Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
The hotly anticipated blockbuster epic "Dune" only gives fans half the story. The opening title proclaims it is "Part One." If there is a part two, and I sincerely hope there will be, the unified, complete narrative should be the defining adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic 1965 science fiction novel.
However, as a standalone film, this lavishly produced "Dune" lacks a suitable conclusion. The world-building is there, but it might leave frustrating questions for viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
This movie sets up what is to come with the "fingers-crossed" sequel. Producer optimism is that audiences will embrace this handsome 2 ½-hour massive tease, ensuring a second film's production. It's the follow-up that will tell the rest of the story.
And there's no denying that "Dune" is quite a story — a truly epic fantasy adventure set thousands of years into the future.
Working with three writers, director Denis Villeneuve (see "Blade Runner 2049") tackles Herbert's weighty tome by focusing on the intimate family drama that undergirds the universe-wide conflict. Much like the novel, this film starts on the water planet Caladan. Its leader Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), the head of the Great House of Atreides, is given a dangerous new assignment by the all-powerful Emperor of the Known Universe.
Duke Leto is tasked with taking over mining operations on the desert world known as Arrakis. The former caretakers, the brutish Harkonnen, failed to bring the region and its indigenous population, the Fremen, in line to collect the required amounts of Spice. The Spice is the most valuable substance in existence and acts as fuel for all forms of interstellar transportation.
Accepting this new post, the Duke takes with him his son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and his partner and concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Like the book, Paul is haunted by vivid (waking) dreams of the far-off, sand-covered land. He also has visions of an alluring Fremen girl named Chani (Zendaya).
His friend, the brawny warrior Duncan Idaho (a sometimes beardless Jason Momoa), tells the boy, "Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we're awake." That may be true, but Paul's dreams certainly have import. It's the dreams that help guide his possible rise on Arrakis.
Palace intrigue is in play prior to the Atreides' departure to Arrakis. Lady Jessica, a member of the religious sect known as the Bene Gesserit, agrees to allow her son Paul to be tested by a visiting Reverend Mother (a sinister Charlotte Rampling). This scene is the famous "what's in the box?" sequence. "Pain" is the answer, if you don't already know.
Meanwhile, the scheming Harkonnen leader, the Baron (a hulking Stellan Skarsgárd), calls in his second in command, Beast Rabban (an unhinged Dave Bautista). While the Harkonnens left Arrakis without conflict, they had no intention of assisting in a peaceful transition of power. The Atreides will have to overcome massive difficulties to accomplish the mining mission.
To say that the story is complex is an understatement. This multifaceted plot is why, for so many years, "Dune" was thought to be unfilmable. But attempts have been made. Most notably, David Lynch delivered his "Dune" in 1984.
When Lynch's film was released, I remember "cheat-sheet," postcard type materials were given to viewers to orient audiences. There was so much story, and not all of it could be told in a reasonable running time. A massive flop, the 1984 "Dune" is also only half a story. After providing an entertaining, if also cold and dense first hour, the movie went well off the rails, ending in an almost incoherent mess.
Admittedly, I've seen that movie several times, and I've read the entire book just once. Lynch's vision was a departure from Herbert's book, and thankfully, Villeneuve doesn't borrow from the film that came before.
However, while watching Villeneuve's "Dune," I was surprised how much it made me appreciate what Lynch was able to achieve in the 1980s. Sure, the scale of this new "Dune" dwarfs the prior effort, but had Lynch been afforded resources to properly complete the second half of his telling of the tale, it might very well have worked. Of course, if the 1984 film had been a success, this "Dune" may never have been made.
And the success of "Dune (2021)" cannot be easily dismissed. Villeneuve is a serious science fiction filmmaker. And he approaches Herbert's classic with obvious reverence. With its giant worms and otherworldly images, the look is like nothing seen on screens this year. It's a marvel.
But as grand as the visuals are, they take a backseat to the intimate family narrative that patiently unfolds. And at the heart of the project is Chalamet, who proves that he can carry a film. He's no joke as the wispy Paul, who, at 15 years old, manages to mature in the face of threats to his family. This coming of age is consistent with the novel. Paul was mocked as being thin and hardly intimidating.
Chalamet's sensitive but pensive persona plays perfectly. It's an impressive turn, especially when you consider what's riding on his performance. "Dune" is quite simply a monster of a story and a potential disaster for its producers. Failure here could end careers. Critically, "Dune" is hardly a failure.
But the nature of the source meant that the only way to do it properly would be in one, two, maybe more films. There have been television adaptations (see John Harrison's decent three-episode 2000 television film), but Villeneuve delivers an authentic cinematic experience, one to be taken in on the biggest screen possible.
And while "Dune" might be available this weekend on HBO Max, it needs to be seen in theaters. It's a big canvas, the most prominent, artiest blockbuster released in years. And if we're denied a sequel, we may never appreciate Villeneuve's complete vision.
Half a story isn't enough; it's just half of a potentially good thing.
Finally, in reading the press notes, everyone involved in making this "Dune" commented that they read and loved the book as kids. This sentiment is revealing because Villeneuve's film isn't a kid's movie. It should be enthralling for hardcore science fiction fans, but as much as it promises a thrilling fantasy escape, the dramatic parts of "Dune" are why it is significant.
The high drama should meld with smaller, relatable moments, but in this film, the undeveloped intimate emotional threads aren't enough for viewers to engage entirely. Part two is therefore essential.