Sandwalking in the Right Direction: A Review of “Dune: Part One”

To reveal the final line won’t really be a spoiler. It’s technically a mirroring of fact. Aside from the film being subtitled “Part One”, it was also revealed to cover only the first two-thirds of the book. So, even with the 156-minute running time, “this is” – for all intents and purposes – “only the beginning”.

Such is the overwhelming magnitude of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a futuristic epic that’s grueling to absorb, much more to digest. Even writing a synopsis feels daunting. The 1965 novel was a larger-than-life, bible-thick saga, replete with a vast lexicon of exclusive terminologies. It’s bound to confuse any first-time reader. Set in the Year 10191, the story follows young Paul Atreides, son of Caladan’s Duke Leto Arteides and his Bene Gesserit concubine, Lady Jessica. The book was divided into three sprawling parts, namely Dune, Maud’dib, and The Prophet. All throughout, Paul discovers his messianic potential and slowly becomes assimilated with the Fremen, a tribe of blue-eyed nomads native to the hostile desert planet of Arrakis. We haven’t even accounted for the five sequels yet.   

To compress that universe would be to diminish its impact and dilute its rich allegories. To rush it would be even more catastrophic. Take it from David Lynch, whose breakthrough adaptation was met with such severe backlash, Roger Ebert even deplored it as “incomprehensible” and “ugly”, among other railing adjectives. Released in late 1984, this Universal Pictures release was actually the first Dune adaptation to see the light of day, after several flubbed attempts in the 1970s. While it launched the career of Kyle McLachlan, the film was a commercial dud and was reportedly disclaimed by Lynch himself. To its credit, though, the MTV generation may have appreciated its cult appeal. It was scored by seminal rock band Toto and notably featured Sting as a villain from the final third of the book. Ergo, don’t expect to see any Feyd-Reutha here. Not yet at least.

John Harrison’s 2000 miniseries was deemed to be a more acceptable reimagining. It starred Aussie actor Alec Newman as Paul and William Hurt as Leto. The three-part TV event was a ratings juggernaut for the Sci-Fi Channel and scored two Emmys in 2001. It was memorably followed by an equally successful sequel in 2003. Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune wasan amalgamation of two of the book’s sequels, 1969’s Dune Messiah and 1976’s Children of Dune.

The success of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises restored clamor for another adaptation. Paramount first took on the challenge but dropped the project in 2011. Five years later, Denis Villaneuve was ultimately announced to be at the helm, fresh from his lauded turn in 2015’s Sicario. The French-Canadian director called it an ambition fulfilled but was initially intimidated by the idea. It took the one-two punch of 2016’s Arrival and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 to convince himself he’s the right fit.

Villaneuve envisioned this Legendary/Warner iteration to be a two-part epic. It was the only way to keep the vision and the spectacle intact. For this undertaking, the filmmaker reunited with some of his collaborators from his two recent Oscar-nominated outings. That includes film editor Joe Walker and production designer Patrice Vernette. Joining him as co-screenwriters are Eric Roth (who won an Oscar for Forrest Gump) and Jon Spaihts (Passenger, Doctor Strange). The Islamic allusions begin and end with the Middle Eastern-sounding names. The themes of environmentalism and colonization, on the other hand, remain prevalent.

After being delayed by the pandemic for a year, Dune finally hit big screens in October 2021. It was also one of two films that screened when Philippine cinemas reopened in November. Too bad not everyone is bound to opt for that platform for safety reasons, even if it’s the most ideal.  

Just like the book, this movie’s a slow burn. And, never before was the source material done more justice – cinematically, at least. The moment the line “Dreams are messages from the deep” appears onscreen, it’s clear that we’re in for a hypnotic journey. Once you’re drawn, it’s hard to snap out of that trance.

Naturally, an epic of interstellar proportions requires a stellar cast. Taking the lead here is Timothée Chalamet, himself almost other-worldly with his talent and nuance. He balances the fragile intensity and reluctant mysticism vital to the role of Paul Artreides. His confusion is critical as he slowly comes to terms with both being both a clairvoyant (“Kwisatz Haderach”) and a symbol of his mother’s defiance. Indignant as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (a creepy Charlotte Rampling) is over Jessica bearing a son, she is intrigued by Paul’s prophecies and can’t discount his huge potential. Her motives, however, remain shady.  

Through it all, Paul remains devoted to his father, (Oscar Isaac) who one day wishes to see his son take over his reins. It’s why he put him under the tutelage of his aides. There’s weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), swords master Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Mentat Thuwir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Suk doctor Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen).

Things take a critical turn when the Duke is granted stewardship over Arrakis, the only known source of life-giving “spices”. While suspicious over the assignment, Leto sees the economic potential in colonizing the spice-laden planet amidst the obvious potential risks. True enough, the move was made by Emperor Shaddam to set the groundwork for its former stewards, the rivaling House of Harkonnens, to stage an upheaval. Led by the grotesque Baron Vladimir (Stellan Starsgård, eerily channeling Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now), the Harkonnens resent the development and are more than willing to reclaim control. Also among their ranks is the hulking Glossu Raban (Dave Bautista), the Baron’s nephew.

The females are certainly given more edge in this version. Lady Jessica, for one, is given a more warrior-like depiction as opposed to being a mere passive priestess in the book. Rebecca Ferguson certainly provides the needed fierceness to that update. The Fremen scientist Dr. Liet-Kynes, on the other hand, was given the most extreme facelift. Here, that character’s reimagined as a woman, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

The adrenaline finally starts kicking in once they set foot on Arrakis, where they meet tribe leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem). This inevitably leads to one action sequence after the other, from the Harkonnens infiltrating the Arteides fortress to the troops evading the infamous monstrous sandworms. (Remember: walk without rhythm). Through it all, everything is sublimely captured by Greig Fraser’s poetic cinematography and punctuated by Hans Zimmer’s sweeping score.  

Alas, the pace lags when Paul finally comes face to face with the literal girl of his dreams, Chani (Zendaya). But, anticlimactic as it feels, this is, perhaps, a necessary lull. Because, again, take it from her near fourth wall breaker of a closing line, this is only Part One. Part Two won’t be out until 2023. Much as this is still lightyears away from the denouement, one thing is for certain. Given all the false fits and starts Dune had in its long cinematic journey, this is finally a huge leap towards the right direction.

DUNE is now streaming in the Philippines on HBO Go.

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