rebecca fergusun as jessica wearing a headscarf with glowing blue eyes and writing on her face standing in front of a wall of writing in the movie 'Dune'

Dune: Part One Review: Spice Spice Baby

The first half of the sci-fi epic is beautifully realized but frustratingly lopsided.

Update: Warner Bros. has officially greenlit Dune: Part Two

The more new films I see that serve as individual entries in a multi-film saga, the more awed I am by what Peter Jackson achieved with the Lord of the Rings trilogy twenty years ago. The inherent problem with adapting a single master story into multiple filmed chapters is splitting up the narrative’s three-act structure, inevitably causing each installment to feel incomplete without a self-contained beginning, middle, and end. What Jackson understood was that within each chapter it is essential to find a smaller sub-arc with its own three-act structure that both reinforces the master story while exploring a smaller and more intimate story within. 

The latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune, which is only part one of a two-part narrative (the second film has yet to be greenlit at time of this writing), fails to find an effective sub-arc that allows the film to stand on its own as an independent work. It chooses instead to present a straightforward adaptation of the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of a powerful duke who becomes ensnared in both the political machinations of a futuristic galactic empire and the ideological campaign of a mysterious religious sect, thus exposing one of the many problems inherent to adapting Dune. Too short for a TV series and too long for a blockbuster, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One is beautifully and faithfully realized yet ultimately lopsided, discarding an emotionally satisfying, self-contained thematic arc and choosing instead to limp towards a frustrating second-act ellipsis that only the sequel will be able to resolve, if it gets made at all.

To that end, the first 90 minutes of Dune: Part One are a flat-out masterpiece, proving that Denis Villeneuve was born to direct science fiction. The man behind Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 has an unparalleled talent for cerebral and visually sumptuous slow-burn cinema. While Warner Bros. has made the film available to stream simultaneously on HBO Max, in-theater viewing is essential to truly appreciate the richness of the film’s sweeping visuals and resonant soundscape. 

The cloud-wreathed coastal shores of Norway stand in for the planet Caladan, where Paul, his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, triumphantly entering his zaddy era), and mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, quietly compelling) are ordered by the galactic emperor to assume control of the desert planet Arrakis, AKA Dune, previously occupied by their sworn enemies the Harkonnens. Being the only source of the substance known as “spice,” which is essential to space travel, Arrakis is the most valuable planet in the universe. The Harkonnens, led by the sinister Baron (a distastefully fat-suited Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Rabban (the endlessly watchable Dave Bautista), are determined to retake control of Dune, thereby maintaining their political power in the empire. 

“Who will our next oppressors be?,” asks Chani (Zendaya, little more than window dressing in Part One), a member of Arrakis’ native population known as the Fremen and daughter of their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Paul hopes to ally with the Fremen — utilizing their “desert power” — in the conflict with the Harkonnens. Thanks to the machinations of a mysterious all-female religious sect known as the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen also believe that Paul may in fact be their messiah. The prophetic visions Paul experiences when he comes in contact with spice don’t hurt, either.

A desert land, a valuable extractive substance, and an oppressed people caught in the middle of an imperial game of power. The metaphors for Western oil interests in the Middle East are not hard to come by here, and in faithfully adapting Dune there’s no way to avoid the 1965 book’s antiquated representation of the Fremen as a noble and mystical foreign other. The film’s casting of brown- and black-skinned actors to portray the Fremen — along with a tanned Bardem and his thick, foreign-coded Spanish accent — play into these tropes as the lily-white Chalamet is positioned as the story’s sympathetic protagonist and ultimate “chosen one” character. Even knowing where the story is headed in Part Two and beyond, the film’s highly coded depiction of the Fremen and Paul’s role as reluctant savior are frustratingly regressive for a 21st century blockbuster. That doesn’t mean that Dune is inherently bad or that you’re not allowed to enjoy it, but it does raise the question of whether the source material should continue to hold such a high position in the sci-fi canon nearly 60 years after publication.

Watching Dune I was reminded of another film that I love despite its problematic tropes, Ridley Scott’s 2000 Roman epic Gladiator, which similarly distracts from its more questionable elements with sumptuous sets and costumes. In Dune, Patrice Vermette’s understated production design focuses on creating depth with light and shadow, and Jacqueline West’s costumes use geometry and texture to imply generations of wealth and status devoid of ostentation. Yet while I appreciate the subtle detail present in the visual design, there is a frustrating lack of color throughout the film. In a genre where you have the opportunity to create anything your imagination can conceive, why limit yourself to such drab realism? The muted palette does pay off occasionally during the film’s battle sequences, where soldiers’ forcefield body armor flashes blue and red amidst the dusty brown desert backdrop. 

As the narrative moves deeper into the desert world of the Fremen, the splendor of Greig Fraser’s cinematography deteriorates considerably. Forced to avoid the heat of the day in the sweltering landscape, the characters are plunged into muddy darkness that makes certain scenes nearly impossible to see clearly. A significant plot moment and major special effects sequence near the end of the film is rendered totally incomprehensible by the dim lighting, even on a big screen. It’s a jarring contrast to gorgeous earlier shots of the undulating sand and sharp rocky outcroppings of the Jordanian desert that serve as the setting for Arrakis. 

Much like the visuals, the narrative of Part One completely runs out of steam in the final hour. An impressively strong start gives way to increasingly tedious wheel-spinning in anticipation of Part Two, leaving the audience hanging uncomfortably without any sense of resolution. If the studio is hoping to draw in general audiences who may not have pre-existing knowledge of the Dune mythos, such a slavishly faithful structure will no doubt alienate viewers and certainly won’t leave them geared up for the next installment. It also makes the choice not to shoot both chapters simultaneously more baffling, as a swift summer release of Part Two would ease the uncertainty of Part One’s ending. All the same, I can think of no greater endorsement for the so-called “theatrical experience” than Dune: Part One, and watching the expansive, opulent visuals scored with the spine-tingling BWAAAAMPs of a Hans Zimmer score, one can almost believe that theaters are just maybe, finally, back.

Rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.