Dune – Part One

Published as a novel in 1965 after previously being serialised in Analog, Frank Herbert’s Dune is regarded as a masterpiece and landmark of science fiction in terms of worldbuilding and the complexity of its society with its rival “Great Houses,” principal among them the Atreides, based in the clement and fertile world of Caladan, and the ruthless Harkonnens whose homeworld of Giedi Prime has been entirely corrupted by industry.

Liberally adapted for the screen by director Alejandro Jodorowsky in the early seventies who was ultimately unable to fund his vision, David Lynch’s version reached the screen in 1984, magnificently conceived and designed, an epic to rival the great films of Hollywood’s golden age but which struggled to find a receptive audience, and in 2000 John Harrison guided a television mini-series to the Sci-Fi Channel, more faithful to the novel and adhering to its three-part format, Dune, Muad’Dib and The Prophet.

Blessed by the Maker and Legendary Pictures with a budget estimated at $165 million, seven times that of the 2000 version with which to realise the war to control the riches of the desert planet Arrakis, director Denis Villeneuve of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 has collaborated with Prometheus’ Jon Spaihts and Forrest Gump’s Eric Roth on a screenplay covering only the first half of the material.

Opening on Caladan, a serene world of mountains, oceans and clouds which conceal the Atreides military power, Duke Leto (Ex Machina’s Oscar Isaac) is appointed as steward of Arrakis, source of the spice which makes space travel possible, the most valuable substance in the universe. The planet previously having been under the control of the Harkonnens, it is suspected that beyond the immediate challenges the opportunity conceals a trap.

Leto’s son Paul (Hostiles’ Timothée Chalamet) having been trained by his mother Jessica (Doctor Sleep’s Rebecca Ferguson) in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, he has been protected from how serious the situation is. Not only heir to House Atreides but the product of a breeding programme conducted by the sisterhood to match the bloodlines of the great houses in order to exert control upon them but also to produce a superbeing, it is a goal the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Zardoz‘s Charlotte Rampling) believes is imminent.

Arriving on Arrakis, the proximity to the spice increases the visions Paul has been experiencing of a young woman in the desert, but to the local population, the nomadic Fremen, it is believed that he might be the fulfilment of a prophecy of a saviour from outworld who will release them from their shackles of the empire, a situation Leto hopes may encourage them to ally with the Atreides when the Harkonnens make their move.

Substantially faithful to the text of Herbert’s novel, the Houses are as distinct as their worlds, the wood and curves of the architecture of Caladan a contrast to the shadows and angles of Giedi Prime, though it is Arrakis to which Villeneuve devotes himself, endless shifting dunes, sandblasted, striated rock and sunbleached monuments of stone, the players dwarfed by the enormity of the vast spaces, landscapes and objects.

Each character of the ensemble introduced in turn, and there are many of them, despite the length of Dune many of them have little screen time yet all establish themselves clearly, though certain individuals who will become central to the conclusion of the narrative are excised completely along with the passage to Arrakis itself, Villeneuve inexplicably stepping back from one of the more abstract ideas of the novel and the opportunity to set himself apart from the previous adaptations with his own visualisation of “folding space.”

Shot by Rogue One’s Greig Fraser, it cannot be denied that every aspect of Dune is mesmerising to behold, every stitch of clothing, ceremonial blade and ornithopter wing, the endless horizon of the Great Flat, the Harkonnen reign of fire as beautiful as it is destructive, the Imperial Sardaukar floating down from the skies to land as gently as snow, an elegy in sand and shimmering sun, yet for all its magnificence and grandeur nor does it feel significantly superior to the previous versions, Villeneuve’s restraint as admirable and frustrating as the masks worn by those mired in the politics of the Great Houses, expressions controlled and intentions hidden.

Equally exasperating is that this is, like Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings, only half a story which comes with no guarantee that it will be continued nor any attempt to divide the story at a natural break; “This is only the beginning,” promises Chani (Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Zendaya), yet the film simply ends without fanfare, the future and its many paths undisclosed beyond Paul’s vision made flesh.

Dune – Part One is on general release from Friday 22nd November and is also screening in IMAX



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