Dune: Part 1 – An Astounding Film

There are three kinds of Dune fans – those who have only seen the movie(s), those who have read the books and seen the movie(s) and Dune fans who have read the book and not seen the movie(s).

I have read the series a few times now and am rereading it now, currently into Book 5 – Heretics of Dune. I absolutely love literary Dune. I love the depth, breadth and scope of what is, by all accounts, an epic easily as complex as Lord of the Rings and other major epics.

Much of what became the original Star Wars trilogy was stolen directly from the previously published Dune but one only needs to call it homage or influence to avoid issues.

I had first attempted to read Dune when I was 15 and failed spectacularly. It was SO HARD to get into and unlike anything I had ever read before.

Then in 1984 David Lynch’s movie Dune released and 16-year-old me went to see it. I was entranced by the film. I loved the visuals, the battle scenes, the mystery, pretty much everything. That film made me go back to the books and this time I voraciously read them all the way through. I was captivated.

Now I still enjoy David Lynch’s Dune and I realize this is a controversial stance. When I take out the DVD and rewatch it (as I do sometimes) adult me recognizes a film that is a wonderful mess. It is a film that clearly collapsed under the weight of the source material but is still dragged across the finish line.

The music is not bad but suffers occasionally from that early 80s tendency to throw in heavy pop rock and metal flourishes that bind it so securely to its era. There is so much internal dialogue (thoughts) presented that the viewer rapidly gets lost in the ridiculousness it. Sting in a leather diaper – need I say more?

Visually though the original film is still wonderful and I believe worth watching but I understand and agree with most of the detractors.

Fast forward 7 years from Lynch’s Dune and you get a new film from talented Canadian director Denis Villeneuve who has already given us fantastic sci-fi in Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival.

This Dune is not your father’s Dune, as they say.

Everywhere Lynch went with excess Villeneuve choses understatement. Where Lynch overwhelms the view with TOO MUCH TALK with all the internal dialogue layered on top of the regular dialogue Villeneuve pares back. Lynch was likely responding to the breadth and depth of the source material doing his best to cram as much explanatory dialogue in as he can. Villeneuve seems to recognizes where this is futile and essentially seems to say –

“The viewer will have to connect the dots.”

This is a wise choice if the director has laid out the dots in a way that they can be connected. Thankfully I believe Villeneuve does this.

Visually the film is immense and grand on the scale of Cecil B. DeMille’s The 10 Commandments. The grand scale of this universe dwarfs the characters making humanity seem insignificant in the face of nature and geopolitics. The brilliant presentation of starships, and various other sci-fi vehicles is unlike any other sci-fi film you will ever see.This contrast will play out well and draw out the necessary awe as the narrative continues in part 2.

Speaking of part 2 it should be noted that this film is very intentionally titled Dune: Part 1. Like The Fellowship of the Ring, Dune: Part 1 will make no sense without the follow-up. The film ends with the words “this is only the beginning” and you know that Villeneuve has essentially created a great and wondrous prologue for the feast that is hopefully to come.

The best phrase I can use to describe Dune: Part 1 is “less is more” which I realize may not make sense when you think about the adjectives I have used to describe the film “immense”, “epic”, “enormous” etc. But I hold to this. While the visuals, music and the stage are truly majestic the choices in dialogue and action are intentionally spare, almost Zen-like., The choices in the film line up with the source material in this way,. We have very small, human characters caught up in a universe spanning maelstrom and to fight against such a storm would be futile so Villeneuve does not fight it – he moves with it and allows it to carry him, the film and audience along.

Dune: Part 1 is successful in its adherence to the source material to the point that what may be perceived as flaws in the source material (little humour and where humour exists, exceptionally dry, one might say desert-like, humour) those flaws come through in the film.

The acting is also fantastic. The performances of Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgard and Timothee Chalamet are standouts to be sure. Brief appearances by Charlotte Rampling and Benjamin Clementine are also standouts. Speaking of Clementine this is his first acting role and he is absolutely wonderful. He is definitely a talent to watch.

Dune: Part 1 is a fantastic film. If you have never read the books you will come away wanting to in order to fill in some gaps. If you go to the film expecting a stand-alone sci-fi spectacle like Star Wars you will be disappointed. This is a film for those committed to a saga.

I was captivated and find it hard to imagine anyone doing a better job taking what has been called an “unfilmable book” and translating it to the screen. BTW – you should DEFINITELY see it in a theatre.

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