Dune (Part One) Review: Church of the Poisoned Mind

Dune (Part One) is big. Dune is great to look at. And with its bombastic, semi-atonal score and soundtrack chanting, all with base maximized to vibrate all your molecules, it feels like a religious event. It helps that almost all the interiors have high, cathedral-like ceilings, and that director Denis Villeneuve approaches the material with all the zeal (but none of the sex appeal) of Cecil B. DeMille taking on the Bible. Walking into Dune is like entering a church service for an unfamiliar faith. Like any such ritual worthy of a mass-following, it’s spectacular, transcendent, at least occasionally meaningful…and yet may have you checking the time before it’s done. Spiritual trappings only affect a person so long without a bit more substance to hook them further.

Also, and this is important: This Dune movie is not a stand-alone story. There’s a misguided tendency to say that a movie ends on a cliffhanger just because the bad guys win; that’s not it here, though. No side wins, yet. The story stops with plenty left unresolved, and audiences perhaps mentally calculating where Villeneuve could have cut part one much shorter. And anyone who’s seen the David Lynch version doesn’t really have to guess. Do Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) really need to crash in the desert twice, to be rescued both times? Not really. However, Villeneuve does fix one significant problem: Lynch stacked the deck too easily in favor of Paul. The evil Harkonnens here actually represent an existential threat, and not stereotypical buffoons easily beaten.

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Ferguson is the acting MVP of the film, imbuing her Lady Jessica with a real sense of internal conflict. Torn between her roles as a mystical nun and the duke’s concubine, she must deal with the fact that her parental choices may have really messed things up. Many of the other actors are effectively objects, cast for their striking looks to stand around making iconic postures. But among them, Jessica feels like a real human. Unlike, say, Josh Brolin, who grimaces well but struggles to make author Frank Herbert’s prose sound like natural speech.

It’s tough to assess an unfinished story like this. If Dune Part Two never gets made, this version could prove an even greater disappointment overall than Lynch’s version was back in the ’80s. But Lynch’s has long since become a cult classic. How many fantasy franchise wanna-be first installments ending on unresolved notes get that kind of re-assessment? The Vampire’s Assistant? The Golden Compass? Artemis Fowl? The Dark Is Rising? Anyone?

On the other hand, the potential is there for a great payoff. But by necessity, that makes these first two and a half hours nearly all set-up.

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It’s easy to see why Villeneuve insists on the biggest screen possible. Unlike the Empire in Star Wars, whose spaceships look similar in construction to everyone else’s, the space empire in Dune revels in totalitarian architecture. The massive, intimidating structures favored by dictators and tyrants throughout history as symbols of power pointedly dwarf the people. And said people flutter around in insect-like Ornithopters, metaphorically designating themselves as relative tiny bugs before the might of the throne. This being a Messianic story, of course a hero will come from a humble desert tribe and be undaunted by such ostentatiousness. But that’s for the hypothetical part two.

Dune takes a good hour for its characters to explain the whole set-up, but by the time they do, it’s at least clearer than in previous versions. Profitable desert planet Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, the Middle-East of space, is about to be governed by the noble House Atreides, after 80 years under the brutal, greedy Harkonnens. But it’s a set-up — the Harkonnens leave sabotage in their wake, priming the Atreides to fail and get wiped out by the Harkonnens and the Emperor, who’s jealous of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his rising popularity.

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Meanwhile, Leto’s son, Paul, might just be the result of years of complicated religious genetic engineering to create a psychic Messiah who will fulfill the prophecies of Arrakis’ native Fremen. Call it Game of Dunes — there’s no throne of swords on which to sit, but rather a planet full of mind-bending spice that powers space travel. And everyone has an angle.

Like Lynch, Villeneuve clearly felt some frustration in the book’s lack of aliens, so he makes certain tribes near-alien. The Harkonnens all look pale and bald, while the Sardaukar make for the obligatory Klingon-like Space Vikings, complete with throat-singing. The Fremen sport a variety of vaguely “foreign” accents, all save for Zendaya’s Chani. Who attracts Paul in his dreams by sounding totally American.

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There’s lots of chanting, and flying, and large simple shapes levitating. But by the time Paul finally gets around to being proactive, the movie’s over. It’s a wonderful trance while it lasts, and that’s fitting for a movie about a powerful psychedelic. Indeed, the fact that a 1965 novel depends on the concept of a Messiah using controlled amounts of drugs is as fitting as the way it depicts natives using guerilla warfare as underdogs capable of defeating an Empire. Much as George Lucas did in Return of the Jedi. But sooner or later, the trip ends, and it’s sometimes hard to remember exactly what was so profound about the whole experience.

This film deserves recommendation for its sights and sounds alone. But the story, so far, only gets a big fat incomplete. Call it three stars for now, with the potential for upgrade or downgrade after whatever comes next. Or doesn’t.

Dune opens Friday, Oct 22, in theaters and on HBO Max.

Recommended Reading: Dune (Penguin Galaxy)

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