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I see the desert’s shifting sands,
Imbued with that most priceless Spice,
A trap that only changes hands
When offered blood as sacrifice.

I see it’s home to Fremen rovers
And to undulating worms,
The former subject to takeovers
While the latter heeds no terms.

I see the cruel Harkonnen despots
Ripping riches from the land,
While the Fremen reap no respites
As they flee across the sand.

I see the eager House Atreides
Coming here to take control.
Though they look like lords and ladies,
Who can guess their final goal?

I see an upstart heir-messiah,
Barely out of boyhood’s thrall,
Soon a scion made pariah,
Desert sands to break his fall.

The desert claims what it consumes
And chooses whom it will anoint.
I see so much (and large it looms)
But cannot see beyond this point.

MPA rating:  PG-13

I’ve never read Dune, but my VC has and is an ardent fan of David Lynch’s strange 1984 adaptation, for some reason. While she has yet to see Denis Villeneuve’s new incarnation of George Herbert’s massive sci-fi opus, I was glad for the multiple times she convinced me to see Lynch’s version, since I knew generally what to expect. Herbert’s novel is notoriously dense, with dozens of characters and unfamiliar terms in alien languages, so it was a benefit not going into the movie cold.

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Villeneuve has already proven his talent for serious science fiction, from the cerebral but deeply touching Arrival to the lengthy but engrossing Blade Runner 2049, so Dune seemed like a natural next step for the director. The first question: Is it better than the 1984 film? A resounding yes! You can take your pick of what was the main problem with Lynch’s film: the constant internal monologuing, the ultra-compressed plotline, or (what I think) the introduction of so many strange elements of Dune’s world without enough time for them to come off as anything but bizarre. That’s a time issue too, I suppose, but it’s a problem that Villeneuve has countered by splitting his adaptation of the first Dune book into a two-parter, making this year’s installment only Part One.

This protraction of the runtime over two films allows the plot to breathe. That plot is still largely the same – the Atreides house taking control of the desert planet of Arrakis to harvest the hallucinogenic Spice only for things to go very, very poorly – but Villeneuve has carefully chosen what to show and what to leave for later, such as providing glimpses of the home planets of the Atreides and Harkonnen clans while leaving the Emperor and the giant-headed mutant Guild Navigators off-screen and only mentioned. There is also more room for character development, mainly for the young messianic heir Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), his noble father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and skilled fighter Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), the latter a major figure in the books who gets way more screen time here than in Lynch’s film.

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Villeneuve’s Dune is rightfully being lauded not just for its improved adaptation and talented all-star cast (including Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, and Javier Bardem) but for just how immersive his on-screen world is. Like Gravity, this is a film that was made to be experienced in a theater, with that blaring Hans Zimmer score accentuating how massive the spaceships and architecture are as Shakespearean backstabbing plays out amidst quasi-religious drug reveries and space colonialism. While Chalamet didn’t impress me that much as Paul, he and the rest of the cast embrace their roles fully to sell how this strange future universe is their own. Likewise, the set design and special effects bring the explosive battles and gargantuan sand worms to startling life, making the film a shoo-in for technical Oscars next year.

But then there’s the second question:  Did I like this new version of Dune? Well, sort of. With Lynch’s film, I could still appreciate the underlying story that Herbert created, and here, there is even more to appreciate to bring that story to the big screen. I’m convinced that Villeneuve’s Dune is the best possible version of this story, but I’m still not sure if it’s a story I can say I enjoy. Even with the extra time to get to know the characters, I still didn’t really connect with any of them, which is perhaps unavoidable considering how far removed they are from the world we know. Plus, as with the Hobbit films and Infinity War, it’s hard to make a final appraisal of Part One when the full story is yet to come, though thankfully Part Two has been confirmed. Several characters just drop away without knowing their fates, while other clearly important characters, like Zendaya’s blue-eyed Chani of the native desert-dwelling Fremen, get little screen time except for slow-motion dreams.

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So Dune: Part One is an immense achievement of filmmaking and a worthy adaptation of its famed source that may be more accessible than Lynch’s film but is still bound by the limitations of the same story. Perhaps that’s a matter of personal taste that might be solved by repeat viewings, but I’m still glad the long-awaited epic was worth the wait on a visual level alone.

Best line: (Jamis, in one of Paul’s visions) “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process. We must join it. We must flow with it.”

Rank:  List Runner-Up

© 2021 S.G. Liput
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