It is impossible to review a film if you haven’t seen the whole thing. I tried it once with Netflix’s Hubie Halloween after I wandered away for fifteen minutes while it was on and could not bring myself to catch up with the bit I’d missed. (If you’ve seen any of the film you’ll know why.) I just don’t feel you can give an informed and rounded opinion if you’ve not seen everything, especially if the part you’ve not viewed is the end. (To be fair to myself, I’m confident that Hubie Halloween still justified the negative write up I gave it.)
This might seem like a cop out then, but I feel I need to reserve my judgment on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Unlike The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which also told the first portion of a book, this does not come across as a self contained story in its own right. The very last words of the movie are ‘this is only the beginning’. They’re not wrong and a lot depends on how things pan out from here. I mean, I loved The Matrix but if I’d stopped watching at the point that Keanu said ‘Guns, lots of guns’ then I’d have had a very different opinion on the movie. What if I’d switched off before knowing how Robert Angier did the trick in The Prestige, before I found out what was in the box in Se7en or at the point at which Andy Dufresne was not stepping out of his cell in The Shawshank Redemption? You’ve got to see the whole narrative.
Interestingly, unlike with Rings, Mockingjay and Potter, they don’t yet know if they’ll get to make part two. I suspect it will happen but it’ll be immensely frustrating if it doesn’t. Forgot anything else I may say here, you have to buy a ticket for this reason alone.
All of this being said, I am prepared to comment on what I have witnessed so far. Dune Part One (which is what it is actually called on the title card) is good. I know others have gone further than this; praising it as the most spectacular and monumental science fiction film since Star Wars but I’m a little cooler on it (so far). I’m prepared to raise this to a ‘very good’ but I’ll not go beyond that. I have no particular criticisms of it but it didn’t blow me away.
Actually it is probably more correct to say it didn’t suck me in. I think those who have loved the film have become completely immersed in it and it is definitely a film that aims for that. It kept me at a bit of a distance though. Dune relies on two key aspects and surprisingly, considering how well loved the source material is, neither of them is the story. For something that is adapted from such a sophisticated novel, the narrative seems oddly stripped down and simplified. What is does have first off is the spectacle which is certainly stunning. You need to see this film on the biggest screen you can. Wonderful as the visuals are though, they are not very varied and once you’ve seen one giant space ship or one cavernous building, then you’ve kind of seen them all. Also if you’ve seen Villeneuve’s last two films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 then you’ve seen these things, in this style, even before this movie starts. There is also, as you may expect, a hell of a lot of sand, all the way through.
Secondly there is the characterisation which is strong but unlike the deserts of the planet Arrakis, it is not very warm. The film mostly follows the mother and son duo of Rebecca Ferguson’s Jessica and Timothée Chalamet’s Paul who are likeable but not really relatable. Almost everyone else in the extensive cast only has very limited screen time. Jason Mamoa is a lot of fun as Duncan Idaho but he is someone we really don’t get to know as much as we’d like. Also, every time I heard Duncan Idaho it just made me think of Johnny Utah or Hannah Montana, which might have been a little distracting.
Interestingly, while the film stops short – the structure was part of what I liked. The biggest action sequence comes in at around the middle mark (that’s the middle of this film, not the middle of the story which is actually the end of this film). This could have lead to an anticlimax but I enjoyed the shift toward the smaller sequences. The denouement (not actually the denouement) revolves around a battle between two men rather than a hundred and it works because one of these men is more important than all those dozens of others. It is interesting how they make one figure seem more epic than an entire army in such an understated way. There are also a lot of visions in the film, young Paul has regular prophetic dreams, and it is fascinating to see these roll out as thematic rather than literal in their interpretation.
Ultimately the marker of the film’s success is exactly what I have been taking issue with; it left me wanting more. I left really keen to know how it wraps up. Although by the time I got home I was pretty sure I’d worked it out.* Time will tell.
The Ripley Factor:
Blade Runner 2049 faced accusations of misogyny but on the surface Dune is better in its representation of women. Like most of Ferguson’s roles Jessica Atreides is a strong figure with formidable skills, huge agency and great determination. Her status as Duke Atreides’ concubine is appropriately downplayed and she sets the hero on his path without having to die or get kidnapped.
Zendaya’s Chani has very little to do at this stage other than walk up rocks and gaze toward the dusty horizon. Even with this limited input she shows promise that is sure to be met in part two.
*This is my theory on how this will end so be wary of spoilers for this first part (if not the second). I’m guessing that Paul Atreides gets accepted by the indigenous Fremen people and leads them in battle against the oppressive Harkonnens to eventually win back their planet. I’m going to posit that he is indeed the chosen one, although this might to some extent become be a self fulfilling prophecy. Chani will probably save his life at some point but they won’t end up together and Baron Vladimir and/or his nasty nephew will get eaten by a sandworm for sure.