“Dune: Part One” Is Only Half Of A Masterpiece In The Making

Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is often described as the science-fiction equivalent to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord Of The Rings – not only because both works are immense, richly detailed, and lore-heavy, but because both are widely regarded as having redefined the boundaries of their respective genres and left an indelible influence on future works in those genres. We could spend all day arguing about whether Dune merely repackaged the ideas and themes of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation into something more friendly to the 1960’s counterculture movement, but that’s beside the point because I’m not here to review the book.

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Paul Atreides and Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam | npr.org

This weekend, director Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Dune finally hit screens both big and small, introducing Herbert’s story to the world at large – and it’s a momentous occasion for fans who long thought the novel to be “unfilmable”. The same word was used of The Lord Of The Rings once upon a time, and both novels were unsuccessfully adapted only a few years apart from each other (1978 for Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord Of The Rings, and 1984 for David Lynch’s bizarre Dune), lending credence to the theory that both stories were too vast and intricate and reliant on still-rudimentary CGI to work onscreen.

But even though Peter Jackson came along and proved that The Lord Of The Rings could work when divided up into a trilogy of monumental proportions, it’s taken twenty more years for Dune to enjoy the same treatment. Denis Villeneuve’s film only covers the first half of Herbert’s original novel, a bold but risky choice given that Villeneuve isn’t filming his entire saga simultaneously, the way Jackson did. Granted, I can’t imagine that Warner Brothers will pass up the opportunity to try and shape Dune into a sci-fi franchise rivaling Disney’s Star Wars, and this is the same company that is recklessly plowing forward with the Fantastic Beasts franchise despite the mounting evidence that no one cares, but Dune is a totally different beast.

This first section of the story has the daunting task of establishing Herbert’s sprawling ensemble cast of characters, the world of Arrakis, and the complex current geopolitical crisis in which two rival families find themselves entangled. If there’s any critical flaw in the film’s structure, it’s that the whole experience is a bit like watching people set up a board-game while you impatiently wait to play – but just as you sit down to start the game, the movie ends. Dune: Part One is not a stand-alone story. I can watch any of the films in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and be thoroughly satisfied by the journey, but Dune: Part One has no self-contained thematic or emotional through-line of its own.

Theoretically, I suppose it’s a smart business move. Dune: Part One not only demands a sequel, but requires one. And regardless, it deserves one. Denis Villeneuve has spared no effort in ensuring that Herbert’s world feels like a fully realized location, and now that the board is set and the pieces are in motion, the game is free to unfold across a canvas rich with carefully considered detail and texture. And make no mistake, there’s already plenty of spectacular action and interpersonal drama in Dune: Part One – Villeneuve is padding out the first half of the book, but he’s doing so with as much consideration for what audiences want from a blockbuster as for what readers want out of the story and its extensive lore.

Dune is epic on a scale that Star Wars has only rarely reached in over forty years of dominating mainstream sci-fi. Villeneuve envisions a universe where everything is impossibly large. The unseen Emperor is a god-king; the royal houses of Atreides and Harkonnen are arranged like small armies in their rigid hierarchy of power; their palaces are the size of cities; their starships are geometric monoliths too great to be housed on land – when the fleets of House Atreides depart Caladan for Arrakis, they rise from under the ocean like continents ripping off the planet’s surface. And our protagonist, the tormented Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), is born into a societal structure where he’s expected to ascend to that level, to become a superhuman befitting of his family’s legacy.

But although Paul struggles with those expectations even back on Caladan, it’s only when he’s thrust into the harsh and unforgiving deserts of Arrakis by necessity that he finally begins to grasp how small he truly is in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend very long in the desert ruminating on this revelation before the movie’s over, and ironically it’s the least visually interesting environment in Dune. Deserts, even on our humble planet, are vibrant habitats, and you’d think that the deserts of alien worlds – deserts populated by giant sand-worms, no less – would provide fertile ground for more arresting visuals than what the film actually offers. As far as sci-fi deserts go, Tatooine still takes the cake with its binary sunset. Sorry.

This is partly a result of Dune‘s spartan color palette. The film is so austere that in the hands of a lesser director and cinematographer, it could easily have been rendered irredeemably dreary or monotonous – but with Villeneuve and Greig Fraser working on the film, Dune‘s bleakness serves a thematic purpose, accentuating the scars of Arrakis, a world being sucked dry of its natural resources by relentless capitalism and imperialism. Every rare flourish of color – whether it’s the vivid saffron of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson)’s dress when she first steps foot on Arrakis, or the flickering red and blue force-fields that warriors wear as shields in battle – is a welcome relief, like the sight of water in a barren desert.

For interior sequences, Fraser expertly manipulates light and shadow to fill in the empty spaces of Dune‘s many sets, which are largely devoid of ornamentation or extravagance by choice. Again, it’s all about playing up scale and starkness – you wouldn’t want to live in this world built for titans (unless you’re a hyper-minimalist, in which case don’t let me stand in your way), but you can’t help but marvel at it. House Atreides even dresses severely, with costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan deserving a special shoutout for turning in a wide variety of sleek militarized fits that feel fashionable yet forbidding. They are the outward face of ruthless, efficient, terrifying power.

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Gurney Halleck and Paul Atreides | cnet.com

True power, however, lies in the hands of the Bene Gesserit, a cult of psychic sorceresses who operate behind closed doors, subtly manipulating galactic politics to further their own agenda – and to mark the distinction, they wear instantly iconic all-black outfits of their own, complete with some extraordinary headdresses. Lady Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, and through her Paul Atreides inherits both a killer fashion sense and a couple of other abilities and special powers. The Bene Gesserit are massively important to Dune, but they have only a handful of scenes in Part One before departing for their own HBO Max series, their appearance bookended by Hans Zimmer’s haunting theme.

Zimmer’s score is brilliant for many reasons, but it’s the completely random use of Scottish bagpipes that really stuck out to me. And I don’t mean that bagpipes are just featured on the score. No, there’s a literal bagpipe-player in this movie, set thousands of years in the future, and all I can say without spoilers is that there’s one scene where those bagpipes kick in and start playing the House Atreides theme, and if I were a hardcore Dune fan I feel like that would be my Ride of the Rohirrim moment.

But the unexpected Scottish influence on Villeneuve’s Dune is all the more bizarre when coupled with this adaptation’s erasure of the MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) and Muslim influences that exist in Frank Herbert’s original novel and inform on some level almost every aspect of his story, its themes, and its worldbuilding. How Herbert interacts with those influences in his novel is cause for frequent discussion, and how that resonates with MENA and Muslim readers is a matter of personal opinion, but that those influences exist is indisputable. Villeneuve’s adaptation makes little effort to engage with those influences beyond a surface-level, which is disappointingly predictable given that no MENA and Muslim writers worked on the film.

Even in front of the camera, MENA people are relegated to background roles on Villeneuve’s Arrakis, while their cultures and languages are used to embellish the film’s aesthetic and exposition-heavy dialogue. There are a few prominent roles for actors of color, including Sharon Duncan-Brewster as the intrepid ecologist Liet Kynes and Chang Chen as House Atreides’ personal physician Wellington Yueh, but their presence doesn’t make up for the absence of MENA talent onscreen.

So who is onscreen? Timothée Chalamet is mesmerizing as Paul Atreides, crafting a character here who is equal parts as boyish and charming as Luke Skywalker, imbued with the ethereal elegance of Frodo Baggins, and wracked by an inner darkness that is all his own to bear. Interestingly, neither Mark Hamill nor Elijah Wood was a particularly seasoned actor when they took on the defining roles of their careers, but Chalamet is already at a point where he’s capable of bringing out all of the nuance and fiery emotion required from his Paul with delicate skill and precision. Chalamet and Ferguson make for a convincing mother-son duo who are at their most formidable when bouncing off each other.

Other highlights include Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, who can’t help but heat up the whole movie with his natural warmth and charisma, and that’s even before he gets fully nude (though to be honest in the rigid pose and harsh lighting that the scene requires, his body has a certain El Greco quality that emphasizes Isaac’s sinews over his sexuality). Jason Momoa’s bearish build and easygoing attitude makes him a comfortable fit for the character of Duncan Idaho, although some of his line-readings feel stiff. Charlotte Rampling is a powerhouse as the enigmatic Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. And David Dastmalchian makes a strong impression in the small role of Piter de Vries, a human computer programmed with a strain of Harkonnen cruelty.

In an ensemble cast this large, there’s always going to be one or two actors who aren’t given space to exercise their talents to the fullest, and in Dune: Part One sadly that’s Josh Brolin. His Gurney Halleck is largely a blank slate throughout the film, and Brolin doesn’t bring much personality or vigor to the role, which was previously filled by Sir Patrick Stewart in the 1984 adaptation. Stellan Skarsgård, meanwhile, is unable to elevate the villainous character of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen above a kind of grotesque caricature, which robs the incomplete story of a particularly compelling antagonist; the Baron’s nephew Beast Rabban, played by Dave Bautista, is a generic muscly henchman.

And despite being hyped up in all of the marketing for this film as Chalamet’s costar, Zendaya is hardly in Dune: Part One at all. Her role as the Fremen warrior Chani is mostly stitched together from several scattered dream sequences, and an opening voiceover in which she concisely lays out the troubled history of Arrakis, making her appearance here little more than a glorified cameo. Going forward, Zendaya will have plenty of opportunities to shape Chani into a fully three-dimensional character onscreen, but she’s only just getting started.

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Chani | thecrimson.com

And so is our journey as fans. Dune: Part One is only a sample of what Frank Herbert’s world has to offer. Like the back-cover blurb on a novel, it exists to entice you into the story with a lot of tantalizing hints, partly sketched-out ideas, and bold promises, all designed to leave the viewer urgently wanting more, but it’s not a satisfying stand-alone story of its own. And when Villeneuve’s Dune saga is finally complete and available to be viewed in its totality, whether or not it’s the masterpiece of sci-fi cinema that I believe it can be, I’m not sure yet if anyone will choose to watch Part One separately from the others, or that it will be beloved purely on its own merits. Everything there is to love about this movie (and make no mistake, there’s a lot) is stuff that I hope to see expanded upon or even improved upon in the sequels, whenever they come.

Movie Rating: 8.9/10

Ahsoka Among 9 New Star Wars Series Titles Revealed!

Lucasfilm had plenty of new Star Wars content to offer fans at the Disney Investors Meeting on Thursday evening, including multiple series heading straight to the Disney+ streaming service: one returning favorite (the third season of The Mandalorian, which will drop near the end of 2021), and nine new titles. As has long been reported, characters like Ahsoka Tano, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Lando Calrissian will each be getting their own spinoffs, although there were several big surprises among the new reveals – and a few notable absences. Star Wars also seems to be setting up a mysterious (but presumably massive) crossover event between some of these upcoming series.

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YouTube | @NewBite

First up we have Kenobi, which will follow the titular Jedi Master during his time in exile on Tatooine. A beautiful new, desert-inspired logo for the series was unveiled, and a sizzle reel was played for Disney investors but hidden from general audiences. But what captured the internet’s attention was the reveal that prequel trilogy star Hayden Christensen will be reprising the role of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in the series. How this will work is currently unclear: between Revenge Of The Sith and A New Hope, Kenobi and Vader never had any interaction with each other – but Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy promised fans that the Jedi and Sith will take another crack at each other, in the “rematch of the century”. My theory is that some sort of Force projection or vision will make this possible, but who knows? This is Star Wars: canon has been rewritten countless times before.

Ahsoka, based on the adventures of former Jedi Knight Ahsoka Tano, will presumably follow Rosario Dawson’s version of the fan-favorite character after her brief appearance in The Mandalorian‘s second season. The title logo, which features a star-chart similar to the map of the World Between Worlds, seems to indicate a connection to the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, where the World Between Worlds first debuted. This probably means that Ahsoka will travel through the World Between Worlds on her journey, and she’ll likely team up with Rebels heroine Sabine Wren on her quest to locate the long-lost Jedi Ezra Bridger (fingers crossed Rahul Kohli plays him in live-action) and Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Rangers Of The New Republic is a bit more vague. Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, the creatives behind The Mandalorian and Ahsoka, will work on this series too – its existence probably explains the reason why New Republic characters have been popping up frequently throughout The Mandalorian: particularly X-Wing pilot Carson Teva, played by Kim’s Convenience‘s Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Unfortunately, New Republic marshal Cara Dune will likely also return, putting bigot and anti-masker Gina Carano in a lead role in Star Wars. This is among the series’ I’m least excited for (partially because of Carano, partially because the New Republic is pretty uninteresting to me; especially without Carrie Fisher around to reprise the role of Leia Organa), but it’s apparently one of three that will lead into a massive crossover event including characters from The Mandalorian and Ahsoka. I expect this crossover to focus on the return of Grand Admiral Thrawn and Ezra Bridger; the final showdown between Din Djarin and Moff Gideon; and the rise of the First Order. Strangely, a Boba Fett series rumored to be in the works was not included among the new title reveals.

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Rangers Of The New Republic and Ahsoka | theverge.com

Lando has the potential to be a great series, thanks to the involvement of Dear White People‘s Justin Simien. Little else is known, and the sizzle reel played for investors was hidden from general audiences: but there’s a possibility that both Billy Dee Williams and Donald Glover will reprise the role. The colorful logo for the series and the party music played during the sizzle reel interval hopefully reflects the show’s playful, groovy bent – I’d gladly take a break from Star Wars‘ doom, gloom, and darkness, if it means exploring the glittery upper echelon of galactic society. Explicit confirmation of Lando’s pansexuality (teased by the Solo writers prior to the film’s release, without payoff) would also be nice.

One of the few Star Wars series’ to reveal new footage at the presentation, Andor will explore the backstory of Rogue One antihero Cassian Andor, as a fighter and secret agent for the young Rebellion. Spanning twelve episodes and featuring a cast of over two-hundred named characters (!), the series also stars Adria Arjona, Stellan Skarsgård, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough, Kyle Soller, and Genevieve O’Reilly, who will reprise her role as Rebel leader Mon Mothma. For Star Wars: Rebels fans who were let down by the lack of a Rebels animated sequel series announcement, Andor is a must-watch: I thoroughly expect some characters from the animated series to pop up in live-action, with General Hera Syndulla being the most likely candidate in my opinion. This series will drop in 2022.

An animated series titled The Bad Batch will premiere next year – a trailer dropped, which I reviewed yesterday. The only other animated series revealed was one simply titled Visions, which will explore new corners of the Star Wars galaxy through the perspective of anime – and produced with the help of some of Japan’s leading anime studios. This seems likely to be an anthology of standalone episodes, much like another newly revealed Disney+ project which is being called an animated series by most outlets: A Droid Story, which will star C-3PO, R2-D2, and a new droid character.

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The Acolyte | comicbook.com

Finally (and most excitingly, to my mind), we have The Acolyte, an original series from Leslye Headland, one of the visionaries behind Netflix’s brilliant dark psychological comedy, Russian Doll. The Acolyte is set further back in Star Wars‘ timeline than any existing live-action property, during the mysterious era known as the High Republic: which will be further explored in a series of novels and comic books set to release next year. Said to be female-led and featuring martial arts elements, The Acolyte focuses on the Dark Side of the Force, and sounds like it might be our most in-depth look yet at the hierarchy of the Sith, and their heyday. The logo – with a prominent lightsaber gouge slashing the title – also hints at something very new, unique, and cool.

So what are you most excited for? The Acolyte is my most-anticipated Star Wars series, but maybe you’re more interested in Ahsoka, or Lando…or A Droid Story? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

“Dune” Trailer Review!

Like The Lord Of The Rings before it, Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic Dune has long been considered “unfilmable”: too huge and complex to ever successfully translate to the big screen. But Peter Jackson achieved the impossible by bringing Tolkien’s masterpiece to life (and in turn, revolutionizing the fantasy genre in Hollywood), and it looks like director Denis Villeneuve will try to do the same for Dune, with a lot of help from his incredible cinematographer Greig Fraser and his all-star cast led by Timothée Chalamet.

Dune
indiewire.com

Chalamet has made a name for himself in the indie and arthouse scene, and is one of the actors whose name routinely pops up during awards season: but Dune will mark his biggest role to date, as he steps into the shoes of futuristic messiah Paul Atreides, royal scion of House Atreides and heir to the throne of Arrakis, a remote desert planet rich with the resource known as Spice: a dangerous but powerful drug that pretty much everybody in the galaxy wants to get their hands on, either to use it (Spice plays a part in spiritualistic rituals and even interstellar travel) or to control it (due to its rarity, Spice is also extremely expensive and can be heavily taxed when it’s not being smuggled illegally out of Arrakis). Although it’s been a while since I’ve read Dune (it’s probably one of the most inaccessible books ever written), I remember most of the major story beats: Paul, whose entire life is built around a series of prophecies, sets off into Arrakis’ rugged, inhospitable deserts to try and unite the planet’s indigenous people, the Fremen, against the forces of his family’s sworn enemies, the tyrannical Harkonnens, when the latter clan arrives with the intention of conquering Arrakis and winning control of the Spice. At some point, I suppose I’ll have to reread the book, but that’s the general concept: from there, it gets bigger and bigger until it becomes a cautionary tale about ecological disaster (an issue it tackles head-on and spectacularly) and religion (an issue it tackles boldly but with less success, due to its reliance on tropes regarding indigenous cultures).

For most people, the image that comes to mind when they think Dune (assuming they know about the book at all, which might be rarer now than it would be in 1965, when the novel became an instant cult classic) is that of the terrifying Sandworms, gargantuan beasts that roam beneath the deserts of Arrakis and are worshiped as divine beings by the native Fremen. Appropriately, the first trailer for Villeneuve’s Dune holds off on the reveal of the Sandworms until the very end, when one suddenly erupts from the sand and rises over Paul. I love the new design: it looks awe-inspiring but also frightening in the best way possible. I would have maybe liked it to be a little bigger, but it’s possible that, like an iceberg, more of it is concealed beneath the sand than is visible above the surface.

Dune
polygon.com

The trailer intersperses scenes of desert warfare and high-tech weaponry with beautiful shots of Arrakis’ deserts and the already radiant cast: from Rebecca Ferguson to Zendaya to Jason Momoa to Oscar Isaac (and Oscar Issac’s impressive beard, which I count as an entire supporting character), there’s not an unattractive person on this planet. And Greig Fraser, Villeneuve’s cinematographer, has captured it all in the very best lighting with hazy, orange and blue overtones (orange and blue is a color combo proven to attract attention, and it never fails to do just that). Fraser’s job is made a lot easier by the fact that, canonically, Spice turns human eyes a vivid shade of blue. Visually, this trailer is nothing short of stunning.

With regards to the story, it will be interesting to see whether or not Villeneuve has streamlined the book’s plot dramatically or fixed some of its major problems, particularly….well, the entire plot, which isn’t a white savior narrative in the usual sense, but still “has many of the same discomfiting hallmarks that we see replicated again and again”, to quote from a recent, brilliantly-written breakdown of the book’s dealings with issues of race, gender and sexuality. Getting into that issue would require talking about spoilers for the book, so I’m not going to get into that conversation here, but suffice it to say that the Fremen (who, remember, are based off an amalgamation of various Native American, Middle Eastern and African cultures) and their interactions with Paul Atreides veer dangerously close to white saviorism for reasons that are not only difficult to explain, but downright disturbing. That’s why I’m hoping there’s just as much focus on the diverse supporting cast as there is on Paul: the Fremen, in particular, but also Paul’s mother (the sorceress/concubine Lady Jessica), and his love interest (the desert warrior Chani). Surprisingly, the trailer doesn’t give much screentime to Jessica (despite her being a major character in the books), but Chani’s role does seem to have been expanded – the trailer even starts with her meeting Paul in one of his prophetic dreams and the two exchanging a heartfelt kiss, before later reuniting in real life. There’s still no word on whether the villainous Baron Harkonnen will be depicted as he is in the books, as a grotesque, homophobic caricature who preys on younger men, but I have to hope that’s not the case.

Dune
techcrunch.com

But while it’s still too early to tell how similar Villeneuve’s Dune is to Frank Herbert’s original novel, it’s not too early to guess that this movie will generate a lot of conversation heading into next year’s awards season, thanks to the out-of-this-world special effects, cinematography, production design, direction and cast. Hopefully it generates just as much money at the box-office, but that will depend on how successfully it has updated its controversial and complicated story. In a year like 2020 (or, in fact, in any year), the last thing we need is a white savior.

Trailer Rating: 9.5/10