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DUNE: Part One (2021) By Denis Villeneuve - Movie Review

DUNE: Part One (2021) By Denis Villeneuve - Movie Review

Dune: Part One by Denis Villeneuve Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis VilleneuveEric Roth (screenplay by) Frank Herbert (based on the novel Dune written by) Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling, Babs OlusanmokunGolda Rosheuvel Run Time: 155 min Rated: 13+ (Canada) PG-13 (MPAA) for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers)

A Sublime yet Bleak Adaptation

Focusing on the first half of Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction novel Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of DUNE chronicles a young prince’s tragic coming of age amidst a struggle for power, resources, and influence between feudalistic nobility and specialized guilds thousands of years in the future.

Noble houses control entire planets within an imperium and the Emperor has ordered Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) to vacate his royal house from Arrakis, an unforgiving yet resource-rich desert planet, known as Dune. By imperial edict the Harkonnen, under the Baron’s nephew the ‘Beast’ Rabban (Dave Bautista), are replaced by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his family and courtiers who relocate from their water-covered home world of Caladan to oversee spice mining.

The rich resource called the spice melange, found only on Arrakis, extends consciousness and longevity. It also facilitates space travel making it the most valuable substance in the universe. (Oil would be the present-day analogue if oil could also be used for medicinal and psychoactive pharmacology.) Furthermore, the spice holds sacred importance to the indigenous people of Arrakis, the Fremen, and is likewise part of Dune’s complex ecology. 

The popular Duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of an exclusively female pseudo-religious organization called the Bene Gesserit, has broken her sisterhood’s orders by bearing her Duke a son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Jessica had previously been commanded to bear only daughters. The Bene Gesserit’s involvement in a centuries-long secretive breeding program to sire a super being, the Kwisatz Haderach, is jeopardized by Jessica’s choice. In the midst of political intrigue and military conflict Paul emerges as a potential hero for Arrakis’ oppressed Fremen people: their prophesied messiah, the Lisan al Gaib—the Voice of the Outer World. Highly trained in martial arts and statecraft the precognitive Paul Atreides must face dangers while wrestling with the responsibilities of being the son of a Duke, and possibly even the Bene Gesserit’s Kwisatz Haderach. Much is expected of the young man but not everyone is expecting the same things. He is a bit of an emerging mystery even to himself and at times, because of the countless meddling of others, even views himself as a freak.

This is very dense science fiction encompassing politics, religion, economics, and environmentalism. The level of detail is Tolkien-esque involving a large array of characters with competing interests and goals.

Quickly, and without context, before the parade of animated studio logos appear, before the film really begins, before the audience is generally expected to be paying attention, a strange disjointed voice says something unintelligible[1] which is subtitled “Dreams are messages from the deep.” While not subliminal — the audience is clearly intended to see and hear it — the jarring phrase, in a surreal kind of way, gives the impression of noticing a mistake. But it is not a mistake; it’s a clue to pay attention to everything and anything to do with dreams. At one point early in the film the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), sent to test the young Paul Atreides before he embarks to Arrakis asks him, “Do you often dream things that happen, just as you dreamed them?” Paul’s dreams in DUNE are part of his precognitive prophetic abilities. These dream sequences both introduce the Fremen girl Chani (Zendaya), Paul’s future love interest, and a possible bloody galaxy-wide Holy War spearheaded by Paul and the Fremen people. 

While readers of the book will understand Paul’s dreams of the future as a kind of trap he’s trying to escape, for casual viewers Villeneuve fails to get across this aspect of Herbert’s book as clearly as he could. In part this is because DUNE, for all its details, is light on exposition and Villeneuve chooses to “show” more than “tell” as he unfolds the story. The ground work for expanding on these ideas is there but the significance of the director’s subtle approach may only be apparent to the initiated and devoted fan of the books or repeat viewers of the film. As with his previous sci-fi films like Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Villeneuve shows his skill for sculpting tone and atmosphere and DUNE is filled with foreboding. What it lacks however is the kind of traditional character development which generally invites audiences to invest in the characters. As a result, the dreamy quality of the film feels a bit flat on first viewing when compared to the book or to the campy and often garish yet brilliantly broken David Lynch DUNE (1984) adaptation. Everything looks great in Villeneuve’s film from the sets to the costumes to the special effects and CGI but somehow it feels cold and empty.

Visually Villeneuve has crafted a film which in its scope and scale shares a kind of sublime quality with the German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea (1808-1810), Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) or The Stages of Life (1835),  more than it does with the gilded baroque interior design and acerbic industrial futurism vis-à-vis the carnival-barker-esque aesthetic of Lynch. Villeneuve’s visual choices evoke a kind of feeling of smallness where characters are lost in imposing settings, rooms, and landscapes juxtaposed against the relatively extreme close-ups of Paul’s prophetic dreamscape which focus on fragmentary images like a bloody hand and knife. As a result, there’s a lonely emptiness to many of the scenes which may be unsettling to viewers and which will undoubtedly lose its intended impact when viewed on a TV screen or smart phone.

Much of the drama of the first half of Herbert’s book is generated not from the esoteric spiritual prophecies of a teenage messiah figure as much as it is from the knowledge that Paul’s father Duke Leto, by accepting the Emperors edict to relocate to Arrakis, is walking into a trap. In the book there is a byzantine air of treachery full of potential spies and assassins where no one is above suspicion not even the Duke’s concubine Lady Jessica. In the book she is trying to find out who the Harkonnen may have bought off as a traitor. Villeneuve’s choice to remove this part of the story for the sake of streamlining the narrative effectively hollows out characters like Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chen Chang), the Atreides’ royal family physician, largely reducing the audiences’ understanding of his motivations. It also reduces the tragic nature of Leto and Jessica’s love story as in the book he, against his better judgment, approves surveillance of Jessica while she is proven to be nothing but loyal to Leto and their son Paul. Dropping the ‘traitor in their midst’ plotline makes the story simpler but less intriguing. From production photos and even from dialogue in trailers it appears this element of the story was scripted and shot but edited out of the theatrical release. Villeneuve is on record saying he doesn’t want these scenes incorporated at a later date and wouldn’t even want to see them in “deleted scenes” on a future release.     

Prior to the film’s release there was much internet chatter about swapping the sex of Dr. Liet Kynes the Judge of the Change and the Imperial Ecologist of Arrakis from a man to a woman. The character in Herbert’s book is a man played by Max von Sydow in Lynch’s 1984 film. In Villeneuve’s DUNE the character is a woman played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. The general explanation for this change was to bring more female characters into the mix of the heavily testosterone-driven plot. The odd thing about this choice, however well intentioned, is that it amounts to nearly nothing. Sharon Duncan-Brewster doesn’t bring anything especially feminine to the role and frankly these sorts of woke concerns are so incredibly broken at this point that if she had brought a more feminine aspect to the role that too would likely draw criticism. The additional odd thing is that while Villeneuve focuses mainly on Lady Jessica and Paul as his primary protagonists, for the sake of streamlining the story he so truncated Jessica’s character that she feels half the character she is in the book and even less of a character when compared to Francesca Annis' portrayal in Lynch's film. While repeatedly emphasising Jessica’s emotional state Villeneuve ends up doing a disservice to the one extraordinarily strong female character Herbert’s book provides. So for a production going out of its way to increase the number of female characters it strangely managed to reduce the role of the one excellent female character it all ready had at its disposal.

Within the book tension, drama, and character development for Jessica hinged on the fact that she had no obvious allies as a number of men questioned her loyalty and she needed to rely on her Bene Gesserit training, intelligence, and inner strength to protect her son and her life. She is dangerous, strong, and intimidating in all aspects of her character from her physical attractiveness, to her mastery of the quasi-mystical Prana Bindu martial arts, to her ‘witchy’ use of “the voice” used to control the actions of others, to her political acumen and knowledge of history and religion. In the film, while Rebecca Ferguson does an admirable job as Jessica, she is hampered by editing which leaves the character emotionally overwrought and with less personal agency. Villeneuve’s Lady Jessica may be generally more likeable and relatable to a wider audience but she is certainly a less interesting character than she could have been. It also raises a question: Is it better to have more female characters in a film or to have one truly excellent multifaceted female character?

Since the film covers roughly the first half of Herbert’s book the author’s final point is not apparent in this film. Thankfully DUNE: Part Two has been announced for 2023 with Villeneuve directing so hopefully the point of the book will be made by the end of the second film. Unlike many Young Adult fiction coming-of-age messiah characters—from Andrew "Ender" Wiggin in Orson Scott Card’s Ender's Game (1985), to Harry Potter “the boy who lived” in the J. K. Rowling seven-book series (1997-2007), to Percy Jackson in the Rick Riordan The Heroes of Olympus five-book series (2010-2014), —Paul Atreides is not ultimately the hero readers or viewers expect. The point of Herbert’s books is that people should not pin their hope on heroes or political leaders because they will be a disappointment since there is no perfect hero. For Christian viewers it would be good to consider a character like Paul Atreides less in relation with Jesus Christ, who the Bible teaches lived His life faultlessly without sin, and more with Biblical personages like the judges of the book of Judges who each have their character flaws yet accomplish great things. Paul Atreides could also be viewed more in the mold of King David, a flawed yet faithful individual, who starts out as a young man rising to prominence, anointed as king, yet hiding in caves in the wilderness fighting for his life and the life of the people until he can rule as king openly. Viewers of DUNE will notice many Islamic influences from the book which Villeneuve has retained. Everything from Fremen style of clothing and various phrases like Lisan al Gaib and Mahdi, to place names like Arrakis a thinly veiled allusion to the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq with its deserts and oil fields. This is all bolstered by Hans Zimmer’s Arabic-influenced soundtrack. That said, for the most part religion in Herbert’s Dune series is simply a tool of statecraft and propagandistic control. Villeneuve captures this better than Lynch. Paul Atreides in Lynch’s DUNE was a quasi-divine messiah who could kill with a word and literally made it rain on Arrakis. So far Villeneuve’s Paul is on track to be the tragic figure of Herbert’s original story. 

On the one hand, Villeneuve has attempted to make his film an accessible adaptation of Herbert’s novel for a more general audience, while on the other hand he has said he needed to impress and satisfy his harshest critic: the fourteen-year-old Denis Villeneuve who first read the book forty years ago. The fourteen-year-old Villeneuve is not however the only critic he must satisfy. When David Lynch made his adaptation in 1984 there was no public internet or YouTube, no blogs or podcasts so the current ability for wide-scale public comment and criticism now encompasses everyone from ardent fans of the books, to lovers and haters of the now cult classic Lynch film, to folks who enjoyed the John Harrison Dune TV mini-series (2000), to people with no prior knowledge of DUNE. So far the film’s reception has been positive and it will be interesting to see where Villeneuve goes with the rest of the 1965 book.

Regardless of where audiences fall within the spectrum of interest and criticism Villeneuve’s DUNE will require some time to sink in and invites repeat viewing to absorb the detail and subtleties of his filmmaking and storytelling. DUNE makes viewers work for their supper; nothing is handed to them on a silver platter; attention to detail will be very important to keep the saga’s many threads from becoming tangled but it is worth the effort. And while not as visually warm and charming as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy Villeneuve’s daring, ambitious, serious, and thoughtful approach toward Herbert’s beloved sci-fi masterpiece Dune is certainly more satisfying and interesting than Disney’s recent Star Wars trilogy’s rather crass and shallow attempt to bank on the legacy of George Lucas and the box office power of nostalgia.      

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGieseCheck out our Movie Review Index!

[1] Later in the film the same manner of speech is heard when the viewer gets a peak at the home world of the Emperors elite fighting force, the Sardaukar, from the plant Salusa Secundus.

This review now avaiable at the Canadian Lutheran online.