Based on the seminal 1965 science fiction novel of the same name by Frank Herbert, Dune is a prototypical space opera that is epic in every sense of the word. Paradoxically, the film employs the iconography of the science fiction genre to tell a story about religion and politics. The film mostly takes place on the arid planet of Arrakis, home to a valuable spice commodity known as melange. The primary political parties at play in the film are the burgeoning influential leaders of House Atreides, their sworn mortal enemies House Harkonnen, and the Freman who are the natives of Arrakis that have been forced to take shelter in makeshift villages underground. The Emperor Padishah who rules above all the houses feels threatened by House Atreides’ growing might. In an attempt to dismantle House Atreides, the Emperor forces House Harkonnen to relinquish control of Arrakis to House Atreides to set them up for commercial failure. The members of House Atreides knowingly must walk into a trap ready to meet their demise.
The religious aspects of the film manifest in the hero’s journey of the protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) who is initially hesitant of succeeding his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) as Lord of House Atreides. His mother, Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit (Rebecca Ferguson), is endowed with great supernatural powers which she hopes to impart to Paul. Throughout the film, Paul repeatedly demonstrates extraordinary precognitive skills with visions of the future that lead many people to believe that he is the chosen one called the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic man with the ability to transcend the laws of space and time, prophesied to lead the marginalized Freman and usher Arrakis into a new age of prosperity.
Before proceeding with the review, without spoiling the movie, I must issue a caveat and emphasize that I am evaluating essentially half of the finished product. The title card for the film labels the film as Dune Part One. Director Denis Villeneuve judiciously split the dense source material into two movies to ensure the experience would not feel rushed and important details would not be glossed over which conveys his immense passion for the project. As a result, the entirety of this film is devoted to setting up a satisfying conclusion for Part 2. Judging solely based on the merits of Part 1, Part 2 promises to deliver a spectacular finale.
Timothee Chalamet delivers a perfectly calibrated performance as Paul Atreides, displaying a bevy of emotions. He slowly transitions from a brooding teen to a capable leader. A notable scene that highlights his prodigious range is when he is subjected to the gom jabber test in which he must tolerate varying levels of excruciating pain without yielding to prove he is the chosen one. The multitude of ways he contorts his face without actually being in pain is extremely impressive. As is the case with an ensemble cast, excellent actors often get underutilized as I felt was the case with Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) in this film. He is a likable presence on screen, but he is not on screen for very long.
The production design of the film is absolutely breathtaking and massive in scope. The intricately detailed ships such as the ornithopters and the banners of the different houses. The costume design of the houses is simultaneously regal and futuristic. My personal favorite attire is the still suit designed by the Freman to recycle moisture in their bodies. In addition, the film features a seamless blend of practical and digital effects when miniatures of ships are blown up and then magnified. The enormous indigenous sandworms of Arrakis effectively terrified me as they defended their territory from spice harvesters. In his previous films such as Sicario and Arrival, Villeneuve and his cinematographers deftly capture nighttime sequences very realistically. Replicating his commitment to authenticity in Dune produces mixed results this time around. The majority of the action during the climax of the film takes place in the dark and the hand-to-hand combat is barely visible.Dune is the epitome of masterful science fiction world-building. The stage has been set for a grand finale. I have no doubt in my mind that Denis Villeneuve will deliver.