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Any copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune, first published in 1965, contains several appendices that aim to provide context, clarity, and (on the subject of religion) reasoning for what has happened in the world of the book we’ve just read. Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune, just released after a year’s delay due to COVID, could easily have sunk under the weight of all of the supplementary information. Villeneuve’s first and maybe most important success in making Dune – which he co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth – is the way that he quickly sets up the stakes and conflicts of the world. The amounts of other things that Dune does well is significant, and the movie as a whole possesses a wide screen grandeur and depth of ambition that feels like it’s from another time. Yet this laying in of who’s who and what’s it all about had to be gotten right, or else Dune would have gone down under the weight of its own complexity.

 Chani (Zendaya) is our introduction to the world of Arrakis, the desert planet where most of Dune takes place. Her narration describes a key conflict: Arrakis is mined for “spice” – a chemical that provides the basis for interstellar travel – by the brutal House Harkkonen, who treat Chani and her indigenous people (the “Fremen”) as an irritant to be swept away. The editing suggests here and several other places that Chani is through dreams speaking to and looking at Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), the son of the House assigned by an unseen emperor to replace the Harkkonens on Arrakis. As he expresses to his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), Paul is concerned about his family’s move to Arrakis and his own future as a leader. But there’s more: Paul’s mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, excellent) – Duke Leto’s consort – is a member of a religious order called the Bene Gesserit who think Paul’s dreams may have meaning. There is an early examination scene involving a Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) that suggests that Paul is special, and also that Duneisn’t afraid to lace a little magic into its science fiction.

All of these details wouldn’t matter if Dune weren’t so well executed by Villeneuve and his team, with special honors going to Greg Fraser’s cinematography, Patrice Vermette’s production design, and to the music of Hans Zimmer. It is a pleasure to see so many elements working in harmony at this scale, as Villeneuve and Fraser both put actors in wide shots set in modernist huge rooms and get some remarkable closeups. Rebecca Ferguson, who gives the best performance in the movie, pulls off some great interior acting in a sequence of shots charting Jessica’s journey from discovering Paul has powers greater than she knows to realizing that he still needs her protection. The natural expressiveness of both Chalamet and Zendaya is used well too, as Villeneuve is keen to keep the story working on a human level. But it’s the shots of Ferguson’s Lady Jessica framed in the middle of negative space that linger, both as an expression of her terror and as foreshadowing of what’s to come.

Dune is full of political maneuvering even as the question of Paul’s safety becomes more dire. The Baron Harkkonen (Stellan Skarsgard, whose character is slightly less grotesque than in the book but who has been made to resemble Brando in Apocalypse Now) wants Arrakis back, and the attack he launches on the Atreides compound is expertly staged even as it has the hazy quality of a nightmare. There is a superb set piece (within a larger set piece) in a helicopter that comes after Paul and Jessica have been rescued by Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), an Atreides agent who Momoa plays with an unexpected sensitivity. The final act of Dune puts Paul in the desert, far from his father and the world that he knows. It is no secret at this point that Dune is actually Dune Part One, a film that ends in the middle of the novel (at a natural stopping place and with a sequel to come) and that reintroduces Paul to Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the Fremen. 

As Paul’s visions become more specific and violent, the movie does justice to what surprised me most about the book: Paul’s terror over the fact that many people – the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen – believe he may be “The One” who brings a new order. For a novel that was published in the mid-60s this refusal of the call seems quite modern, especially since the book is also concerned with environmental issues, the encroachment of technology on our lives, and in the possible uses of religion to oppress. Villeneuve’s film begins to address much of this thematic stuff, and Part Two will be required to address even more. Dune Part One is large-scale filmmaking made with craft and care, and it is a movie that honors the deeper ambitions of its source material. Worth the wait.

Further reading: The Muslimness of Dune: A Close Reading of “Appendix II: The Religion of Dune” by Haris Durrani

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