Dune: Part 1 Movie Review


Thomas Farrell, Contributor

Dune is one of the most cherished novels of the 20th century, and with good reason. Unlike most of its contemporaries which were concerned with the development of technology and its impact on humanity, Dune is almost exclusively concerned with the development of man itself. It’s set tens of thousands of years in the future, so of course, there are advanced spaceships and laser weapons, but the focus is on topics as varied as eugenics, religion, politics, and deep ecology. It’s a book that is as fresh now as it was at the time of its release in the 1960s.

As is the case with any breakaway hit novel, it must have a film or television adaptation. Dune has both. The 1984 David Lynch film was maligned on release but is now considered a cult classic. The TV miniseries from the early 2000s was very well received by both critics and audiences but is mostly forgotten now, as it’s unavailable on neither streaming services nor Blu-ray. Neither of these adaptations are a perfect translation of the story from the book, as Dune is too complex and literary to truly work on the screen, but that hasn’t stopped Denis Villeneuve from trying with the recently released Dune: Part 1.

Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto of the powerful House Atreides. In an attempt to undermine their growing influence, the Emperor of the entire universe places the Atreides in control of the desert planet Arrakis, home to the most valuable element known to man, spice. Spice facilitates space travel, and whoever controls its mining and refining holds much power. Hence why the emperor-backed Harkonnens, the current proprietors of Arrakis, will fight the Atreides to keep power. Things quickly spiral out of control from there and Paul and his mother come under the custody of the Fremen, a tribe of desert people who may hold the key to holding power on Arrakis and the secret of the spice.

On a purely aesthetic level, Villeneuve largely captures what makes the novel special. There’s a great sense of otherworldliness to the sets and costumes. The score and sound effects are unsettling and unique. The color palette is muted and the scope of many scenes is truly massive. It has its own visual language that sets it apart from both of the prior adaptations while still feeling faithful to the source material.

It has its own visual language that sets it apart from both of the prior adaptations while still feeling faithful to the source material

Unfortunately, there are some stumbles when it comes to the rest of the film. There are some very strange casting decisions that are likely to disappoint fans of the novel, although new viewers are unlikely to notice or care. The most obvious is changing the ecologist Liet Kynes from a white man to a black woman. The most disappointing thing isn’t necessarily how strange of a change it is, but how her actress, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, doesn’t have much to do as the character has a limited bearing on the plot compared to the novel and prior adaptations.

Dune also has the same issue that many of Villeneuve’s films do. The characters lack charisma. Given how a large part of the plot is Paul Atreides becoming the leader of a galactic holy war, the performance of Timothée Chalamet doesn’t pass muster. You just cannot believe that he would ever be able to convincingly lead anyone.

Along with the strange casting and direction decisions, much of the nuance of the original novel is gone due to the breezy pace. While there’s more action and the story keeps moving, we miss a lot of the cleverness of the characters and the more complex politicking found in the story.

Of course, Dune: Part 1 implies that Part 2 is coming. So hopefully, the sequel will address some of the failings in the first film while keeping the fantastic visuals and spirit. While Part 1 removes many elements from the original story, the spirit and themes still shine through. On the whole, it doesn’t shy away from some of the more controversial aspects of the novel. Dune: Part 1 seems to be performing well both in theaters and on HBO Max and in my opinion, marks the return of “real cinema.” Definitely give it a watch.