Review: Dune Part 1

I review Denis Villeneuve's 2021 adaptation of Dune, after visiting a cinema for the first time in 3 years. Does this film live up to my enormous expectations given my decades-long love of the book?

Review: Dune Part 1
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann / Unsplash

Last night, my wife and I braved the maskless Covid zombies to watch the latest film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The last time we went to the cinema together was to take our kids to see Frozen 2 way back in 2019. The only reason we went last night is we’re life-long fans of Herbert’s original books.

Dune has a potted history on the screen. The 1984 film was a confused, revisionist mess best forgotten. The 2000 miniseries, was far more faithful to the book but suffered from a TV-sized budget and some questionable casting.

On paper at least, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation should transcend both these limitations. Villeneuve’s split this adaptation into two parts, giving the cast and crew the much-needed space to develop character, plot, and Herbert’s signature world-building. There’s also plenty of budget on hand to make the film the spectacle it ought to be while paying the salaries of the A-list actors and film composer Hans Zimmer.

Alas, my wife and I left the cinema having enjoyed the experience and the spectacle, but in agreement, the adaptation fell short in several key areas that have the potential to hobble all the good work done.

First, to the things I enjoyed: casting, tone and visuals. The film looked gorgeous, capturing the epic scale, grandeur and familiar otherness of Herbert’s universe. The tone was ominous and moody, though it fell a little short on tension, and lacked some of the book’s fleeting moments of levity.

The casting was top-notch — at least in the supporting roles. Oscar Issac, Josh Brolin, and Jason Moama added plenty of weight and gravitas to House Atreides. I felt the character of Gurney had too little time, and Duncan Idaho had too much given their relative importance in the story — but I’ll forgive it since Moama is wonderful to watch. I was fine with gender flipping Liet Kynes, yet the actress playing her lacked the material and screen time to portray the character’s influence and conflicted loyalties.

The villains of the story, the Harkonnens, were well represented by Stellan Skarsgard (the Baron) and Dave Bautista (Raban). My only complaint here is the Baron was a little one-dimensional for my liking. I think Ian McNeice’s portrayal in the 2000 miniseries was much more nuanced and entertaining. Feyd-Rautha is noticeably absent, which is a mistake given his role as Paul’s foil in the final confrontation between the houses.

For the Fremen that Paul and his mother eventually join, I thought Javier Barden was perfect as the aloof, enigmatic Stilgar. Zendaya shows promise, but don’t be disappointed with her lack of screen time at this point — that’s true to the book.

I was a little disappointed with the performances and treatment of the film’s two leading characters — Paul and Jessica. Given how much my wife raves about Chalamet, I expected an actor with far more presence, gravitas, and nuance (as the role demands) than what was on display. He looks the part, at least (far more than Alec Newman), but failed to make an impression on me when in the company of more experienced actors, and certainly when expected to carry scenes in key parts of the story. However, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, since his character has not yet fully matured, and there were parts of his performance I enjoyed.

I was most disappointed with Jessica’s character, which, I felt, was quite diminished in this adaptation. In the book, she’s probably the most well-developed and rounded character, a complex, powerful woman with divided loyalties whose power and position was eventually eclipsed by her son. In this film, she lacks agency, and authority, and Villeneuve mishandled her relationship with the Duke, robbing the movie of some much-needed humanity, and her character of subtly.

In fact, it’s the mishandling of Jessica and her story arc that exposes the biggest holes and foreshadow problems to come in Part 2. In the book, Harkonnen’s carefully constructed plan sowed the doubts of Jessica’s loyalty to her Duke, which resulted in significant tension in the Atreides house. This plotline had severe consequences later and provides an important development in several character arcs. Interestedly, this subplot played out well in the miniseries but is completely absent in Villeneuve’s film.

When you pull Jessica’s thread, the film unravels fast. The books are a masterclass in characterisation and murderous, subtle politics. Yet, Villeneuve chose to omit, or pay only lip service to most of this rich source material, including Harkonnen’s scheming, the deadly cat-and-mouse game between the Harkonnen and Atreides mentats, and cunning feints within feints that built layers of betrayal and conflict. Speaking of mentats, they were almost completely sidelined in the story, including the omission that Paul was also trained as one alongside his mother’s Bene Gesserit teachings.

Also omitted was the key dinner scene in Arrakeen, which not only acts as a counterpoint and foreshadows the eventual fall, but was vital in developing Kynes’ character, politics (local and imperial), and even Herbert’s impressive world-building.

Despite the running time of 156 minutes, the film’s pacing was poor, in part due to missing key scenes and subplots. Parts of the story that needed development were rushed, while other less important facets were dragged out as an excuse to show impressive visuals. Most glaring was the time spent on Arrakis before the Harkonnen attack. Thanks to the politics, the espionage and assassination attempts, the book conveyed nail-biting tension as the Atreides’ position became more and more perilous. Again, this is something the miniseries got right, and the film did not.

With the tension lost, the fall of House Atreides, which should have been the film’s climax, felt flat and uninteresting — sure it looked good, but I didn’t feel invested enough in the characters at this point to care. The decision to end Part 1 with Paul’s rushed, anti-climatic fight against Jamis, only served to drive home the poor pacing and editing.

Oh, and what the hell was up with the soundtrack? I didn’t mind the score — especially listening through headphones as I write this review. It is typical Hans Zimmer, not much originality, but enough to carry the tone of the film. What I found unbearable was the film’s constant oppressive bass drone which was so overpowering it made me want to perform a bowel movement. I’m uncertain if that was intentional, or my local cinema’s management did some rather opinionated EQing.

Concluding thoughts

I really wanted to like this film, and I guess overall, I did — although, I suspect I enjoyed a return to cinema-going and the general spectacle on offer more than its adaptation. If I’ve been negative, it’s only because I loved the original book and had very high expectations. Villeneuve certainly captured the scale and grandeur of the books, and…almost got the tone and characters right. Visually, the film is beautiful, but that in itself is not enough to sustain my interest, nor make me overlook the structural problems.

I know Villeneuve was dealing with uncertainty over the franchise’s future — adapting what’s long been considered an unfilmable book carries tremendous risk. He made Part 1, not even sure if Part 2 would be greenlit. But alas, the pressure and constraints of a two-part film have lessened what could have been a masterpiece, if the studio had the balls to take on more risk and commission a three-part saga from the outset.

For all its flaws and limitations, the 2000 miniseries was more faithful to the book, and thus remains my benchmark for what this 2021 film could have been. With a running time of 295 minutes split over three parts, it simply had more canvas to capture Herbert’s vision and story more faithfully.