Dune: Part One (2021) – Cinema Review

Y/N? Yes?

Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Jason Momoa

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Review by Damocles.

I should never read the book before I watch the film.

I have always traditionally struggled to review films that have been adapted from source material that I’ve read. That is because, in a lot of ways, the way how the book flows, reveals the twists in the narrative and showcases all the different viewpoints is a lot easier for me to digest.

I am a bookworm first, before I am a film critic. If you placed a DVD and a book in front of me … my hand would automatically wander towards the first page of the book, no matter how trashy it is.

It also doesn’t help that I direct a lot of the scenes from the book in my head and normally what a director has in mind, is vastly different to my aesthetic.

My favourite case in point, being Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where I walked out of the theatre, furious at the changes in plot and decrying books were always going to be superior to the films.

I think there should be a fun exercise held every 5 years, where 3 or 4 famous directors get together and make a small competition to film a short story and see whose version comes out on top.

The Dune film adaptations, a showcase for 2 visionary directors, David Lynch and Denis Villeneuve are both markedly different to the version I have in my head.

This is where I am going to struggle with the review for the film. Because I am also going to insert something of a review for the book as well in here.

It’s been said that Frank Hebert’s Dune is near impossible to translate on screen. I don’t know where that impression came from, because the story is eerily similar to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and to use that epic as a baseplate on where to go is a good start.

I would argue, something like The Lord of the Rings was a much more difficult task to film, especially considering it’s multitude of races, fictional languages and epic quest across Middle Earth and her many factions.

The way how The Lord of the Rings trilogy introduces itself though, and the template it created for adapting the dense book, is impressive and perfect for fans of the book and non-readers.

Which is why I was very perplexed by the approach Villeneuve took to adapting the plot of Dune. Whilst watching the film, I was left with a feeling of alienation and distance from the plot and characters.

Perhaps this is a strange issue to have, but I have always valued clarity in my narratives whilst watching films, because it enables me to appreciate the visuals more. Maybe it is the bookworm in me, because I often find myself being more engaged in a film, if the characters are built well, and I can easily discern the plot.

With Dune, it was difficult to truly engage with the incredible visuals and details, because without a clear motivation behind the shots, I couldn’t live vicariously through the film.

When I think back on the film, so much of it seemed to lack that proper cinematic language. So much of the film, seemed to me, more like a long montage of all Villeneuve’s favourite parts of the book, put forwards on the big screen, instead of an adaptation of the book itself.

I can see Villeneuve’s obsession and love for the source material. It is apparent in every aesthetic and and detail. From the worm-inspired heighliner, to the subtle intricacies of the still-suits, it is obvious that Villeneuve has an incredible passion for the world of Dune and how it should look.

In particular, the wardrobe for this film is incredible, but it lacks a greater context as to why they are designed in such a way.

Which is emblematic of the entire film. Throughout so much of the film, Dune lacks that fascinating political intrigue that Herbert designed to showcase why Arrakis is such a key component in galactic politics. At no point in the film, is there a greater discussion or showcase as to why the whole universe deems spice as so important.

The very thing, that every major faction in the world of Dune clamours over, kills and obsess over, is barely discussed in the film.

As a fan of the book, which I only just recently finished, I couldn’t help but get a strange bereft feeling whilst watching, confused as to why Villeneuve never emphasised more on the politics at play, instead choosing to focus on Paul, but in a very strange restrained way that made it difficult for the character to be relatable.

So much of the film, seemingly felt rushed, despite its’ length, and never really slowed down to truly emphasise key emotional moments.

A lot of what I deemed as crucial elements in the book were also ignored, such as the dinner scene which creates a fascinating whodunnit element before the Harkonnen attack, Paul’s instinctive and strangely natural use of the thumper to draw the worm, despite having no prior experience, Kynes’ death, which was changed to a less impactful version in the film, or Leto’s awareness and discussion with his men about the trap that the Emperor has bequeathed to him in the form of ownership over Arrakis.

In a strange way, I felt that Villeneuve repeated, to a much lesser degree, the same error Lynch was forced into with his adaptation …. cramming too much into 1 film. Dune is a very dense book, with a lot of parts that can be fleshed out further, had perhaps, Villeneuve been confirmed and locked in to do a trilogy.

The fact that a sequel only got green-lit after this Part One was released is something akin to madness. Dune, logically would always need a Lord of the Rings style adaptation. The book is already conveniently split into 3 sections. Had I been in charged, the first movie in a three parter, would actually end at the tent scene, just like in the novel.

From a design standpoint though, Dune is an excellent looking film. The visual artistry on display is incredible, especially the use of CG which has a wonderful weight and scale behind them. In a time where every film has excellent CGI, it is the director’s flair and shot placement that makes all the difference.

I particularly loved all the designs for the Sardaukar, the Harkonnens and the Fremen, there is a wonderful level of detail behind every element for the costumes that I know I shall be looking up the concept art for.

What I was less enamoured by however, is Hans Zimmer’s score for the film.

Is it sad that I miss the old-school, romantic scores of the past? To me, having been conditioned to adore Middle Eastern inspired music, whilst viewing footage of rolling sand dunes and ruins, I was left very nonplussed by the usual Zimmer’s loud percussion sounds and lack of any proper melody work.

His score is not something you can just listen to, for a vibe or atmosphere, instead it is solely tied to the film, in a way that lack real character to the sounds. This is such a shame, because for a film set in the desert, it is so crucial to have a strong melodic element that runs throughout the whole film.

When you think of Lawrence of Arabia, the score is a portal to a world, that Westerners were unfamiliar with. Maurice Jarre transport you into the exoticness of the Middle East with his overture.

Similarly, Jerry Goldsmith’s score in the classic The Mummy (1999), is beautifully evocative and adventurous, showcasing the beauty of the desert, the mystery of the dunes and the danger hidden beneath the sands.

To take more recent examples, I can point to Henry Jackman’s score in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011) where his song, Atlantis of the Sands is a wonderfully fun and grand tune that really ramps you up for an adventure.

Conversely, you could do away with more Middle Eastern sounds and go for a more Western approach, such as Ludwig Goransson’s score in the hit series, The Mandalorian (2019), which beautifully blends a Western twang with the grand sci-fi soap opera that Star Wars is known for.

Which is rather apt for Dune.

I just wished Zimmer would stop relying on his usual gimmicky loud sounds in his scores and actually create more interesting melodies again. It seems ever since his work with Nolan, he has constantly fallen back on his same tricks and I’m tired of it. Scores are meant to evoke emotions, not impress you with how good the cinema’s bass and reverb is.

Overall, it’s difficult to love Dune. I think I largely found the film decent, only due to the fact that I had read the book prior and could follow along, despite the big missing chunks and lack of clear motivations, from characters and narrative.

In a sad way, this film only reinforces my love for David Fincher whose two book adaptations, Gone Girl (2014), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) I have truly adored and found it matched perfectly with the version in my head.

Dune is a complicated movie, based on a complicated book, that I think should have paced itself better from a narrative perspective, to really engage an audience that is unlikely to have read the Frank Herbert novel.

To enjoy Dune, I suspect that you need to be armed with knowledge of the world (to wikipedia you go) and go in expecting to see a spectacle that looks incredible but rings, ever so slightly hollow.

It is on the strength of the film-making alone, that I am barely recommending this film. Even then, I am hesitant.

I cannot however fully adore this film, on account of the disappointing score, lack of narrative thrust and for removing a lot of the world-building Herbert placed in the world of Dune.

Villeneuve … for Part Two, you better not have a lot of clumsy exposition dumps, due to all the big parts you’re missing in Part One.

Also, for the love of God, tone down the flashbacks.

A scene to recall: Any time the Sardaukar turned up on screen, I was mesmerised. Mostly because I wanted to be one of these badass sci-fi special forces swordsmen.

Things I wished were more prominent in the film or were inserted.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

This list isn’t to say that I could do a better job than Denis Villeneuve, but more to satisfy the version I have playing in my head with his production design.

  • Starting the film with a guerilla attack on the Harkonnens seem unnecessary, as is the voice-over by Chani, whose role in the overall story is light.
  • Had I a choice, I would have elected to start the film with a scene, not set in the book anywhere. I would have begun in the Emperor’s throne room, where he has called for an important meeting with all the crucial factions involved. This has multiple benefits.
    • Firstly, it introduces all the key factions like the Bene Gesserit, the Sardaukar, the Suk School, the Spacing Guild, the Mentats, the Harkonnens, the Atreides, the Emperor himself, and all the other characters. It establishes and introduces the hierarchy and political machinations of the galaxy that the audience needs to be aware of.
    • Secondly, it showcases the importance of Dune and why spice melange is such a crucial element to the workings of the universe.
    • Thirdly, you can establish the motivations behind the Emperor’s intentions to kill Duke Leto and his secretive relationship with the .
  • Spice and it’s role in the workings of the universe, needs to be emphasised more. Beyond Paul’s supernatural ability to see into the future and past, there needs to be an example of why spice is so valued. People buying milligrams of spice for recreational purpose at exorbitant prices could be shown, or the Guild Navigators themselves using it to navigate through time and space.
  • I would have less black uniforms and perhaps have the Atreides bedecked in a different colour, a dark green or blue to showcase their home-world of Caladan. This is just to contrast them more, as heroic, versus the Harkonnens’ villainous black.
  • The dinner sequence in the book would have added a wonderful element to the betrayal later.
    • Firstly, it would have been an excellent time to showcase why Duke Leto is so beloved and thus a threat to the Emperor. You want to build up more emotional connections with the Duke, so that his death near the end of the film is all the more tragic.
    • Secondly, Stilgar and a host of other characters would be there (smugglers, Fremen, Guild members etc) to create a fascinating whodunnit element for the audience to guess who betrayed the Atreides family.
    • Thirdly, you could add Dr. Yueh’s motivation for betrayal here, with a conversation about his past and family. In the film, it is so abrupt and sudden, that you do not really get anything from him.
    • Fourthly, you flesh out the side characters like Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat. Beyond seeing them in their roles, you can also get more of a sense of who they are, unlike in the film.
    • Fifthly, you show the workings of a royal family, the customs and attitudes they need to adhere to in the universe, thus adding another world-building element, that will contrast with the Fremen.
    • Lastly, it slows the movie down a bit, and shows the changes that Leto was undertaking on Arrakis before his untimely demise.
  • Kynes should have been captured, tortured by the Harkonnens and left to die in the desert like in the book, embittered by the fate that had befallen the character.
    • In addition, her character’s role amongst the Fremen should have been expanded and touched more upon. There should have been scenes where Fremen treated her with awe for the vision she instilled in them.
  • I would have never shown any footage of the Fremen riding the sandworms. In the book, it was such a revelation, such a powerful moment to discover that the Fremen could genuinely control these creatures. To have it spoilt so early, with lame footage that lasted 3 seconds, is so disappointing from a narrative standpoint. Paul’s first attempt to ride a worm, is a key foundation in his character and it should have been reserved for that, not for a lame line: “desert power.”
  • The Harkonnens weren’t grotesque enough. There needs to be more disgusting-ness to their character and behaviour that I thought Lynch nailed rather well, in comparison to the Villeneuve version.
  • Chani is too prevalent in this version of the film, with continuous flashbacks to her …. a move that I think is a bit odd, considering for most of the book, Paul is more obsessed with preventing a holy war in his name, that will spread across the galaxy than some attractive desert girl. I wished there were more flash-forwards to his fear of a jihad spreading, due to his myth and power instead of repeated footage of Zendaya looking over her shoulder in different costumes.
  • So much of this film could have been fleshed out and explored further, had Villeneuve stopped at the section of the book where Herbert ended Part 1. The character of Piter De Vries for example, was worth exploring and expanding, as is a deeper exploration of the concept for the Kwisatz Haderach and how the many factions involved
  • I wished a lot more of the fun side characters were fleshed out more, because of how they create this intriguing extra world-building element. In particular, Gurney Halleck, should have had more screen time versus Duncan Idaho, as his songs and skills and post-betrayal role is much more significant and interesting.
  • Finally, I would love to see all the deleted scenes and see whether there is an almost 4 hour version of the film, that really sticks the landing of adapting the novel.

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