Dune is a sweeping sci-fi epic that’s influenced dozens of well known properties (hello Star Wars, Blade Runner, Stargate, etc.) and follows the story of Paul Atreides, heir to a dukedom as he and his family are thrust into a dangerous position as the new stewards of the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.
The film covers the first part of the novel of the same name (originally published in 1965 by author Frank Herbert) where our main character Paul (Timothée Chalamet) travels from his homeworld of Caladan to Dune as his family was given command of the planet to continue export of the spice Melange, the most important substance in the whole Imperium. Their predecessors were the Harkonnens, with whom they’ve had a bitter feud with for multiple generations. Once in this new world, Paul faces multiple dangers that completely upend his life and he ends up embarking on a path that he doesn’t yet fully understand.
This IP was considered unfilmable for a long time because of the book’s complexities in concepts, themes, plots, characters, and backstories. The first attempt was done by Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-1970s but the project stalled due to financial reasons.
Eventually in 1984, David Lynch’s Dune was released and starred some notable actors including Kyle Maclachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Sting, and Max Von Sydow. Unfortunately, the film performed poorly in the box office and was not well received by critics.
The next iteration came in 2000 when the Syfy channel (then Sci-Fi) released a 3 part mini-series covering the first novel and then a sequel in 2003 called Children of Dune (starring James McAvoy and Susan Sarandon) that tackled the second (Dune Messiah) and third (Children of Dune) books in the original series.
For fans of the franchise, it’s been a long wait for an adaptation that would do the series justice. In Dune: Part One, director Denis Villeneuve attempts to address the most important aspects of the source material that’s essential to the narrative, but those unfamiliar with Herbert’s works could easily find themselves lost from all the terminology, characters, and storylines unfolding on screen.
However, Villeneuve got many things right. First and foremost is that this film is a stunning visual masterpiece. Everything from the costumes to the sets, the desert landscape to the cities, the weaponry, ships, and everything else in between truly immerse you in this universe in a breathtaking way.
Each planet shown was distinct and memorable from the cool, zen-like water world of Caladan and contrasted with the the unyielding industrial motif of Giedi Prime. This was of course intricately tied to the noble houses that controlled each territory to reflect the persona of the rulers. I especially loved the portrayal of the Harkonnens and their environment, it oozed with malevolence and disturbing excess that is characteristic of their house.
But one cannot talk about visuals without mentioning the most important location in the Imperium, Arrakis. The desert scenes were filmed in Jordan and Abu Dhabi and my goodness what grandeur! The film shows the vastness and beauty of the dunes and the planet plays such an integral part in the story as the only place where spice Melange is harvested and where Paul begins to come into his own.
We also see Caladan as a lush oceanic world where the Atreides governed through air and sea power. In stark contrast Salusa Secundus, the original homeworld of House Corrino (the house of the current Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV) and currently a prison planet where the feared Sardukar are trained under extremely hostile and harsh conditions. What we see most of this locale are the prisoners being drained of blood to then be used as an anointing liquid on the foreheads of the emperor’s military force.
The Bene Gesserit
While there’s a lot to bring onto the screen, one of my favorite aspects has been the elusive Bene Gesserit sisterhood. This secretive matriarchal society are the true rulers of the Imperium working in shadows to advance their goal of creating their ultimate being, the Kwisatz Haderach. The two characters we meet from this order are Lady Jessica (Paul’s mother and concubine of Duke Leto) and the Revered Mother Helen Gaius Mohaim, the emperor’s soothsayer.
The Bene Gesserit have been carefully manipulating the bloodlines of the noble houses of the Landsraad as a part of their breeding program in order to produce a male who could see into the ancestral memories of both their father and mother’s genetic lines. Currently the sisters are only able to access their matrilineal ones. This being would also be able to see into the future through prescience (an ability to recognize repeated patterns throughout history).
We learn early in the film that Paul has the capacity to be the Kwisatz Haderach after the Reverend Mother lands in Caladan and tests him with the Gom Jabbar. It works as a poison-laced needle that is situated right by the subject’s neck while their hand is placed inside a box. The trial is to withstand as much pain as possible to determine if the individual is able to override their primal instinct to remove their hand from harm’s way. Paul is actually able to last longer than any female who has ever undergone the test, convincing the Reverend Mother that he is indeed human.
Once the Atreides heir and his family land in Arrakis, we also come to understand that the Bene Gesserit have seeded this world (as they have many others) with the Missionaria Protectiva, a program within the sisterhood that planted superstition of a prophesied messiah that would one day lead their people to freedom. For the Fremen, the son of an offworlder Bene Gesserit would one day arrive to be the Lisan al Gayib. Before departing Caladan, the Reverend Mother tells Jessica that the way has been set for them and hopes Paul should reach his potential but if not, there are other candidates. Leave it to the sisterhood to have options.
It was quite fascinating to see just how much most of the Fremen fervently believed in this prophecy and how the Bene Gesserit exploited religion to suit their needs. Even in the exchange between Jessica and the Shadout Mapes captured the veracity of this myth when the newly hired housekeeper presented the lady of the house a crysknife and asked if the other woman knew its significance. Jessica of course had this knowledge and answered that it was a maker, resulting in Mapes wailing in shock. The Fremen woman said it best that it was just overwhelming to have your beliefs become reality.
Later on in the film, Paul and Jessica are found by Stilgar and his group deep within the desert. At first he and the others seem dubious that young Atreides is indeed the Mahdi and that his mother is useless to them, but after the Bene Gesserit out maneuvers him, he admits that she is a weirding woman and calls her Sayyadina. This is a term used by the Fremen for their lower ranking priestesses.
In the meantime, Paul is soon challenged by Jamis, a Fremen warrior who had gotten livid that a mere child was able to disarm him so quickly and he was not convinced that Jessica was worthy of the title that Stilgar now recognized her as. He then demanded that he test her through her champion in trial by combat (to the death). Paul’s advanced training in the ways of the Bene Gesserit as well as weaponry through Duncan Idaho and Gurney made him a very strong fighter. He defeated Jamis and then garnered the acceptance of the Fremen in their company.
Throughout the film Paul has been apprehensive about the changes happening within himself as he first dreamt often of Chani and Dune on Caladan and then began to have waking visions of possible futures in Arrakis because of his exposure to Melange. His prescient abilities were truly beginning to awaken and by the end, Paul had accepted that his path led into the desert where he would join the Fremen. At first he was upset by what his mother and the sisterhood had done to him, but now seems to come to terms with what he is becoming.
Showing the power of religion and how it could be a tool used for manipulation was fascinating to see unfold.
The cast did a terrific job with standouts being Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, and Javier Bardem as Stillgar. These three embodied their characters perfectly and are my favorite incarnations when compared to the original David Lynch Dune and the mini-series from Syfy. Chalamet and Zendaya also had terrific chemistry despite having limited scenes together and I’m excited to see this play out even more in part two.
As a longtime fan of the books it was a dream come true to finally see Dune depicted in a way that showed the grandeur and expansiveness of the universe. While part one is a lot of setup for the second film and beyond, there was tremendous beauty in the action sequences, character interactions, and stunning locations. We may not have gotten a resolution, but it certainly gave us the promise of one to come.