Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet. The best-selling sci-fi novel of all time, long considered to be unadaptable, is finally being properly brought to the big screen and HBO Max – well, part of it, anyway.
Frank Herbert’s magnum opus has seen more than a couple filmmaking legends attempt to tackle the material, from Ridley Scott to Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch. For one reason or another, they all failed, and we should all be glad they did. Those failures have paved the way for Denis Villeneuve to craft a magnum opus of his own, dividing the novel’s narrative into two parts. “Dune: Part One” is simply one of the most immersive cinematic worlds ever brought to life and serves as the opening chapter in what will be one of the medium’s great sagas.
The novel begins with the protagonist, Paul Atreides, on his home planet of Caladan. Lynch’s film started with Princess Irulan (absent in this film) directly addressing the camera and spewing exposition. Here, Villeneuve lets our eyes fall first on the dunes of Arrakis, sun beaming across the terrain and spice dancing in the air. The Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) tells us about her planet and what oppression her people are facing, a brilliant bit of narrative reframing that tells us the basics of what we need to know about Arrakis, as well as the Fremen and their position relative to the Harkonnen and Atreides houses – a perspective that will be paramount going forward.
Immediately, the scale and scope is greater than nigh anything you can think to compare it to. “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” have been the regular comparisons, but Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser bring a perspective to this universe that dwarfs even the most impressive framing George Lucas or Peter Jackson could conjure up. Spaceships rise from the sea like leviathans, a sandworm’s mouthful of teeth resembles a small forest, and the wide cast of characters is regularly oppressed by monolithic buildings, vehicles and rock formations.
That wide cast of characters is mightily anchored by the son-mother duo of Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica. Ferguson delivers the most compelling performance of her career in her meatiest role to date, while Chalamet carries the weight of his first blockbuster with assured strength. We have seen him as a believable teenager struggling to find his identity, but Paul offers him a darker, more intense aspect to flex his muscles. The two are excellent separately, so their scenes together naturally soar, particularly through the tribulations they endure in the latter half of the film.
The rest of the cast receives less attention in this story, but their roles are still vital. Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho and Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes each deliver in roles that feel a little more natural than how they come across in the novel. Momoa especially thrives in the role of the smiley, hotshot Atreides warrior, adding some vital levity to the film. Special mention must also be paid to Javier Bardem and Charlotte Rampling, each walking in and utterly dominating a scene before then disappearing.
At this point, it is no secret that the craft on display is simply off the charts – from editor Joe Walker bouncing between action sequences and prophetic visions to production designer Patrice Vermette building one of the most thoroughly imaginative and detailed worlds in film history. Whether it is a sparring dummy in the training room on Caladan or the iconic ornithopters on Arrakis, each item feels wholly functional, aged and weathered across years. Similarly, the costume designs by Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan feel more ancient than futuristic, but crisscrossing cultures and genres to feel just alien enough. The makeup and hairstyling is largely subtle throughout, leaving the technical marvel of the Baron Harkonnen as the crown jewel of designer Donald Mowat’s achievement.
It goes without saying that the effects are staggering beyond belief, with VFX Supervisor Paul Lambert and SFX Supervisor Gerd Nefzer each coming to claim another Oscar for their genuinely flawless work across all 155 minutes. The visual effects are combined with a stellar sound design that works to invent a number of important effects, such as the Voice, the personal shields used in combat, or the flapping of ornithopter wings. It’s one of the most visceral and imposing sound mixes you will ever hear, with only a few slight hiccups where the dialogue gets a tad smothered.
Finally, Hans Zimmer. He’s a fan of this source material, and you can absolutely tell. There are a number of motifs and choices of instrumentation that are fresh for the composer, and his score works very closely with the sound effects to create a truly immersive aural experience that cements this as one of his greatest works.
Denis Villeneuve continues his march up the ladder of not just Hollywood’s contemporary greats but the greatest filmmakers of all time. A decade ago, he was making modest Canadian dramas. Now, he has strung together what may be the strongest trio of sci-fi films in history.
If the praise he has been receiving in recent weeks from the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Chloé Zhao wasn’t enough to tip you off, let there be no mistake: “Dune: Part One” will stand as one of the great cinematic achievements of this year, sweeping through awards season. However, if Villeneuve and the fans get their way, this will indeed be only the beginning of a larger, greater work that would forever be known as the gold standard for sci-fi in modern cinema.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."