Film Review: In “Dune: Part One”, director Denis Villeneuve turns in a visual feast that skimps on extraneous details

From left, Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in the film "Dune." (Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part One” is a visual and aural spectacle that offers an intimate examination of the key characters — often at the expense of context — from Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel.

Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac lead an all-star cast as the core of House Atreides, a noble family navigating the tumultuous politics of an interstellar empire set in the distant future. 

Tasked by the Emperor with replacing the greedy House Harkonnen for control of Arrakis’ all-important spice production, the Atreides arrive on the desert planet and enter into a web of intrigue that will launch young Paul Atriedes (Timothee Chalamet) into his destiny.  

Villeneuve elected to split the narrative into two films to capture the “power in details” of the plot’s complexity, according to an April 2020 interview with No Film School.

From left, Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in the film "Dune." (Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)
[From left, Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet in the film “Dune”]
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Villeneuve’s version gravitates to a more visual representation, offering sumptuous eye candy with broad shots of stony coasts and wind-swept deserts. The battle sequences are a particularly climactic treat as explosions light up the screen and tower over fleeing characters.

The visuals come at the expense of the script, which ignores some of the more key plot threads in Herbert’s novel. Little mention is made of the spacing guild, and none at all of Harkonnen antagonist Feyd-Ratha. 

Dave Bautista’s Rabban is given more to work with as a result, leaving one to wonder if Villeneuve and his writing team intend on combining the two characters. 

Much of the rising tensions are either mentioned obliquely or removed entirely. This can be problematic for any viewer who hasn’t read Herbert’s novel or watched an earlier adaptation to fully understand the three-way conflict between Isaac’s Leto, Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron Harkonnen and the as yet unseen Emperor Shaddam IV. 

The actors turn in a stellar performance, elevating the dialogue beyond Herbert’s somewhat caricaturist style into nuanced development. Ferguson lets the viewer feel Jessica’s torment as her son Paul is subjected to the Bene Gesserit’s gom jabbar test, a tortuous first step on his destined path. 

Paul’s increasing grip on his powers is visualized throughout the plot until it virtually explodes in an emotional scene between mother and son. 

Villeneuve’s “Dune”, released in theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 21, is the third iteration to grace the screen, following David Lynch’s 1984 release and the premiere of “Frank Herbert’s Dune” on cable’s Sci Fi channel in 2000. 

A sequel that would complete the plot detailed in Herbert’s novel was recently greenlit by Warner Bros and projected to hit screens on Oct. 20, 2023.

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