Released: 1st December
Seen: 7th December
The 1965 novel Dune is one of those works of fiction that has permeated pop culture in ways that few other books have. Even if you haven’t read it, you probably know of the sandworms that turn the desert planet into a constant sea of danger, you might know about the drug Spice and that it’s been a notorious pain in the ass to try and adapt.
The first attempt in the 70s didn’t even make it to screen, the 1984 version by David Lynch is a cult movie that most people would know as “That film where Sting wears the strangest underwear known to man” and it has even been turned into a miniseries. Each attempt to adapt it has had some problems or just seemed to not capture the book… now, I can’t say if the 2021 adaptation of Dune captures the book properly, but it’s definitely a really good movie.
Dune takes place on the planet Arrakis, a desert planet which is known as the only place in the universe where you can farm ‘Spice’, a hallucinogenic drug that is essential for interstellar travel. The planet is run by those who are part of House Harkonnen until the Emperor decides that they will be replaced by House Atreides, a house ruled by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac) who is preparing his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) for his eventual role as the leader.
Once House Atreides gets onto the planet Arrakis they quickly learn that they’ve been left with bad technology that not only could severely slow down their Spice harvesting but also puts them in constant danger from the sandworms. Meanwhile Paul keeps having strange dreams that seem to predict a future, including a mysterious blue eyed woman (Zendaya) who is clearly one of the native Fremen. As though things can’t get any worse, the members of House Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) are planning something that might bring an end to House Atreides.
Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way, I haven’t read Dune. Never had the interest, the time or the need. I can’t tell you if this is a fair and accurate adaptation of the novel, I’m just here to tell you if this is a good film on its own (because any adaptation should be able to stand up without needing supplementary material, that’s how adaptation works) and… yes, with a big caveat.
As a film, Dune is absolutely stunning. Probably one of the most gorgeous films to look at that you’ll find this year, and considering it is somehow this stunning when it’s mostly made up of browns and greys with spots of blue every now and then, it’s stunning how every frame is just so perfectly shot and every shade of colour is almost painted on screen. You couldn’t ask for a more gorgeous film that’s 97% shots of sand.
Dune glides through every shot so beautifully, it takes its time to revel in the beauty of the scenery and the grand expanse on display. Even if you can’t keep up with the story (admittedly there’s a lot of story here, it’s easy to get lost) the visuals are more than powerful enough to demand your attention. Even things that should be silly looking, like the infamous Sandworms or the dragonfly-helicopters, look absolutely perfect and fit into this strange world that we spend two and a half hours being introduced to.
That’s kind of where that caveat kicks in, this is very clearly just Act 1 of a larger narrative (That’ll apparently only need one more part to finish but I won’t be shocked to hear it becomes two) and as such it does feel incomplete. Now obviously part ones of big stories have that feeling of “Oh there’s more” but the truly great ones make it feel like you’ve had a complete narrative in every film, look at Lord of the Rings for an example. Sure that first movie is just one part of a whole, but it’s also got a complete arc and a lot happens that makes it worth watching on its own… Dune feels like we’re waiting for the next part.
Fortunately part two is confirmed, they’re going to finish this sprawling story off at some point in the future and it feels like this film will turn into something truly great when we have the rest of the story to go with it. It’s a really, really good first film, but I can’t quite go for great just because it leaves almost all of the meat of the story for the next part.
This movie is basically world building, exploring the intricate details of this world and the systems that surround it. It touches on colonialism and economic issues (oh, a bunch of rich guys come into a native land in the desert to pull a bunch of natural resources out of the ground… I wonder if that’s a metaphor for something), along with ideas of nobility and other heavy subjects and does that really well, while it’s setting everything up so that hopefully the next part can just dive right into the juicy stuff.
On its own however, Dune is still a really, really good film. Might be a little slow right near the end, has a few moments where the indulgence in the scope of everything feels like it goes a little bit too far but on the whole, this is a glorious epic that is going to be delighting audiences for a long time. I hope the second part is able to live up to the standard that this one has set and I look forward to the inevitable 7 hour long ultra edition that links this and the next movie together to create the ultimate Dune experience, but until that happens this is still a pretty damn good time.