"What's in the box?"
Paul Atreides asks this simple question in an iconic scene from the original Dune text from Frank Herbert in 1965. Those of us who have been fans of that book or any of its film adaptations shared a similar uncertainty about this new two-part Dune film production from Legendary Entertainment and director Denis Villeneuve.
As for me, though, I was blown away after seeing Dune: Part One both in theaters and on HBO Max during its release weekend in the U.S. As I said in my video review of the film, this is the Dune production I've been waiting for. The entire cast delivered performances that paired perfectly with how Villeneuve and his fellow screenplay writers John Spaights and Eric Roth crafted the story for film. And that storycraft was well suited to a feature-length film and to a broad audience hungry for new epic sci-fi movie.
Though in his early 20s during production, Timothée Chalamet portrayed the central character, a late-teens Paul Atreides, in a way that brought that character straight off the pages of the book. Early in the film, Chalamet was able to convey Paul's vulnerability that he struggles to cover up by his proud, noble demeanor. Chalamet's performance goes on to reflect Paul's growth as the film progresses. Plus, Chalamet's hair should win an award for its own stand-out performance.
Going back to the storycraft, I think it was brilliant to reimagine the political landscape of the book as a canvas on which to paint the character's stories. This is in contrast to the book, which places a much heavier emphasis on the politics and history of its fictional universe. There's even a glossary in the back (like any good fantasy novel) in case you forget anything.
The film sticks with the most critical parts of the politics, introducing the desert planet Arrakis, also called Dune, and the Known Universe's most coveted resource, the Spice Melange, which is exclusive to that planet. The film also presents the power struggle for Arrakis between noble houses in the Imperium and the underlying Bene Gesserit religious order that manipulates the political landscape from the shadows.
But the film stops short of introducing us to the Padishah Emperor himself or explaining the Bulterian Jihad. Perhaps we'll hear more politics and history in Part Two, or perhaps Villeneuve has decided to leave that level of complexity to the book readers.
Dune trivia: The Known Universe's reliance on the Spice Melange and the struggle for power in Arrakis reflects our real world's reliance on oil resources from the Middle East and the associated struggle of world powers to keep political influence in that region.
Villeneuve keeps the character profiles simple. He starts by painting the most prominent characters from two noble houses: House Atreides is home to our main protagonists in Part One, and House Harkonnen is clearly positioned as the antagonists. He strikes just the right balance in how he introduces the completely separate faction called the Fremen (think "free men"), natives to Arrakis who aren't allied to houses. The Fremen hold the real "desert power" in their ability to coexist with the planet's ecosystem, and the film highlights how that power is rising while the noble houses start to lose control.
Beyond the story and characters, the visual and audio experience of the film was extraordinary. From the lush coastal shorelines on Caladan to the vast desert landscapes of Arrakis, the landscape shots were stunning. The way both interior and exterior shots were lit, framed, and color-balanced played a large part in creating the emotion of each scene. Also, sitting in the back row of the theater, it felt like my seat had haptics synchronized with the rumbling of machines and the booms of explosions during battle. Plus, all the special and practical effects blended seamlessly, and I felt like I was in a world that was grounded and real.
While I truly loved everything about this film, I admit that there are some parts of my 654-page book that I would like to have seen that didn't make the cut. For example, I am a big fan of the Mentat order, the history behind the order, and their roles throughout the Imperium. We did get to meet Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), but we didn't get the full story on how they each serve their noble houses.
That said, spending time explaining the Mentats and developing Thufir and Piter wouldn't have added value to the core storyline in Part 1. In the film's limited time to present the first half of Dune, I think the screenwriters struck the right balance on what to add in and what to set aside for the book readers to discover. And as for the Mentats, the second part of the book does provide Villeneuve with some options for Part 2.
As I write this, I see that Warner Bros. has announced that Part 2 is a go and is targeted for an October 2023 release. I am delighted to hear it! Thanks to all the fans who indulged in Part 1 this past week and paved the way for Part 2!
How about we wrap up with some Dune trivia questions? Tip: You'll need to go beyond the film for some of these, so book readers, avid fans, and savvy internet searchers will have an edge. How many can you get without looking up the answer? Post your answers in the comments along with your thoughts on this newest movie!
- What is the Fremen's name for the desert mouse we see frequently throughout the film?
- In the Known Universe history, what is the name of the great revolt against computers and thinking machines?
- What organization holds a monopoly on space travel and includes the navigators who rely on the Spice Melange?
- The Sardukar is an army of soldier-fanatics. Who do they serve?
- What title is given to the male Bene Gesserit that the order has been genetically and politically preparing for over centuries, whose mental powers will bridge space and time?
- Bonus: List the Marvel Cinematic Universe actors who had roles in Dune: Part 1.