sort of a relic in this day and age, I applaud them for it. Read it in the right context, and the dialogue and tone is something I can live with. It is at least exactly what Herbert was trying to convey in his, I think.). Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson do a fine job with their facial expressions showing about sixteen emotions at once. Oscar Isaac is the standout. He deftly portrays a man who knows he is doomed but has to soldier on for his son, his beloved partner, and his people, a man who must balance being a king, a father, a friend, and a warrior all at once. Isaac makes it look easy. Stellan Skarsgard is a disgusting, one-note villain (intentionally) scheming in inky shadows, and I wish we’d gotten more screentime for him and Dave Bautista.

I feel bad that such a good movie has to arrive with so much baggage in tow and I can’t imagine a harder task than delivering such a challenging story and making it profitable, pandemic and all, and not boring, while not dumbing down the profound dualities of every character and party’s schemes. It’s a hell of a lot to ask.

Unfortunately, it didn’t receive a nice wrap-up a la The Fellowship of the Ring, and no one gets up from the dinner table feeling full, but just that foamy emptiness where you’ve digested so much, your stomach muscles are tired. Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, Villeneuve gets a chance to cook up the next installment.