DUNE: PART ONE – Denis Villeneuve (2021)

Dune Part One Poster While this is not a movie blog, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the new Dune film that was released yesterday – except in the USA, where it will be released on October 22. For those that are interested, I’ve invested quite some time writing about Frank Herbert’s books and my reread of the Dune series in particular, resulting in a series of long posts – links at the end of this review.

What I will not do is compare this movie to Denis Villeneuve’s other sci fi work, as I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 or Arrival – even though I did read both stories on which those were based. I will also refrain from commenting on what David Lynch did or didn’t do better with his 1984 adaptation – I’ve seen that movie multiple times, but it has been years, and my memories of it are sketchy to the extent I can only say two things about it: I liked it, but the movie probably won’t make much sense to somebody that hasn’t read the book.

I’ll simply try to give an honest appraisal of how I experienced the new film, based on just one viewing. I have no intention of writing a lengthy analysis, nor add to the Twitter bloodsport on Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Keynes or the White Savior Myth.

So, is the movie any good? Does it do the book justice? The short answer is a double yes, loud and clear. The longer answer needs a bit more words. No spoilers, I promise.

It is important to stress that Villeneuve made a Hollywood blockbuster. Its basic mission is to entertain. There is nothing wrong with that, but it explains certain things I would have done otherwise. Even though Villeneuve has talked about the political relevance of this movie in interviews, it is all a rather flimsy affair: the Harkonnens are greedy, spice could be seen as a metaphor for oil, yadda yadda yadda. Talk is cheap, and if you look at the screen time these topics get it’s clear this is not the heart of the film. Interviews like that are part of the promotional job in these hyperpolitical times, so I can’t hold it against Villeneuve, but they are basically marketing: an attempt at coating a popcorn movie in Serious veneer – however heartfelt it may even be.

A Hollywood blockbuster, yes, but one with an old school vibe. Most blockbusters I’ve seen over the last decade all suffered from the same thing: giant plot holes, scenes cut too quickly, and action shot with ultra short shots. In most of those movies, you simply don’t have the time to take everything in, to let your eyes linger on the set pieces, to be in thrall of the eye candy on screen. Almost none of that in Dune: Part One, Villeneuve takes his time, and the viewer has ample time to be amazed.

I think the sets, the design of space ships, gadgetry and costumes is probably the movie’s strongest selling point, and that’s not a bad thing as this is a visual medium. The action scenes were clearly shot, cool and convincing – don’t expect too much artistic choreography however: I’ve seen that done better.

Acting and casting felt excellent as well – I’d say only Josh Brolin as Guerney Halleck felt a bit lightweight compared to the character in the book, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat felt a bit cartoonish – but that gets a pass, as Dune has a pulp side too. Timothée Chalamet does a solid job as Paul Atreides, but I can’t say his acting awed me – his job is basically being the silent type in this movie, as things happen to him, not that hard to do, not that much agency. I’ve only seen Chalamet as a child in Interstellar, and none of his other movies, so I’m not aboard his hype train yet.

Larger than life villains, when they are well done, often are the black hole of a blockbuster: they draw the attention, and we wish we could see more of them. I must say the Harkonnens were extremely well done, both Stellan Skarsgåd as the Baron and Dave Bautista as Beast Rabban were very convincing and a pleasure to watch – and again, that’s including the sets they played on. In subtle ways Villeneuve also managed to convey the Baron’s perversion, without it gobbling up all the attention.

That brings me to the movie’s biggest failure: Lady Jessica. Not that Rebecca Ferguson is a bad actress or a bad choice for the role: she isn’t, as she has the necessary allure. So the fault is Villeneuve’s, and possibly co-writers Eric Roth or Jon Spaihts. The character is portrayed as a whimpering, distressed, emotional mother – totally out of touch with the Reverend Mother from the book. Yes, she gets a quick fighting scene at the end, but Villeneuve never manages to convey the tremendous power and both physical and emotional control of an experienced, fully trained Bene Gesserit – even though he manages to portray the use of Voice in a convincing manner.

This is all the more strange since so much has been written on casting a woman for Liet Keynes, which I guess was done to correct a possible gender imbalance. In that light, it is hard to understand why Villeneuve chose to portray a severely weakened form of the strongest women in the book. Maybe he felt the movie needed a soft center too, a more relatable, realistically human mother? Be that as it may, that choice also chips away a bit from the aura of the Bene Gesserit as an order, even though the rest of the order’s portrayal is well done for sure.

Another minor point of critique might be Hans Zimmer’s score. Not that it is bad, but the “etnographic” vibe of the thing is simply a giant cliché – I thought I was listening to District 9 at times. But again: what to expect from a blockbuster? On a side note, we watched the Imax version, and I have to say the volume was very loud, I’d say so loud that it felt unhealthy. I was glad I brought these.

A final item of critique is inherent to the choice to only tell the book’s first half – up until the Jamis knife fight, which I’ve analyzed in detail in my review of the book, should you be interested. While the movie can indeed stand on its own, more or less, the story isn’t finished, and as such it could be considered to be a long prologue. Villeneuve even said that “For me, Dune 1 is like an appetizer. Dune Part 2 is the main meal.” As such, it suffers a bit from being the first part of a story set in a vast speculative setting: things need to be set up for the uninitiated.

That brings me to the million dollar question: what would people who haven’t read the book think of it? I went with two other big Dune fans, and they liked the movie as well. But fans have it easy: they already have an emotional connection to the characters. We already invested hours and hours of time in this world, with these people. Villeneuve doesn’t need to convince us about their nature or motives. We intimately know them already.

Praise were praise is due, Villeneuve managed to faithfully translate a complex story to the screen. Everything is explained, there are no loose ends. To Villeneuve’s credit such explanations generally come naturally, and only a few times they are done through unrealistic dialogue. But it also needs to be said that those backstory explanations happen quickly at times, and are hardly repeated. So I can image that somebody not familiar with the book might still be lost about certain things. Put like that, this movie might still fail to convince that part of the audience. It’s hard to gauge. I really can’t answer this question, and nobody that has read the book first can.

A very large majority of the professional reviews I’ve read are positive about the movie. Mark Hanson‘s is one of the few negatives to be found, and I have the feeling he might not have read the book. I have to say I can understand his point of view, and there is definitely truth in his analysis too. Similarly, Owen Gleiberman’s review in Variety asks questions that are clear to anybody that has read to book, but indeed are crucial to the film as mere film.

These reviews also contrast with what Denis Villeneuve himself said about this film: “For me, the science fiction and fantasy elements are seriously background in this story. I really focused on the character’s journey and the epicness and the qualities of this adventure, the human journey (…) At the end of the day, it’s a great human story. The technological elements are there in the background.”

Although I liked to movie a lot – I’ll watch it again for sure – I have to side with Gleiberman and Hanson: this first part isn’t really about humans. That’s also what David Ehrlich says in a snarky negative review for IndieWire.

It may try to be about them, but in the end, it’s about epic cool entertainment stuff. It’s not a psychological study or a Bildungsroman on screen. A brooding facial expression doesn’t equate with character depth. Paul is a character that hardly has agency. That’s not even a negative, as I’ve tried to show in my analysis of the book that it is about the lack of free will, about ecology determining the biological creatures that humans are. Granted, near the end Paul and Jessica are put center stage, and so yes, this movie is about them, sure, but we’ll have to wait for the emotional pay-off in part two.


I don’t want end on a negative thought though. I fiercely hope that part 2 gets made, so every Dune fan reading this: go buy a ticket already. Seriously.

I’m also very curious whether the prequel tv-series Dune: The Sisterhood will actually be made. It seems that HBO Max still plans to do it, and Villeneuve is said to direct to pilot. Even though it’ll probably be based on the books of Brain Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, if it is done with the same visual flair as Dune: Part One, we should be set for a few exciting hours of quality entertainment.

Dune Part One Stellan Skarsgard



Click here for my Frank Herbert book reviews: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star, Soul Catcher & The Dosadi Experiment. I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune.

My text on Dune focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will. The text on Children of Dune is over 10,000 words and deals with the tragedy of Alia and Amor Fati, among other things; my analysis of God Emperor of Dune has 8,700 words with a focus on Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot, an examination of the Golden Path and a critical look at various inconsistencies in that novel. I’ve written 11,600 words about Heretics of Dune, that, among other things, look at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examine the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It also discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those of Dune. I explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcomings, and try to shed light on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality.


Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

 

51 responses to “DUNE: PART ONE – Denis Villeneuve (2021)

  1. I really want to see it. But so far I have not recovered enough from my burnout to sit 2.5 hours in a loud, adrenaline-pumping environment and keeping my concentration for such a long time. I’ll catch it online on demand somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Imax is incredibly loud, I can’t believe it’s even legal to turn op the volume so high. A regular screening should be okay, but maybe not for your condition. Better be safe than sorry, and watch it on a small screen. Villeneuve has made statements about that as he doesn’t like the fact that HBO will release it simultaneously with the US theatre release, but I think that if you watch it on a decent home system, and you’re close enough to the screen, you’ll get a pretty good experience too, and definitely a 100% legit idea of what the film is about. It might not be exactly the same thing as a 16 by 22 meter screen, but who cares? I’ve had a plenty of great times watching movies on small screens.

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      • I remember seeing Interstellar in IMAX and it was insanely loud.

        Seeing the film at home will be a perfectly fine experience, I’m sure. But not going to the theatre because my health isn’t good enough yet feels like a defeat. I experience everything in the frame of “I want my old life back”. And now I have to wait another month (I think?) before the movie releases in the US. They used to put a 15 minute break in the middle of movies in my local theatre and in that situation I would have tried seeing it, but because of covid they removed those breaks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • There’s no theatre I Belgium I know of that still has breaks. They all used to have them, but that era seems to be over. Everybody just packs up on snacks beforehand.

          Christopher Nolan has a bad rep on that part, I’ve read that Tenet in Imax actually damaged peoples’ ears permanently. I brought earplugs because I have mild tinnitus and don’t want to make it worse, so I’m a bit more cautious than most people. It’s not really the same as your condition obviously, but I well remember the day that tipped the scale to permanent tinnitus, and that also feels like a before and after. The impact on my life has become minimal as I’ve learned to live with it, but I really miss listening to music through headphones – and as I listen to quite a lot of music the people in my home don’t like, that alters my listening habbits significantly. There’s a chance that I’ll tolerate that again over time, but for know it sucks.

          Anyhow, take care. Whether you like it or not, you’ll grow into a new routine either way, and I’m sure you’ll improve bit by bit.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ll get there. My daily job as a programmer pushes my endurance for concentrating on a daily basis and month by month I am improving!

            I also have mild tinnitus. I always thought that it was because of loud music in my teenage years, but much of the tinnitus turned out to be stress related. It might actually go away with the recovery.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, stress is definitely a factor. It’s a strange feedback loop at times. I’ve even been tinnitus free for about a year, but then exposure to loud noise triggered it again, and it seems more permanent now. But I’m hopeful, as I know from experience things can indeed get better. It’s also striking that I have no measurable hearing loss, nor measurable damage to the cilia in my ear. I was actually amazed they could measure that via a kind of sonar technique.

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  2. Delighted to hear you enjoyed it, and jealous you got to see it already. As usual, Japan gets movies later than a lot of countries: October 15th is the release date here, I think. I am so excited to see this!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Screw this release schedule! Who paid for this fething movie anyway? The *#&#)#^!)& United (&^%$# States, that’s who!
    in a calmer mood, you know what this means, right? Fans are going to torrent the living daylights out of this and the release in the US will be much lower. Movies are now a world wide thing, why not start acting like it? I do not understand the thinking behind such staggered releases, it makes no sense. Unless you live in an insulated little world about the size of Hollywood :-/

    I plan on buying it on bluray once it gets released. I have dvd of Lynch’s version that I really want to upgrade to bluray too. I am glad you liked this, gives me hope that I’ll enjoy it too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 😀

      I’m puzzled by the schedule too. Maybe it has to do with the 9/11 commemorations, 15 September being close to it, and the themes of movie/book related to jihad etc (even though the movie doesn’t use that word). But even if that would be the reason, wht not postpone the release in Europe and Asia with a month too? No clue.

      As for torrents: if you’re a fan, why would you want to see a low quality version of some guy’s filming this from a screen in a theatre if you could just wait a couple of weeks for the real deal? Or maybe I underestimate the quality of such pirate copies?

      As for Blu-ray: would an older movie like the Lynch be noticably much better in Blu-ray than on regular dvd? Honest question, zero experience with the format.

      Liked by 2 people

      • While I’m not a big movie fan, at all, some of the leftovers of how things are done just floor me. I guess I’ll have to ask some of my movie blogger people what they think.

        I’ve never understood those who watch cam torrents either. At least in the past 2 years. Stuff gets moved to streaming and bluray so fast. But some people have to have it now. As for quality, once it hits streaming/bluray, the torrents will be the same quality as the official releases. Once I buy a bluray copy, I plan on torrenting a digital version, as the digital copies that come with most blurays are so tied down that you might as well just pop the disc in.

        I think that through the magic of teknowledgey they can upscale it. I suspect it all depends on the source material. of course, you have to have a tv that supports 1080 and right now I only have a 720, but I’m sure some day I’ll buy another tv 😀
        Also, I am always on the lookout for the bonus material. Which if a movie is popular can get added to bluray if it wasn’t on the dvd.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Alright you guys, let me illuminate you a bit on how movie funding works. 🙂

          Say, a Hollywood production company embraces the concept for a new film, like a new superhero film, right? Before the shooting starts, the company travels to South America, Europe and Asia and meets with the national film associations of these countries. Hollywood tells them: “look, we can supply you with this new movie and you can use it to draw crowds in your national movie theatres, but in turn we would like you to supply us with part of the funding for shooting and creating it.” So Hollywood scrambles together the funds for a big movie from all over the world. With this come contractual obligations to finish and release the movie to these countries oversees at a set time. The US of course can decide for themselves if they want to postpone their own releases.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I always knew Hollywood was extra evil. 😀

            Liked by 1 person

            • Let me tell you something more 🙂 These “pre-sells” are done based only on script and list of cast. On that basis do other countries decide whether to buy the distribution rights from Hollywood. It also means that the sales agents who negotiate this have a say in which actors will be approached for which roles. The agent will tell the producers that, for example, “China would like to see more Chinese actors in this new Mission Impossible film, and if we can get them to buy the distribution rights with these changes, then we have a greater budget for the special effects.”

              Liked by 2 people

        • It will be streamed in the usa the same day when it has its theatrical release, crazy too imo.

          I don’t get that part about torrenting a digital version when you buy the bluray. Why do you do it exactly?

          Indeed: extras, hadn’t thought about that. I’ve noticed the blu ray of the third season of twin peaks has even more behind the scenes than the regular dvd. But I don’t own a player, and I don’t feel like investing anymore as I don’t see me buying other blu rays, not even dvds either by the way – it had been years since I bought them, I just bought the TP3 set because I wanted to see it again and it’s not available for streaming over here. I have to say the extras where worth the money, so I’m glad I did.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Stage releases in the age of globalization… Wow, that’s such a quaint notion. I won’t cry over our late NZ release (October 21) as we’re in lockdown anyway, but man, it’s such an idiotic thing to do these days.

    As for the movie, I’m glad you liked it. I’ll watch it on the big screen and hopefully we’ll write a double review for it in October. Probably better not to go into the gender wars; though I must say I had my doubts about Ferguson as Lady Jessica, and you confirmed them. She looks the part, but I haven’t seen her in any role that requires more than being an elegant eye candy. As for Liet, I won’t ever like this gender-swapping, I feel it’s shallow and counter-productive, but that’s all right – I accept that it wasn’t a decision made with the likes of me (Dune fans) in mind 😉 I’m glad the rest of the cast carries their weight, I was a bit worried about Harkonnens, especially in the light of molding the Beast and Feyd Rautha into one.

    A total side note: can’t believe they went with Apocalypse Now! vibe in that photo! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • You guys are in lockdown? Seems like it’s more or less over here. Can you leave the house? Or is it just that everything is closed except shops? Schools? Work?
      Agreed on Liet: pretty superficial move, and probably counter-productive in some circles indeed, but what are you gonna do in these times? But I’m not mad about it, or think it is a betrayal or something like that. I’m not a purist, never was one. If you’re the kind of fan that can’t get over such a thing like that, chances are that you’ll be frustrated often in other things too. Chillax, I’d say. Villeneuve adds a few scenes that are not in the book as well, but they work well and I understand why he put them there. Never heard anybody complain about those.
      I didn’t miss Feyd. I’m also not sure if he really is molded into the Beast as well – he could still pop up in part 2, after Beast’s misrule. Or did you read something about it?
      Looking forward to your review!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yup, level 4 which means we sit at home and can only go out for groceries, medicine and walks in the park 😉 We should be going down a level next week, but it still means remote work and school.

        I’m not going to sweat it over Liet; I feel it wasn’t needed but I’m not going to cry over the changes. The meaning of the book, its worldview and philosophy were preserved from what you say, and that’s what matters to me in adaptations.

        I read somewhere there’ll be no Feyd in the movie, but maybe it was a misdirection. Glad to learn he’ll be there in the second part. Combining him with Rabban wouldn’t make sense IMO.

        Looking forward to watching the movie in a month or so! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve found comments by Roger Yuan, the martial arts trainer, who says there will be a fight scene with Feyd in Part Two.
      https://kungfukingdom.com/interview-with-roger-yuan/

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I wondered for a second whether I had managed to miss the premier! I guess I will have to wait another month. (Then decide whether it is worth paying extra money at the theater when I already pay for HBO Max.)

    The Jessica thing, as described, is more annoying than it otherwise would be because it is the sort of mistake today’s Hollywood makes over and over and over again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Australia doesn’t get it until December 😡 Presumably because Sydney and Melbourne are in lockdown, but I don’t see how that’s the rest of the country’s problem!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. How does it compare to Star Wars?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I dislike almost every recent Star Wars (plotholes, general silliness), so it’s easily much better imo. I also think compared to the original trilogy certain parts are more epic, but at the same time the story isn’t as broad in scope – just part one syndrom.

      Like

  8. Thank you for this detailed review! I just bought my ticket for tomorrow and I’m glad to know that the movie is – overall – a good one, although I’m disappointment at the “mistreatment” of the character of Jessica. From your review it would seem that the worst “sins” of the old version – i.e. some over-the-top characterizations or that rain scene at the end, which showed the script-writer was not too familiar with the original text – have been averted. And the fact that I will not be watching it in imax might work in my favor, because I have great expectations from a Zimmer score… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. In some of the trailers I see some “humor” thrown in. How does it compare to the tone of the novel? Is any of it distracting/off tonally?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Stanisław Lem, The Truth and Other Stories (2021) – Re-enchantment Of The World

  11. Were you satisfied with where they chose to cut the movie in half?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it seemed like a logical place to pause the story. But the second part of the movie doesn’t exist yet and may never be made, so technically they didn’t cut the movie in half, it´s not like Kill Bill.

      Luckily reception and audience nummer in Europe have been excellent so far from what I can gather, so I´m hopefull Part Two will get made…

      Like

  12. Heh, in Poland the release date is also October 22… I’m not reading the review now, I want to judge by myself. It seems you liked it overall, that makes me even more hopeful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. How do you deal with tinnitus, bormgans? It’s suddenly happened to me in one ear, a loud pulsing sound in time with bloodflow, and its killed my ability to read in silence. I find it so depressing and horrible, especially because I’m used to using quiet times to read.

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    • It’s fairly mild with me, there are days I don’t even notice it, or hardly notice it, even when there’s relative silence. When I do notice it, I simply try to ignore it, which is not always easy, but most of the time it works, and it then it disappears to the background. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a much longer period. I’ve noticed a big part of it is acceptance, and not fretting about it, because stress only makes it worse.

      What also helped was getting an ear specialist examine me, and she determined I had zero damage to my hearing, and also zero damage to the cilia in my ear. That was somewhat reassuring, and took away a bit of the stress I had about it. She also said symptoms might disappear over time (months, even years for some patients), and that again gave some perspective.

      Being tired makes it worse too, and when I visit a pub (loud speaking crowd) I know there’s a chance symptoms might be worse a few days after, but that’s just the price I have to pay. I’ve learned to see it as something that evolves, not as a static condition. Sometimes its worse, sometimes it’s okay, sometimes it disappears. I don’t worry about it too much anymore.

      The biggest negative for me is I’ve basically lost the ability to listen to music with headphones for a few hours in a row, as that will bring back symptoms. My reading isn’t that much affected, when I read indoor I usually have music on in the background. When I read outdoors that’s without music, but birdsong and ambient noise often is enough to make it go to the background.

      There’s tons of reddit groups etc devoted to it, but the danger there is getting trapped in a negative spiral that makes you pay more attention to it, and that’s exactly not what you want to do.

      I have a few friends that also have it, some much more severe than me, and they’ve all learned to live with it, and live happy lives. Acceptance is key, even if that sounds corny, and easier said than done.

      Like

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