“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

“Dune” 2nd Trailer Takes Us Back To Arrakis

If The Lord Of The Rings was once considered unfilmable, then the same is doubly true of Frank Herbert’s Dune – a sprawling novel which is (arguably) to sci-fi literature what The Lord Of The Rings is to fantasy. Dune is a searing deconstruction of the hero’s journey, a complex, multi-layered, and not entirely successful non-comedic satire of the white savior narrative and its weaponization by imperialist forces and Christian missionaries, and besides all that it’s also an extremely dense and literary book, which is probably most popular outside of its actual readership because of the imagery of giant alien sand-worms, which the 1984 adaptation helped to make iconic to a larger audience.

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Paul Atreides | screencrush.com

But Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune for Warner Brothers (and HBO Max) seeks to make the classic story mainstream – and if that goal is at all attainable, then the newest full-length trailer for the film, released today, ought to do the trick. It’s clearly trying to divide its focus between satisfying fans of the original novel and luring in general audiences who just want a fun sci-fi movie. Unfortunately for Warner Brothers, the words “fun” and “Dune” are hardly synonymous, which is why I think this trailer very carefully highlights all the VFX-heavy shots of spaceship battles and cool fight sequences, without providing much context about what fills the gap between those scenes. The answer? Lots of weighty conversations about theology, geo-economic warfare, and intergalactic geopolitical strategy.

Oh yeah, and the aforementioned giant alien sand-worms, known in-universe as the Shai-Hulud; but those go hand-in-hand with the subject of geo-economic warfare (and environmental degradation hastened by human interference) for…reasons. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say the Shai-Hulud are important to the plot and themes of Dune, but they’re also not in the book anywhere near as frequently as the cover art would likely lead you to believe. And to be honest, I don’t know if they’re gonna be in the movie that much, either. We see the same one from the first trailer, rising above Paul Atreides in the desert at night, and one or two in a battle from near of the end of the movie, but that’s it.

(And not to sound too down on this movie, but the design of the Shai-Hulud isn’t really doing anything for me. Maybe I’ve just seen too much incredible and creative artwork of the sand-worms at this point for Villeneuve’s baleen whale/lamprey hybrid approach to seem fresh to me, but I don’t know…I expected something a little more majestic).

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Chani | nerdist.com

Honestly, if anything’s going to get general audiences into theaters to see Dune, it’s the film’s ensemble cast. Almost everyone here has their own legion of adoring fans, with stars Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya being exceptionally strong in that regard: it’s unsurprising that Zendaya’s character, the warrior Chani who falls in love with Chalamet’s Paul, appears to be the second-most important character in the movie – a deviation from the book, where that honor arguably goes to Paul’s mother, the Bene Gesserit sorceress Lady Jessica. But Rebecca Ferguson need not fear that her character will be entirely sidelined: a Dune spinoff series focusing on the Bene Gesserit is still in production at HBO Max, and just picked up a new showrunner in Diane Ademu-John. It will explore the efforts of the Bene Gesserit to plant the seeds of a messiah myth on the desert planet of Arrakis that will manifest itself in Paul Atreides.

Hopefully, that gives you some idea of why this book is so very controversial, and why the movie has to be responsible in the way it depicts both its “hero”, Paul, and his followers, the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis who are explicitly MENA (Middle Eastern and North African)-coded, and draw influences from vastly disparate cultures across the world, including those of Native American peoples. Is Dune a white savior narrative, or is that only a surface-level reading of the story? But even if it isn’t, does it ever do enough to dismantle the white savior narrative it props up in parody, or expose the root issue of white supremacy? In depicting the Fremen as victims of their own superstitious beliefs, who is Herbert calling out? These are just some of the complicated questions one could raise about Dune, and the answers are bound to vary depending on who you ask.

One thing is clear, though: that too much of this story is too deeply rooted in the (intentional and at least theoretically critical) appropriation of MENA culture and particularly religion for the film to not recognize or respect that either in front of the camera or behind the scenes. There are no MENA actors in major roles, and no MENA writers working on the script. That kind of oversight is concerning regardless of the source material, but it also suggests that Villeneuve isn’t really interested in exploring what Dune has to say about white saviors, or refining it any further by centering MENA perspectives in this adaptation. And that’s especially frustrating.

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Paul Atreides | freshfiction.tv

It’s unfortunate, too, because Dune looks incredible otherwise – the kind of visionary epic that could redefine the sci-fi genre of film for a generation, just as the original book did for literature. Villeneuve had at one point detailed his plans for a trilogy of Dune films matching the vast scope of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings, and I can only hope that if this franchise is allowed to expand (that will depend on its box-office performance and success on HBO Max, of course), that he takes great care to renovate parts of Herbert’s books which are not perfect and can be improved upon.

Trailer Rating: 8.5/10

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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

“The French Dispatch” Trailer Review!

Director Wes Anderson is back in the game with his boldest, brightest, most bizarre project yet: The French Dispatch, a film anthology of stories from a fictional newspaper (loosely based on The New Yorker) operating out of a fictional French city (obviously based on Paris) in the middle of the 20th Century, playing witness to some of the most explosive moments in the nation’s history. The abstract and absurdist comedy stars a massive cast of A-list talent, and employs a number of curious camera-tricks, as well as being partly shot in black-and-white.

Bill Murray stars as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, who went on a holiday and never came back to his home-state of Kansas: instead, he turned his travelogue column into The French Dispatch, which appears to be a semi-satirical weekly newspaper chronicling “world politics, the arts (high and low), and diverse stories of human interest”. He is surrounded by a star-studded cast playing his small army of editors, journalists, columnists, sources and the local characters they interact with on the streets of Paris, including Tilda Swinton (wearing a very bright orange wig), Benicio Del Toro as an artist imprisoned in a padded cell, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet already working on his Bob Dylan impersonation, Léa Seydoux as a stone-cold police officer, Owen Wilson, Mathieu Amalric, Liev Schrieber, Elisabeth Moss, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Christoph Waltz, Henry Winkler and Saoirse Ronan, among many others. Not all of this cast are comedians, but all of them look like they’re about to be.

"The French Dispatch" Trailer Review! 1
slashfilm.com

This trailer certainly makes it look like The French Dispatch will be a memorable cinematic experience – not only because of its extraordinarily weird cinematography and quirky visuals, but because I can’t wait to see the interactions between this amazing cast: Tilda Swinton and Henry Winkler in the same movie? Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan reunited onscreen for the umpteenth time? Count me in.

So what do you think? Does The French Dispatch look too weird for your taste, or do you think this looks stupendously strange? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

Trailer Rating: 8/10