There are those who would call Frank Herbert’s lore-heavy sci-fi novel Dune “unfilmable” but after multiple movie adaptations, it feels like a different description should be found. Much can be said of the previous attempts such as the 2000 SyFy miniseries and the 1984 David Lynch motion picture, although such discussions are possibly best left to the fans. These adaptations are both undeniably large in scale and play into the inherent ridiculousness of the novel, but the latest by Denis Villeneuve only achieves one of these.
Set on the planet Arakis, Dune: Part One sees the House of Atreides taking over the production of the valuable Spice found on the planet from the vicious House of Harkonnen. Duke Leto Atreides seeks to make peace with the local inhabitants, known as Fremen, whose prolonged exposure to Spice has given them bright blue eyes. Plans change however when The Harkonnens return with a destructive vengeance, leaving only the Duke’s son, Paul, and wife, Jessica, to seek refuge with the Freman. This is an oversimplification of events due to the complexity of the worldbuilding present within the story. This is why it is supposedly “unfilmable” as there is simply so much to explain, but it is an aspect that Villeneuve achieves excellently. The background information is easily inserted via natural dialogue and informational tapes watched by Paul. Over 145 minutes, there is a vast amount of speaking but, given the political nature of the story and people involved, it feels natural. Occasionally this dialogue is delivered through well-choreographed fight sequences, of which there are several.
The action is impressive. Hand-to-hand combat feels personal especially with the holographic armour worn by the characters which allow for very close contact. Meanwhile, the assault by the Harkonnens is devastating to witness. Explosion after explosion makes the sheer might of the Harkonnens clear. At least that is when it’s visible. Dune: Part One is sapped of the majority of its saturation, save for the light of explosions and blinding sun. The sands are filled with a certain warmth but that distinct orange glow, present in other adaptations, is missing here. It is most notable during part of the final act, which is set at night and sees the two surviving Atreides trying to avoid a giant Sandworm. These 400-foot creatures are an icon of sci-fi and their threatening presence is felt throughout. So it is ultimately disappointing when their big reveal appears in a shot that might as well be in black and white.
The often frustrating experience of viewing this film is made more difficult by Hans Zimmer’s accompanying score, which is everpresent in the worst meaning of the word. It is a collection of choral voices and heavy dubstep which at times feels like an assault of the senses. It is loud to the point of uncomfortableness and is sometimes misplaced within the story. Sudden death is the kind of thing for which gentle music is generally reserved but here it’s the choir, which is a little distracting. The score takes itself very seriously and the same can be said of the plot. There is a real gravitas to Dune: Part One but it comes across as more self-absorbed than actually important. A film like The Lord of the Rings is equally large in scale but it is grounded by its humanity. It’s a big story about small folk, which allows itself to have fun with its setting. Dune is a large story about important people, but who aren’t larger than life. The David Lynch adaptation tells the same story but it’s having fun, especially with Baron Harkonnen. The Baron is grotesque, terrifying, and extraordinarily full of himself, taking glee in dishing out horrors. Villeneuve’s Barron gets the horror element down but nothing else.
Fundamentally Dune: Part One‘s biggest problem is how safe it is. The Baron’s role is cut down and we’re never allowed to see the true horrors of war, despite there being decapitations in the film. It is full of stellar performances, especially from Oscar Issac and Jason Momoa, but fails on the principle of Dune’s weirdness. This is a weird story, even by sci-fi standards, and as the story progresses it only gets weirder… but it’s difficult to see that story in the universe presented by Villeneuve. Former adaptations may have been flawed, but at least they had personality.
Until Next Time…