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Lawrence of Arrakis: A Film Review of Dune Part 1

For the past couple of months, I have been looking forward to October 22nd. It’s not my birthday, and it’s not Christmas. But it is the release of the long-awaited Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

Like many people, I’ve been a fan of the book by Frank Herbert for many years. Ever since high school, when my dad first handed me his own dog-eared copy and told me that I needed to read it. I did and I haven’t been the same since.

I’m very glad that, when I went to see the movie, I got to see it with my dad.

But this is not my story, and that’s enough of me talking about my dad. This is a review of the 2021 movie Dune.

Before we get started, though, I want to say that this will be spoiler-free until the end. Don’t worry, I’ll give you plenty of warning.

Spoiler-free plot synopsis

So, first of all, this is only part 1 of at least 2 movies. Legendary Films has recently green-lighted production for the second movie. There’s no word, yet, on whether they plan to do any more of the Dune saga. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story starts off by explaining that the planet Arrakis, also called Dune, has been under the control of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård) and his sadistic nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista) for eighty years. 

Beast Rabban Harkonnen
Beast Rabban Harkonnen played by Dave Bautista.

This is important because Arrakis is the only planet in the galaxy where spice, a psychic drug that’s the only means of space navigation, can be found. The only things keeping the Harkonnens from strip mining the place are the Bedouin-inspired Fremen, a native group of desert people with a talent for guerilla warfare, and gigantic sandworms, called Shai-Hulud by the natives.

Sandworm Dude 2021

Recently, the Padishah Emperor, the absolute ruler of the galaxy, arranged the transfer of power over Arrakis from the (obviously evil) House Harkonnen to the (obviously good) House Atreides.

The problem is that it’s all a trap.

Duke Leto Atreides, Oscar Isaac, has been getting popular among the great houses, so in a Lannister-like move, the Emperor devised a way to get rid of him by giving him the greatest gift in the universe—control over the spice and all the riches that would bring. And thus bringing him into direct confrontation with the Harkonnen.

This is the story’s setup, and if this looks confusing, don’t worry. It’s going to get much worse.

Dune is about the Duke’s teenage son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), who has to navigate a Byzantine web of conspiracy and plotting. “Plots within plots” as the book says. Helping him are his mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), his dad’s military leader, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), and his best friend, Duncan Idaho (one of the coolest characters in all of science-fiction and played by none other than Jason Momoa).

House Atreides

All the while, there is a hint that Paul may be something called a Kwisatz Haderach, a chosen one, the perfect male human bred over the centuries by an all-female cabal called the Bene Gesserit.

Oh, and the Bene Gesserit are experts at eugenics, manipulating political events behind the scenes, and they have quasi-magical powers. You know, like you do.

This is admittedly a terrible plot synopsis, but there’s a reason behind it. The whole movie is a slow build to an explosive ending and I don’t want to give it all away by explaining too much. But I will say this, the story begins like this but it will end with most of the people I mentioned either dead or in hiding.

If you thought Game of Thrones was bad about killing off people, just you wait.

Rounding out this cast is Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, and Zendaya as members of the Fremen. I can’t say any more about their characters except that, much like everyone ever born, Paul keeps having dreams of Zendaya.

No, not those dreams. Stop it.

Zendaya as Chani 2

In short, this movie brings the epic grand-scale narrative of science fiction that we expect from a Star Wars movie combined with the political maneuvering of something like Game of Thrones. Throw in a chosen one storyline weighed down by the horrors of imperialism and colonialism, with a dash of mysticism, and you have Dune.

What I thought about it

I won’t lie to you, and I’ll try not to exaggerate, but this is one of the best science fiction movies that I’ve seen in years.

It’s a slow-moving movie, I will grant it that, but it promises you a pay-off and then (in the crutch that usually tanks a movie like this) it pays off that promise. With dividends.

As a movie, it was incredibly stunning. The visuals alone were absolutely phenomenal. I know of no other movie to bring such love to the desert as Lawrence of Arabia. It lacked the scope of Lawrence’s “the desert is a character,” but they still did a damn good job.

Fun fact: Denis Villeneuve filmed his Dune in the same desert that Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. This is extra cool because the exploits of Major T.E. Lawrence (as depicted in his memoir and the biopic) were a huge influence on Frank Herbert’s book.

Same desert in Lawrence of Arabia.

The music by Hans Zimmer also deserves recognition. It was grand and epic but with just the right discordant notes that really sold the tragedy of everything as it unfolded.

Robert Morgan and Jacqueline West did an amazing job as costume designers. The costumes all looked recognizable from different parts of history without being caricatures of the past. The end result was that it looked like old designs in the future. And, props to them, they also did not shy away from weird choices (but also without going overboard, which is a trap that a lot of sci-fi falls into).

Seriously, visually the movie was exactly what I was looking for. Usually, this is where I would say that the acting fell flat but… it didn’t. Everyone really brought their A-game and it showed. All of my complaints acting-wise boil down to “well yeah, but I would have done it differently.”

Seriously breath-taking performances.

What I wasn’t a fan of

I do have four complaints.

One, and this is not just for Dune but all movies on desert planets, why is there no eye protection? These people have created suits that preserve all of your body’s water. And in the books (conveniently not mentioned in the movie), they do mean ALL of your body’s water.

Yes, even that.

The natives also have blue eyes. I have blue eyes and I have to wear sunglasses when it’s cloudy!

The Fremen
The Fremen.

My second complaint regards one scene that I’ll talk about more in the spoiler section, and it just boils down to a creative choice by the writers and director that I felt didn’t go hard enough.

My third complaint has more to do with modern sci-fi movies in general. Is it just me or does every single movie now-a-days have to be super dark? I loved the costumes and the set design. I would have loved it better if I could’ve seen it.

Usually movies like this are split between two different styles: The “realpolitik” side is dark and foreboding while the “honest” side of society is filmed with brighter colors and lights. Villenueve did this to an extent, but my problem was that even the scenes with the Fremen just seemed really dark.

So, fine, that was more of an annoyance rather than an actual “complaint,” but still.

Dark shot from Dune

My fourth complaint I hesitate to even say. So, Frank Herbert put a lot of thought into the various factions and roles of people inhabiting his universe. The movie does a good job explaining everything but not a great one. I don’t think that they adequately explained how the politics are all a delicate balancing act between the Emperor, the Great Houses, and the Spacing Guild of the Navigators (think of it as the Teamsters’ Union… on steroids), with the Bene Gesserit meddling with everyone for their own ends.

They also did not explain Thufir Hawat (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, the guy who made his eyes turn white in that one scene) and how he is a mentat, a human computer, and how Paul has been secretly trained as one. Nor did they explain why they need to have human computers and not computer computers, and that one’s pretty cool.

(Frank Herbert wrote that their society still bears the scars of an incredibly bloody holy war—called a Jihad in the books—against “thinking machines” that had sought to dominate humanity)

But yeah, this movie really is what I’ve been waiting for in terms of science fiction and, probably the most important thing here, I cannot wait to see the next part.

A note about Zendaya

If you’re a big fan of Zendaya, you may walk away from the movie feeling a little disappointed. Her character, Chani, has a line at the beginning of the movie and then doesn’t speak until the end, and until then all that we see of her are in Paul’s partially prophetic dreams.

This makes sense since her character doesn’t appear as much in the first third of the book (the part that this movie is based on), however, she is a major part in the rest of the novel and in the second book, Dune Messiah.

Zendaya as Chani

That said, every moment that she is on screen, whether she is speaking or not, she is magnetic. Literally, you cannot take your eyes off of her! She is intensely interesting to watch and I love every frame that she’s in. She pulls focus like no one else and it’s amazing!

So, if you’re disappointed that you didn’t get to see more of her, my only request is that you hang on. Her time to shine is coming, and Denis Villeneuve has given me plenty of reason to think that he’s going to give her what she’s due.

Just hang in there.

All that has come before

In order to truly understand why I’m so excited about this rendition of Dune, we have to look at all of the other attempts that came before.

Before we begin, though, please understand that I have a lot of love for these renditions of Dune. Some of that love is entirely ironic, but still.

The first real attempt was in 1975 with the Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky. From everything that I’ve heard and read about it, this movie seems like… a mess.

jodorowsky's Dune
jodorowsky’s Dune

Or it would have been if it had ever been made.

Seriously, he wanted Salvador Dalí to play the Emperor, and Dalí demanded to be paid $100,000 per hour. And Jodorowsky agreed!

Everything else just sounded like a weird acid trip of a movie that strayed really far from the source material.

But, if Jodorowsky tried to stray from Frank Herbert’s work, David Lynch somehow managed to stay a little bit too close to the original while also deviating away from it at the same time in his cult-classic movie from 1984. It’s kind of impressive.

Dune 1984 and yes that is Sting
Dune 1984 and yes that is Sting.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about: Frank Herbert likes to give his readers complex information in the form of “hearing” his characters’ thoughts. David Lynch took this literally and has scene after scene of the characters whispering their inner feelings. Most of which we got if we were paying attention to their actions.

Now, David Lynch did do a really great job of using a ton of lines straight from the book.

That said, I never realized how bad some of Frank Herbert’s dialogue was until I heard it out loud.

He also stayed very true to many of Herbert’s character descriptions, which turned them into caricatures because that’s basically what Frank Herbert wrote them to be.

But a fun fact: the character of Feyd-Rautha (Baron Harkonnen’s other nephew, not seen yet in Denis Villeneuve’s version) was played by Sting (yes, the musician), who was also slated to play the same character in Jodorowsky’s Dune. Small universe.

Finally, we get to Frank Herbert’s Dune, the 2000 miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel (back before they became SyFy). I’ll be honest, I love this version. It stayed true to the story while also using its medium as a miniseries to full effect by dividing this (ahem, lengthy ass) story into three parts to coincide with the three parts of the novel.

Dune 2000 miniseries with Alec Newman as Paul and Barbora Kodetova as Chani
Dune 2000 miniseries with Alec Newman as Paul and Barbora Kodetova as Chani.

It had two big problems. And a bunch of little ones but I’m not going to get into those.

One of the big ones was the budget. Boy howdy, but Sci-Fi Channel shows were really given as little as possible. Probably because Sci-Fi had so little to give. They made the most out of it, but even that was a fairly low bar. The sequel series, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, was given a much bigger budget and consequently did much better.

The other problem was the costumes and the lights. I know for a fact that the people that they hired to do both of these were big names in their field but… phew. The end result was that it, unfortunately, looked like a college theatrical production. Nice enough costumes, but definitely done more for the “look” than for the world. Basically, that means that everyone looked like they were in a tripped-out version of Robin Hood (with samurai bad guys for some reason).

Ian McNiece as Baron Harkonnen in the 2000 miniseries, one of the series' best actors who, for some reason, was given a bunch of rhyming lines
Ian McNiece as Baron Harkonnen in the 2000 miniseries, one of the series’ best actors who, for some reason, was given a bunch of rhyming lines.

And then the lighting. Dear God, the lighting was awful. It really looked like theatrical lighting, which would have worked well on a musical but just looked heavy-handed and forced on screen.

These are the three big attempts that came before. I feel like the two that were actually made, David Lynch’s and Frank Herbert’s Dune, were a lot of fun and did a lot with the subject material but ultimately fell flat. I’ve already mentioned the surface-level reasons for why they fell flat, but there’s another, deeper reason that I can only talk about if I start talking spoilers.

Warning, Spoilers Ahead!

From here on out, I am going to get into the end of Part I of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and the events that come after. That means, I’m going to be talking about stuff that will show up in future movies.

You have been warned.

Paul

One of the biggest complaints that Dune has received is that it is a “White Savior” story: the “civilized” white man comes to the “savage” country, where he frees the helpless natives from oppression and turns them into proper citizens of a cultured society. With him as their leader because they’re just silly savages who can’t possibly make decisions without their hero.

And in case you didn’t catch the subtlety there: the “savior” is always white and the “savages” are either actually people of color or they’re white stand-ins for people of color.

It is an absolutely disgusting trope and you find it everywhere, even today, and I am really glad that we’re talking about Dune in this way.

Because it isn’t a White Savior story.

Because Paul isn’t saving anyone.

Paul Atreides

See, the thing you need to know about Frank Herbert can best be summarized by his line, “I felt like charismatic leaders should come with a warning label: might be dangerous to your health.”

And Paul Atreides is very charismatic.

With the death of his father and everything he once knew, we feel for Paul’s struggle: the struggle to simply survive in an alien landscape and the burning need to be avenged on the people who caused this trauma.

And to do that he, like any capable leader, will use whatever weapons are available. And that means the Fremen. In his quest to take back his place as the leader of a Great House, and make a bid for the imperial throne, Paul is going to use the Fremen as a weapon, and in order to do that he’s going to take on the role of their messiah. He knows he isn’t the messiah, in fact, he knows that the Fremen’s religion was engineered by the Bene Gesserit so that these fierce warriors would—when the time is right—be loyal to them.

But with Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, being a Bene Gesserit, she knows just how to manipulate them into accepting Paul as their messiah. And because Paul is a genius, who is also trained in Bene Gesserit ways, such as the Voice (fus-ru-dah anyone?), and is stupid enough to try to be the Kwisatz Haderach, he is wildly successful.

The real tragedy, however, is that he is also a good person in an impossible situation. In order to survive, and get what he wants, he has to do all of these things. But he really loves the Fremen. A good man with good intentions.

But we know what they say about good intentions.

Paul and Lady Jessica in stilsuits

In the books, Paul’s need for vengeance is countered by his fear of unleashing Fremen warriors upon the galaxy in a holy war, one that will cause untold suffering and carnage. He can see that future before him but he doesn’t know how to stop it. Eventually, he gives up and allows the holy war to commence.

Then, he even goes back on his word to the Fremen that he would turn Arrakis into a paradise—the ultimate dream of the Fremen and the Imperial Ecologist, Liet-Kynes—by saying, “God made Arrakis to make warriors. Whom am I to go against God?”

It’s not really mentioned in any of the film versions and it isn’t mentioned in the first book, but Paul eventually realizes what he has to do in order to stop the ultimate destruction of mankind… and then doesn’t do it. It’s up to his son, Leto—later known as the God-Emperor of Dune—to fix his mistakes. And prepare the way for humanity’s ultimate triumph.

How does Denis Villeneuve stack up to this idea?

What an excellent question, Rhetorical Device. Let’s take a look.

I have a lot of faith in Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Dune and that he’s going to focus on the actual complex story rather than the “Space-Jesus” angle. The biggest evidence of that is that the movie starts with us seeing Arrakis from the viewpoint of the Fremen.

It’s their home that strangers have come to strip-mine and destroy. It’s their world.

in the dune universe, space travel is tightly controlled by the Navigators, who require the spice
in the Dune universe, space travel is tightly controlled by the Navigators, who require the spice.

The parallels between them and every other post-colonial society is striking. And speaking of striking, there are several scenes where Duke Leto, whom we all unquestionably know is a great guy, is surrounded by cheering soldiers who chant “House Atreides” with one voice.

It’s a deep, baritone voice of many hundreds if not thousands and, when combined with the dark military dress of our protagonists, reminds us of soldiers chanting two other words: “Zieg Heil.”

It feels like someone playing the wrong note at a concert. And it is super effective. We know that we love and trust Leto and Paul to be good humans, but we’re also shown that the system itself is wrong. Fundamentally wrong.

I loved it.

Military costumes Dune

Finally, there’s also the fact that Villeneuve is focusing a lot of his storytelling on Dune’s women, particularly Jessica (to whom he gives the “I shall not fear” lines in a great moment) and Chani.

This is something that previous iterations didn’t get, or they didn’t fully get it. The movie is about Paul, but the story is about the women.

That one scene that I didn’t like and why I didn’t like it

So, toward the end, Paul has that vision of him leading the holy war against his enemies, fighting in the front lines with his soldiers against the Harkonnens, and watching from a ship as they conquer his old home of Calladan. Chani, we see, is by his side playing the part of Lady Macbeth with a flowing black cloak.

The problem that I had is—and this may very well be a problem with me—that I didn’t see anything wrong with that.

Or specifically with what we were shown.

Evil Paul and Chani, you can tell they're evil because they're wearing black
Evil Paul and Chani, you can tell they’re evil because they’re wearing black.

Paul freaks out over the vision of the holy war, but we weren’t shown a vision of a galaxy-spanning jihad that would bring chaos and bloodshed to every inhabited world. All we saw was him getting revenge against the Harkonnens in battle and then taking back his home planet from the Emperor’s fearsome Saudakar.

We’re not seeing the billions of innocents being slaughtered, the religious purges, the ethnic cleansing, or even the property damage to historic housing districts. All we see is him getting the minimum of his revenge and we’re right there with him.

They just killed his dad. I’d be pissed too.

So, as I said earlier, it was a good scene with stunning visuals that introduces Paul’s conflict of trying to avoid the holy war while also getting what he wants, but it just didn’t go hard enough.

In summation:

This was a damn fine movie and you should go see it. Right now. Either in theaters or on HBO Max, or whenever and wherever it’s released to the public.

Regardless of how you do it, you should watch it!

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