Remember the Lord of the Rings films? (Try to think back – they were an obscure series of fantasy movies from the early 2000s featuring a bunch of elves and talking trees and the odd magic ring or two, all made by the same guy who directed Braindead). I was but a lad of eleven(ses) when The Fellowship of the Ring premiered, and I still vividly remember the wonder that enraptured me as I witnessed Middle Earth in all its grandeur come to life before my eyes. Images of Nazgûl astride black steeds and Uruk-hai swarming Amon Hen and Saruman trololoing atop Orthanc are burned into my memory to this day and are apt to give me goosebumps. Oh, that I could recapture what it was like to experience the tranquility of the Shire, the beauty of Rivendell, the gloom of Moria, the magic of Lothlórien for the first time! While I love the entirety of Lord of the Rings, Fellowship has a special place in my heart for introducing me to Tolkien’s world (I eventually read the books while waiting in anguish for Return of the King to grace theaters). Lord of the Rings was my first epic, a monumental technical and narrative achievement that set the lofty platinum standard for what could even be considered ‘epic’ (years later, an acquaintance decreed that 2008’s Get Smart was also ‘epic,’ which I took as a sign that some people just aren’t as bright as me).
A lot’s changed since the Lord of the Rings films left theaters – not just cinematically, but culturally as well. Social media platforms have infiltrated every facet of our lives, comic book adaptations dominate our screens, 1980s nostalgia for some reason continues to be a thing, and countless streaming services offer up more shows and movies than we could ever enjoy in a single lifetime. It’s a noisy, cluttered world we currently occupy, one that’s been bought by Disney and paid for by Marvel and Star Wars fans. In a media landscape where every side character in the MCU is receiving their own spin-off and everything from Ghostbusters to Home Alone is getting the sequel treatment (again), the very notion of a sweeping, character-driven epic like Lord of the Rings being made not for financial reasons but because someone actually wanted to see it made is almost unreal.
Which brings me to a film I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life, an adaptation of one of the greatest science fiction novels ever penned, a piece of cinema that has reminded me just what ‘epic’ is.
NO, NOT THAT ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!
LET’S TALK ABOUT DUNE: PART ONE
Wait… “Part One”?
WHADDAYA MEAN “PART ONE”?! WHEN THE HELL IS PART TWO COMING OUT?!
(flips table, screams, pops Valium)
Dune is a legitimately epic science fiction film directed by Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve, who caught my attention with Sicario back in 2015, impressed me with Arrival a year later, and floored me with Blade Runner 2049 only a year after that (those were good times, pre-COVID Earth…). It adapts roughly the first half of Frank Herbert’s 1965 magnum opus, a sci-fi mind-tripper set in an interstellar feudal society where artificial intelligence is nonexistent, solar travel the province of prescient superhuman navigators, and a psychotropic substance known as melange (or “spice”) the most valuable commodity in the universe. This spice can only be found on Arrakis (also called “Dune”), a hostile desert world populated by indigenous Fremen and predatory sandworms so colossal they could swallow Perfection whole (with a side of Kevin Bacon). Because spice is essential for space travel (among other enterprises), the governance of Arrakis is a highly coveted position by the Great Houses of the Imperium, the most pertinent of which are noble House Atreides (think House Stark, but regal and more politically savvy) and vile House Harkonnen (House Lannister with more, shall we say, lascivious appetites). At the onset of the story, the honourable Duke Leto Atreides has been granted stewardship of Arrakis and all its lucrative spice-mining operations by the Padishah Emperor, an assignment he’s keen enough to recognize as a virtual death sentence (imagine receiving a gift you can’t refuse from someone you know to be untrustworthy that literally everyone in the world is prepared to murder you over). As shadowy forces across the Imperium conspire against his family, young Paul Atreides, the Duke’s only son, begins exploring the nature of his mysterious dreams, which seem to be summoning him to the wilderness of Arrakis, where the Fremen dwell. His journey will take him through the wastes of Dune and up to the very throne room of the Emperor, a destiny that will hopefully be covered efficiently in Part Two.
Considering the density of the source material, the decision to split Dune in half was a wise move, though my initial reaction upon seeing ‘Part One’ on the film’s title card was one of alarm (at that point, Part Two had not been announced nor was its future a surety). There is a hell of a lot to unpack in Herbert’s novel, so much so that for years most considered it unadaptable (not unlike Lord of the Rings until Peter Jackson came along). The universe Paul Atreides inhabits is a bizarre one, populated by metahuman factions like the psychic Bene Gesserit witches, the mutated Guild Navigators, and the cognitively-evolved Mentat advisors, all of which spring to life naturally in written form but tend to look too goofy to take seriously on-screen (as the David Lynch version painfully evinces). Moreover, each house, planet, organization, and race represented in Dune has a comprehensive history that could serve as the basis for a doctoral dissertation, and the novel’s spiritual, philosophical, environmental, and socio-political themes have given readers and critics alike enough to dig their teeth into for over five decades. Herbert’s lore and worldbuilding are exhaustive, to say the least, inviting readers to dig deeper than the sandworms prowling beneath Arrakis’ titular dunes to fully appreciate the tapestry he’s spun.
Even these bastards don’t understand how the Gom Jabbar is supposed to work.
All of Dune’s intricacy, complexity, and sheer mind-bending weirdness naturally makes the task of adapting it to film a daunting one, one many have attempted over the years only to throw their hands up in defeat (check out Jodorowsky’s Dune for a glimpse of the experimental acid-trip that would have made Lynch’s version look humdrum by comparison). Fortunately, Villeneuve clearly has an instinct for what elements of the novel to incorporate and which ones to ignore or downplay, creating a fully-realized, remarkably balanced adaptation that will satisfy long-time fans while still remaining accessible to newcomers (I saw this with my brother and dad, the former a diehard fan of the novel and the latter only passingly acquainted with “the old one with Kyle Whatsisface,” and both thoroughly enjoyed themselves). The film manages to capture the scale and elaborateness of Herbert’s universe to such a degree that you’re able to keep track of who’s who, what’s what, and how they’re significant without ever feeling overwhelmed or disoriented, even the characters and organizations that weren’t delved into as thoroughly as I’d have liked due to time constraints (but none of that will matter when I have the inevitable director’s cut Blu-ray on my shelf, which will look damn sexy next to my LOTR extended edition box sets).
Visually, Dune is gorgeous. I was curious to see how Villeneuve, a modern director whose mastery of colour is perhaps only rivaled by Sam Mendes, would function within the limitations imposed by Dune’s altogether narrow palette of browns and tans. Aside from a few all-too-brief scenes on oceanic Caladan, murky Giedi Prime, and torrential Salusa Secundus, we spend the bulk of the film on a planet about as visually arresting as a backyard sandbox – not that this remotely prevents Villeneuve from making it the most beautiful damn sandbox you ever laid eyes on. It’s incredible to me how an environment as dry and monochromatic as Arrakis can be made to look so stunning, but the fact that everything from the sepulchral palace to the sunbaked city of Arrakeen to the rolling desert dunes are not only visually striking but diverse enough to stay consistently interesting is a testament to Villeneuve’s enduring skill as a cinematographer. It’s also worth mentioning that the production design perfectly captures the strangeness of the novel while still remaining grounded, so that the more outlandish wardrobe choices and set pieces (like the Bene Gesserit costumes and full-body stillsuits) look appropriately alien but never ridiculous. Furthermore, the performances are all on-point (notably Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica) and the extensive CGI is implemented seamlessly, with only a few sporadic shots standing out to me as mildly clunky.
As enthusiastic as I am for Dune, it’s difficult to provide a definitive assessment (nevermind a numerical rating) because it’s thus far incomplete. Whereas each installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is able to stand on its own as an individual film, employing conventional but elongated act structures and more or less wrapping up while still leading into the next chapter, Dune cuts off fairly abruptly just as the second act is gearing up. As such, writing a critique is sort of like attempting to evaluate Lawrence of Arabia if it slapped you with a ‘To be continued’ just as T.E. Lawrence prepares to cross the Sinai Desert. What we’re left with here is a solid first act and a promising partial second, but whether or not it’s able to stick the landing, only time will tell. All I can do in the meantime is hope, revisit the novel, and see about framing some of the cerebral foreign release posters for the 1984 version.
Like this one!
In an age defined by on-demand streaming, binge-watching, and rampant Internet scrutiny spearheaded by Screen Rant, it’s refreshing to see an artistic film like Dune doing so well. I do hope it ends up being an epic like Lord of the Rings once it’s complete – I really, truly do. If not, well… I guess there’s always Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series to look forward to…
Is it 2023 yet?