Frank Herbert's Dune has been adapted a few times, most famously by David Lynch in 1984. Jodorowsky had tried tackling it at one point and a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries came and went. The anticipation of Denis Villeneuve's version has been building for some time. Previous takes on the material have never satisfied fans due to a lack of appreciation for the spiritual side of Herbert's novel. Villeneuve seemed to do the impossible with Blade Runner 2049, making a sequel to a classic that made the original even better in hindsight. So, does he pull it off? The answer is mostly. The film is jaw-dropping in its scale and beauty and the cast is stacked. However, this newbie to the material walked away from Part One with a shrug. For all its stunning visuals, the film left me cold emotionally.
Part One, as the opening title card states, is an important choice. At 2 hours and 34 minutes, the film is allowed to explore the world of Dune. In fact, most of the runtime is spent building the world and exposing exposition. There is a lot of plot and Villeneuve and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth seem to be betting on Part Two. At the time of the film's release, Part Two hasn't been greenlit. Here is hoping it does because Part One is all set up. The film simply ends as if you were interrupted reading a book by a ring of the doorbell.
Timothée Chalamet is Paul Atreodes, son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac). Duke is send to the desert planet Arrakis to take over Spice production. Spice is the most valuable resource in the universe, used for space travel but sacred to the Fremen, who treat it as a hallucinogenic. Duke takes his house to the planet, including advisors Duncan (Jason Momoa), Gurney (Josh Brolin) and Paul's mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson.
While this is happening, Paul keeps having dreams of a young woman, Zendaya's Chani. Chani is a key character I am told but here is relegated to Paul's dreams. She is barely in the film. My assumption is she will be the focus of Part Two. We do get her narration that tells us of the planet Arrakis, a dangerous place full of heat that can kill you and sandworms that can eat you. In fact, we learn a lot for the first hour and a half of the film. Characters often speak in exposition, which can make their emotional state and motivations unclear. Paul is particularly drawn in an opaque manner, making it hard to feel for him. Paul is supposed to be a messiah, or at least could be. He is learning to use a strange power where he modulates his voice to command others.
While all this setup is going on, Villeneuve fills the IMAX shot screen with gorgeous imagery. The scale at which the film operates is stunning. Ships leave and land in ways few sci-fi films have shown. Things are immense, like the giant sandworms. I can't imagine seeing this anywhere but the largest screen possible. Seriously, don't watch this at home.
The cast is stacked and solid across the board. Javier Bardem shows up as the leader of the Fremen. Charlotte Rampling is memorable as the frightening Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. Stellan Skarsgård creates a grotesque and effective villain in Baron Vladimir Harkonnen which is loyal nephew (Dave Bautista) at his side.
Dune transports viewers into an alien world. It creates a sci-fi vision wholly its own. The technical achievements are incredible from the production design to costumes to the cinematography. There are images in the film that will stick with you for a long time. There is a lot to love in the film. If you are new to the material, like I was, then Part One is going to be hard to judge. I don't know the full story but I do hope for a Part Two and maybe even a Part Three. My biggest gripe with the film is how emotionally uninvolved I was. The characters hardly get a moment to show who they are. There is far too much setup here. While the Spice-filled sands of Arrakis are as hot as the surface of the sun, Dune left me cold.