Josh Reviews Dune
Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of my very favorite novels. I adore it and have read it many times. (Each time I read it, I feel like I inch closer to full comprehension.) I have a soft spot in my heart for David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune; it’s a terrible movie, but I still find quite a lot to enjoy. I am an unabashed fan of John Harrison’s three-part Dune adaptation for the Sci-Fi channel from 2000, as well as the 2003 follow-up Children of Dune. Some of the visual effects from those mini-series haven’t aged well, but I think the cast in both mini-series is fantastic, there’s lots of wonderfully weird design work, and most of all they approached the adaptations with seriousness and great reverence for Frank Herbert’s work. But while I love those previous efforts, I still felt that a definitive, fully satisfying adaptation of Dune had not yet been achieved. To say that I was excited when I heard that Denis Villeneuve would be adapting Dune for the big screen would be an enormous understatement. I am a huge fan of Mr. Villeneuve’s previous two gorgeous sci-fi films, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and I thought he was the perfect choice to tackle Frank Herbert’s epic.
Mr. Villeneuve and his team did not disappoint. Dune Part One is a masterpiece. It is a magnificent piece of work. It is stunningly gorgeous. The cast is extraordinary. The film digs deep into Frank Herbert’s universe; they have produced a remarkably faithful adaptation that is able to respect the richness of the world of Dune while also compressing and simplifying the story and the vast cast of characters to present it all in a way that is clear and easy to follow. The film is long, but it is masterfully paced and never lags. I was hooked in right from the first frame and on to the last. I could have easily watched three more hours of Dune immediately. Do I really have to wait years for the second half of the story???
(I really wonder how general audiences will respond when they get to the end of this film. It doesn’t end on a “dun-dun-dun” cliffhanger, but the we’re clearly leaving off in the middle of the story. It’s very similar to the end of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring film…)
(Update: Dune Part Two was green-lit yesterday, with a release date of October 2023. I’ll be very impressed if they’re really able to get that second film into theaters in just two years! I hope that happens. While I applaud and support to split this adaptation of Dune into two films — there’s just way too much story here to cram it all into one film — I don’t understand why they didn’t film both films at once. I know that doing so would have been expensive and monstrously complicated. But surely having to start over again from scratch, several years after filming Part One, must also be extraordinarily expensive and complicated?? And it means that we the audience have to wait years to get the second half of the story. Sigh.)
I’m going to dig deeply into the film adaptation in this review. So, beware spoilers for a half-century old novel. If you’d like to go into the film completely unspoiled, then please know that I thought Dune was an extraordinary achievement and I recommend you see it immediately, on the largest possible screen you can. (I saw Dune in a theater on a gloriously huge screen… having carefully picked out tickets to an oddly-timed showing so I could ensure light crowds.) And now, onward!
Above all else, this adaptation of Dune is gorgeous. Scene after scene, Mr. Villeneuve and his team (including cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette) have created a staggeringly beautiful film. This made me so happy. I love the design of this Dune film. I love the space-ships (the Guild Highliners are stunning and I fell immediately in love with this film’s interpretation of the Ornithopters), I love the sets, I love the costumes, I love the props. Everything looks perfect for the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune, while also being very original and unique looking, rather than falling into the familiar pattern of previous sci-fi films (many of which themselves were influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune novel). That’s an incredibly tricky balance, but Mr. Villeneuve and his team found it. Within these beautiful sets and locations, Mr. Villeneuve and his team found beautiful shots. Every frame of this film is meticulously well-composed.
The film is HUGE. It’s epic in scope. We see different planets; we see a remarkable array of different sets and locations within those planets. Mr. Villeneuve has always seemed to have a great eye for depicting vast, enormous locations on film. Both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 captured humanity within huge architectural and sci-fi locations and imagery. That skill is perfect for Dune.
I love the richness in the film’s design, and the careful attention to the details of the world of Dune. I love the look of the Atreides hawk logo seen on their military attire. I love seeing the bullfighter imagery connected with Leto’s father, the old Duke. (We see a portrait of the old Duke on Caldan as well as an abstract sculpture of a bullfight; we see that imagery on the Duke’s tomb; and we see the bull’s head hung in the Atreides home.) I love seeing the Atreides secret hand-signals. I loved the look of the stillsuits. I loved getting to see Salusa Secundus (a surprise!) and the look of the Sardaukaur. (I particularly loved the horrible ugly prayer language heard as the Sardaukar assemble.)
Of course, even in a film as long as this one, and as reverently made, there were details from the novels that I’d hoped to see and was bummed weren’t included. When Leto tells Jessica, late in the film, that he should have married her, I realized that I don’t think the film had actually made clear to audiences that they weren’t married! (And the film certainly didn’t explain the political reasons as to why that was.) We didn’t really get any sort of explanation as to what Mentats are, or what Suk doctors are. The film doesn’t explain that there are no computers in the world of Dune. I don’t believe anyone says “The spice must flow” in the film.
I love that the film lingers on Caladan in the first half-hour. That’s a change from the book, but a smart one. I think it’s wonderful to get a sense of what normalcy is for the Atreides family before they leave their home and head for Arrakis. I particularly loved the created-for-the-film scene of the Emperor’s Herald of the Change coming to Caladan to make official Duke Leto’s assignment to Arrakis.
When Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird) was first announced as Paul, I must admit I questioned that choice. Mr. Chalamet is clearly a terrific actor, but I wasn’t sure that he had the physical presence for Paul. I happily admit that I was mistaken. Right from the film’s opening scenes, I was completely convinced by Mr. Chalamet’s depiction of the character. Mr. Chalamet allowed Paul to go on a true journey over the course of the film. But he didn’t start him off as being too childish or too weak at the start. Paul is clearly a pampered and naive young man at the start of the film, but right away we can also see his intelligence and his steel (in the “not in the mood?” scene with Gurney and in the famous Gom Jabbar scene). I loved the way Mr. Chalamet carefully charted Paul’s evolution, in a nuanced way, as he loses his innocence (and most of his family and friends). I’m so excited for where Mr. Chalamet takes Paul in Part Two.
Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, and of course he’s been Poe Dameron in the Star Wars sequel trilogy) was perfect as Duke Leto. I absolutely loved Mr. Isaac’s work here. He shows us Leto’s goodness and his nobility, and also his humanity. (I really liked the new-for-the-film scene between Leto and Paul on Caladan, in which Leto talks of not originally wanting to become Duke himself.) This is a critical part of nailing the tragedy of this first half of Dune — I was totally rooting for Leto and heartbroken when everything goes bad, even though I knew it was coming.
Rebecca Ferguson (so memorable as Ilsa in the recent Mission: Impossible films) is wonderfully compelling as Lady Jessica. I love how Ms. Ferguson shows us Jessica’s maternal tenderness towards Paul (I loved seeing her move from near panic, standing outside Paul’s Gom Jabbar test, to calm as she recites the Litany Against Fear — a lovely addition to the film, by the way) and also her ability to be cold, calm, and calculating. I liked the brief bit of action when we get to see her get the best of Stilgar at the very end of the film.
Josh Brolin (who I have loved ever since The Goonies, and who’s had a heck of a last few years, particularly with his great work as Thanos and also in Deadpool 2) is perfect, and I mean perfect, as Gurney Halleck. Mr. Brolin is completely convincing as the master warrior Gurney. (He’s scary in the “not in the mood?” fight scene with Paul — and I love how he says the word “brutal” when talking about the Harkonnens.) He also shows us Gurney’s goodness and nobility and tenderness! It’s clear he cares deeply for Paul. I liked that the film includes moments of Gurney’s quoting words of verse. (Or is he meant to be quoting religious texts? Is that little book we see him holding supposed to be the Orange Catholic Bible from the novel?) (I missed seeing his baliset, though! I missed that aspect of Gurney as the warrior/musician from the book.) I loved every second Gurney was on screen.
Jason Momoa (Justice League) is not exactly what I’d pictured in my mind as Duncan Idaho, but I really enjoyed his version of this character! I loved how Mr. Momoa played Duncan’s zest for life, at the same time as presenting him as a fearsomely competent fighter. The film emphasized Duncan more than I’d expected (giving us a scene with him and Paul on Caladan before Duncan leaves on his mission to find the Fremen, and then later taking the time to show us more of Duncan after the fall of Arrakeen, something the previous Dune adaptations have generally skipped over.) I was happy to see this; these choices were so important to making Duncan’s sacrifice really land at the end. I liked that it was Duncan, not Paul, who understands why Stilgar was spitting at Duke Leto. Little tweaks like that helped emphasize this character in a way that worked for the film.
Stephen McKinley Henderson (Lincoln, Manchester by the Sea, Fences) is a wonderful choice to play Thufir Hawat. I wish we saw more of Thufir in the film, but Mr. Henderson makes every moment he’s on screen count. I love the creepy eyes-going-white effect they came up with for when he performs his Mental calculations. I love how sweet and gentle Mr. Henderson is a Thufir, an interesting contrast to his computer-like mind and a wonderful against-expectations choice. (The more obvious route would have been to play Thufir as stiff and robotic.)
Stellan Skarsgård (The Hunt for Red October, Bootstrap Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and of course Dr. Erik Selvig in Thor and the Marvel Cinematic Universe) has big shoes to fill as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. (Both Kenneth McMillan and Ian McNeice were incredibly memorable as the Baron in the 1984 film and 2000 mini-series, respectively.) The Baron isn’t in the film as much as I’d expected, but wow does Mr. Skarsgård make quite an impact when he’s on screen! I loved the grotesque (but not so over-the-top as to be silly) fat suit prosthetics and makeup they used to realize the Baron. I loved the look of his suspensors. (I loved that they didn’t overuse that floating effect, which was silly in the 1984 film.) I loved how evil and scary the Baron was in this film!!
Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy, and he had an important but small role in Mr. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049) was great as the “Beast” Rabban. Like the Baron, we don’t see much of Rabban in this film. But Mr. Bautista made quite an impression in his handful of appearances. I loved the look of Rabban. I loved how Mr. Bautista portrayed that Rabban is, well, not exactly a great thinker, while still keeping him scary and villainous (as opposed to making him just a silly buffoon).
David Dastmalchian (having a heck of a year, coming off of his brilliant performance as the Polka-dot Man in The Suicide Squad) is perfect (I need to come up with more synonyms for perfect, because it can be applied to everyone in this cast) as Baron’s evil Mentat Piter De Vries. I loved Mr. Dastmalchian’s version of Piter!! He’s so quiet and creepy! (I loved how he says “just so” to the Sardaukar leader on Salusa Secundus!)
Chang Chen is solid as Dr. Yueh. I really liked his interpretation of this character, and I loved how the film shows Yueh assessing patients using just his hands. It makes perfect sense that Suk doctors would have evolved their physical abilities, just as Mentats or Bene Dessert sisters have! That was very clever. Unfortunately, one of the few weaknesses of this film in my opinion is that it makes the same mistake that both the 1984 film and the 2000 miniseries did, in that we don’t see nearly enough of Dr. Yueh to make his betrayal really hurt the way it should. I really missed moments like the scene from the novel between him and Jessica, in which he talks about his wife. I wish the film had explained Suk conditioning and why the Atreides felt he could be trusted absolutely.
Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Skyfall) is incredible as Stilgar! He’s basically only in two scenes, so I’m so excited for seeing lots more of him in Part Two. I love how Mr. Bardem brings an alienness to Stilgar — he is a very different type of person than any of the Atreides! But at the same time, Mr. Bardem shows us Stilgar’s decency and honor, and also his toughness and his good humor (which we see glimpses of in the final minutes of the film).
I think Zendaya (M.J. in the MCU Spider-Man films) was a great choice to play Chani, but of all the characters in the film, hers is the most hurt by this being just the first half of the story. The film tries to give Chani more to do, by having her narrate the opening of the film (as opposed to Irulan), and by showing us a LOT of Paul’s visions of her. But unfortunately Chani has almost nothing to actually do in this film. I have high hopes for seeing where her character goes in Part Two.
Charlotte Rampling was wonderful as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. She was so regal and scary!! She was perfection in the Gom Jabbar scene. I loved her look; strange and weird without being silly. I thought it was an interesting choice to keep her face mostly hidden behind a veil.
I loved Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s performance as Dr. Liet-Kynes. I loved that they gender-switched this character, and I was glad the film gave this relatively minor supporting character some juicy scenes in the film. I’m particularly glad they actually showed us her death. (The novel weirdly jumps to Kynes being near-death without actually showing us how she ran afoul of the Sardaukaur. I’m glad the movie tweaks that to show us what happens.)
Babs Olusanmokun is only in the film for a few minutes, but I thought he was great and very memorable as the Fremen Jamis. I thought it was an interesting choice that we see Jamis in Paul’s visions, helping him survive in the desert. (I thought that meant the film would show us some scenes of Jamis and Paul working together after Paul and Jessica meet up with Stilgar’s band of Fremen, so I was surprised when we jumped right into Jamis’ challenge and fight to the death with Paul. I wonder if those scenes got truncated/combined in editing? Or perhaps Paul’s visions of Jamis were not meant to be taken literally.)
* What exactly was up with the weird “Dreams are messages from the deep” opening caption? (And spoken in weird Sardaukaur language, nonetheless!) That was a fun but bizarre choice!!
* I’ve always felt that Kwisatz Haderach should be pronounced like the Hebrew word ha-derech, which means “the way.” But in the film, the Reverend Mother says it “hader-ack”, which is how the previous screen versions had said it. Oh well! In the film, they describe the Kwisatz Hederach as someone with “a mind powerful enough to bridge space and time.” I liked that simple definition better than the weird gendered stuff from the novel about looking where no woman can, which I never really understood. I was surprised the film never talked about Jessica’s choosing to have a son, rather than a daughter, because of her love for Duke Leto. Instead the Reverend Mother just says she did it because she wanted to produce the Kwisatz Haderach. I miss the explanation that had to do with Jessica’s love for Leto.
* I thought it was an interesting choice that we didn’t see the Emperor or Princess Irulan. That’s true to the novel, though I liked that the 2000 miniseries introduced those characters earlier, to help the payoff with them at the end. I’m curious to see how Mr. Villeneuve & co. handle those characters in Part Two.
* I’m glad the film skipped showing us weird scenes of mutated Guild Navigators fold space — those scenes were awkward in both the 1984 film and the 2000 miniseries. (Though I wouldn’t have minded seeing one exterior shot of how the huge Guild Ships moved through folded space…!) I loved seeing the Spacing Guild representatives, with their faces hidden in helmets filled with spice, in the early “Herald of the Change” scene on Caladan. They looked really cool.
* I loved the sandy, fortress-like look of the city of Arakeen. (Though the Shield Wall was a lot smaller than I’d imagined it.)
* I was bummed they didn’t include one of my favorite scenes from the novel, the Atreides council scene in which Paul comes up with the plan of taking all the bribes necessary to keep spice production flowing and declare them as a tax write-off to the Emperor. It’s a talking-heads administrative scene, so I understand why they cut it, but it’s filled with such a weirdly specific details that I’ve always loved it. (They actually show the start of the council scene, but then cut away.)
* I loved the look of the Sandworms in the film. They felt perfectly classic and also very original and different from what we’d seen before. Very scary and iconic. Very cool.
* I’d have loved to have seen more of the Shadout Mapes in the film, but I really liked the scenes we got (with Golda Rosheuvel doing great work in the role). I loved the moment in which Jessica says “Maker” and Mapes squeals in a moment of revelatory ecstasy. (It’s interesting that the film doesn’t exactly explain to the audience why Mapes reacted to the word “Maker”, but it’s a detail the true fans will notice.)
* The whole sequence in which Leto, Paul, Gurney and Liet-Kynes encounter a worm when things go wrong with a spice harvester is an iconic scene from the book and was very well-done in the film. I thought it was interesting that, rather than have the carryall disappear (an obvious result of Harkonnen treachery), they show the caryall’s having a mechanical malfunction. I guess that could still have been the result of sabotage. I wonder why they made that change — perhaps because it was more visually dynamic than simply having the carryall not appear? It works in the film, but it’s one of those “if it ain’t broken, why fix it” sort of things. (Also, Leto’s interactions with the spice workers over the radio is a little hard to hear — I wish the film had put a little more emphasis on how the Duke’s “damn the spice!” line shows his valuing people’s lives, in contrast to how most others on the planet value the spice above all.)
* The Harkonnen/Sardaukaur attack on the Atreides is incredible… and heartbreaking. It’s a beautifully realized sequence. (I was particularly glad to see some moments of the Atreides forces fighting back.) It’s interesting to look back and think about when we saw our last glimpse of Gurney. I was bummed we didn’t see any moment with Thufir during the attack, though.
* I loved the glimpses we got, scattered throughout the film, of the little desert mouse. The mouse looked perfect, just like I’d imagined. I look forward to the payoff to those moments in Part Two!
* There’s a plot point in the novel regarding the red hair of Jessica and the Harkonnens. Interestingly, in the film, Jessica’s hair isn’t that red, and the Baron and Rabban are both bald. I wonder how the next film will handle that, or if they’ll skip that plot point entirely?
* I’d have loved to have heard a little more of the Litany Against Fear in the film. Both times we hear it (when Jessica says it standing outside the Gom Jabbar test, and when Paul says it as he flies into the sand-storm), it’s a little hard to make out among all that’s going on in the soundtrack.
* On the one hand, I found Hans Zimmer’s score for the film to be magnificent. It’s got a very original, memorable sound that fits perfectly with Mr. Villeneuve’s imagery. It works great in the film. On the other hand, I really wish this film had a more iconic, hummable theme. I really miss that from most modern blockbusters these days. Both the 1984 film and the two Sci-Fi Channel mini-series had very memorable, recognizable themes. (Brian Tyler’s Children of Dune theme (click here and jump to 1:20 to hear it) is so memorable that it is constantly used in movie trailers!!)
I could write about Dune for many more pages!!! There’s so much to discuss, so many layers of meaning and design in Denis Villeneuve’s film. Simply put: I loved it. This unadaptable book has finally been adapted, in a nearly-perfect fashion. This is an incredible achievement. It will be a long wait until Part Two. In the meanwhile, I plan to watch the film again on HBO Max immediately…!
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