The Denis Villeneuve film adapted from the 1965 Frank Herbert novel, “Dune,” is officially titled “Dune: Part One” on screen and then it should be no spoiler that the 155-minute movie is just the beginning of the tale about the son of Duke Leto Atreides, Paul, on the desert planet Arrakis. “Dune:Part One” is a film that needs to be seen on a large screen with top quality sound. It’s a promising start for an epic journey driven by stunning visuals and complementary sound design.
One might be tempted to think of this as a “Lawrence of Arabia” of interstellar science fiction. That 1962 British epic historical film was based on T.E. Lawrence’s 1926 book, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” and directed by David Lean to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The young and very beautiful Peter O’Toole was cast in the titular role. O’Toole was 30 when the film came out and although nominated (losing to Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird”), he’d never win after being nominated eight times, settling for an honorary Oscar in 2002.
Herbert’s 412-page novel came out three years after Lean’s epic and draws heavily from Greek mythology and Bedouin tribes of Arabia and Islam. The names used come from Native American languages as well as Latin, Greek, Persian, Turkish and East Indian (as well as Russian, Finnish and Old English).
The 1984 film adaptation with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides came in at 137-minutes and tried to cram in the full arch of the first novel. That film’s director, David Lynch, had quarrels with the studio (He disowned the final film.), and Roger Ebert wrote, “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”
By choosing to separate the novel into more than one film, writers Jon Spaihts (co-writer on projects like the 2012 “Prometheus” and the 2016 “Doctor Strange”), Oscar-winning (the 1994 “Forrest Gump”) Eric Roth (the 2008 “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the 2018 “A Star Is Born”) and the director Villeneuve, have avoided some of the problems of the 1984 film.
In the beginning of the novel, Duke Leto Atreides (Guatamalan American actor Oscar Isaac) of the House of Atreides, rules a wet planet, Caladan, but the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, assigns him to the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is valuable to the empire because is it the only source of “the piece” which has powers when ingested, but is also necessary for interstellar travel. Arrakis had been ruled by the House Harkonnen and the Harkonnen had become rich as a result, but now the Harkonnen has been forced to leave. Yet one look at the sinister Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) and you’ll understand they don’t leave the planet Arrakis willingly and won’t stand idly by see their wealth lost.
Leaving generations of his ancestors buried on Caladan, Duke Leto moves to the empire’s Arrakis stronghold, Arrakeen, and takes with him his concubine, Lady Jessica (the 37-year-old Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the socio-political female order Bene Gesserit, and their son, Paul (the 25-year-old Timothée Chalamet). Lady Jessica was part of the Bene Gesserit breeding program and although instructed to bear Leto a daughter, had, for the safe of love, bore Leto a son. Trained for warfare by his father’s best soldiers, Duncan Idaho (a beardless Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Paul also benefits from his mother’s Bene Gesserit training of mental powers and sign language. Even before arriving at Arrakis, Paul has dreams and he sees a woman and the desert that is her home. The Bene Gesserit, represented by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (an appropriately sinister Charlotte Rampling), have not forgotten Jessica’s betrayal and are cautious as to how Paul will fit into their long-term plans.
What Paul does know is:
Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear, and I will permit it to pass over me. When the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
The planet of Arrakis has always been inhabited and the people, the Fremen, have been treated cruelly by the Harkonnen. The danger of Arrakis comes from both the Fremen and the giant sandworms. The Fremen have adapted to the desert, but not to the imperial colonialism. The Fremen do, however, have a legend of a great savior and there are rumors that Paul might be the one they wait for. Paul will meet the literal woman of his dreams, Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen who narrates the beginning of the film, and other Fremen such as Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the leader of Sietch Tabr.
Chani says: “The planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low…You can see spice in the air.” But she also warns that the outsiders “ravage our lands in front of our eyes.”
The film’s website clearly spells out the three sides: The House of Atreides represents loyalty and mercy. The House Harkonnen, is power and brutality. The Fremen are only survival and resistance.
What happens next in the film as Leto deals with treachery will mostly be faithful to the novel. Still, purists will not be happy with this beautifully lensed film (Greig Fraser). The atmospheric scenes are supported by Hans Zimmer driving militaristic and sometimes tribal music score. Yet changes have been made, ones that might speak to women of this generation as well as to the current concerns for cultural diversity. One clear example of attitude differences between Herbert’s vision and Villeneuve is the casting of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet-Kynes. In the 1984 Lynch film, Max von Sydow played this roll and in the 2000 “Dune” miniseries, Karel Dobry. The change is not only in gender (and the press notes reveal that the doctor is a mother, but also in race. The British actress is Black.
Herbert, who died in 1986, wrote five sequels to “Dune,” and his son Brian Herbert and science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson published prequels and further sequels so there is a potential that this Villeneuve film may become the beginning of a franchise. At this stage, it is hard to interpret how the film will resolve the problems of the novel’s content and its potential message(s). This does have the feel of Lean’s film and it would benefit from some extra panoramic help from the CGV ScreenX 270-degrees of visual data.
Yet the problem of T.E. Lawrence and Lean’s sweeping saga about him is that T.E. Lawrence is portrayed as a White Saviour. While O’Toole can’t be faulted for his performance, it is, one writer in 2013 called “insidious” in its Orientalism (Juan Cole for Juan Cole.com, “How Peter O’Toole Saved the Arabs (According to David Lean).” Aljazeera notes T.E. Lawrence as the “original ‘savior of the Arabs” in an article about “The White ‘Saviours’ of the Arabs: Western fighters have streamed into the Middle East to help ‘liberate’ Arab countries such as Syria and Libya” (Tanya Goudsouzian, 22 April 2014).
As the US pulls out of Afghanistan and we watch the disasters there it is hard not to think of the foolish bravura of the beginning days of that war and the grind of two decades. The film sets up an intriguing world, one that seems in tune with the changing attitudes toward women and has a tremendous diversity, setting up the Fremen as a mixture of Black and North African or Western Asian looking peoples. The casting of the film makes one consider West Asia and North Africa. This version of “Dune” was filmed in West Asia (Wadi Rum, Jordan and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates) as well as parts of Europe: Budapest (Hungary), Stadlandet (Norway), Slovakia and Austria. The Fremen costume design (by Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West) also draws from Bedouins and other traditional desert dwellers although there is a futuristic twist. One wonders how the film will be seen and interpreted in Western Asia and North Africa, both once considered part of the so-called Orient.
By the the end of Part I, one still has questions. Will the Paul of this film be another White savior. Will the storyline remain faithful to the novel? It is too soon to say.
The Reverend Mother cautions Paul:
You’ve proven you can rule yourself. Now you must learn to rule others, something none of your ancestors learnt.
That is a question within the film that is unanswered and undoubtedly the sequels will seek to explore.
As the book tells us, “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” With this version of “Dune,” Villeneuve is off to a spectacular start.
“Dune” premiered 3 September 2021 at the 78th Venice International Film Festival and will be released in the United States in 3D on 22 October 2021 by Warner Bros. Pictures with simultaneous release on HBO Max (streaming for 31 days).