Since streaming has taken off, many directors have lamented the loss of the theater experience. While some focus on the communal experience of watching a spectacle with an audience, others emphasize the impact a massive screen and professional sound system can have. Director Denis Villeneuve has openly complained about the decision to release his latest feature on HBO Max the same day as theaters “to watch Dune on a television… is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub. For me, it’s ridiculous. It’s a movie that has been made as a tribute to the big-screen experience.” It’s a bold claim, but he’s absolutely right, almost to a fault. “Dune: Part 1” is an enthralling spectacle, a meticulous labor of love by a very talented filmmaker. But is there more to it than that?
Adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune” to the screen has been the white whale for multiple directors. This iteration marks the third successful attempt, following David Lynch‘s 1984 feature and SyFy’s 2000 mini-series. It’s a complicated story, involving multiple planets, families, and political rivalries. Both films are front-loaded with world-building exposition that is a bit hard to follow if you haven’t read the books. It’s easiest to break the story into four groups, each with its own corresponding planet. Planet Caladan is home to House Atreides, the good guys in this saga. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the leader of this planet, is a just and honorable man bound by his allegiance to the Emporer of the Known Universe who rules from planet Kaitain. All the conflict revolves around the planet Arrakis, the source of the Spice, the most valuable commodity in the Known Universe. Spice has been stripped from the sandy dunes of Arrakis for many years against the wishes of the locals, known as the Fremen. House Harkennon, the bad guys, have ruled over Arrakis for decades, but by Empiric Decree have returned to their homeworld of Giede Prime. The Emporer, fearing Duke Atreides’ rising popularity, has put a plan in motion to exterminate House Atreides. The Duke is assigned to take over the Spice Mining on Arrakis. Although he suspects he has been set up to fail, the Duke moves his army, trusted advisors, concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) to the hostile desert planet. Paul is the most eager to relocate as he’s been having vivid premonitions of Arrakis and a beautiful Fremen woman (Zendaya).
Everything that happens after this point feels very familiar. It doesn’t matter if you are a fan of the book, the adaptations, or have been completely insulated from “Dune” from now. So much of our modern sci-fi-pop culture is a byproduct of the original book that it’s easy to predict how the story will play out. Betrayals occur, mentors are slain, rebellion is incited. Like “John Carter of Mars”. its impact has been so great on modern filmmaking that when a proper screen adaptation is finally made it feels like a knockoff of the stories it spawned. Besides the exceptional ensemble cast, what sets this version of “Dune” apart is the sheer spectacle.
Villeneuve has spent the last decade honing his skills to make this film, and it shows. Even with a color palette mostly in beiges, the visuals are often jaw-dropping. Everything has a sense of wonder, from the details on their ceremonial blades to the stitching on the still-suits to the dragonfly-like military ornithopters fluttering about. The art direction went above and beyond on this film, often filling the screen with so much to appreciate that it’s hard to know where to focus. Further complimenting this is the amazing score by Hans Zimmer, again another element that needs to be fully appreciated in a quality theater. It’s one thing to hear to music, but quite another to feel the aggressive percussion pummelling your body as the characters navigate dangerous scenarios.
After being fully immersed in this visual and aural onslaught I came to a sobering reality. I didn’t really care about any of the characters. This is likely an issue with the source material itself. Although mildly interesting, each character is surprisingly two-dimensional upon reflection. The main hero of the story, Paul, is the privileged son of a Duke, blessed with mental powers, and secretly bred to be the Messiah of the Universe. It’s hard to identify with a character like that, especially when every action he makes in Part 1 is either selfishly motivated or done in an effort to save his own life.
Villeneuve‘s “Dune” offers viewers a very unique mix of “wow” and “who cares?” This experience can only fully be appreciated if seen in a theatre. If “Dune” is a movie that has your interest, then you should absolutely watch it on the biggest, loudest screen you can find. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Dune: Part 1