A few caveats before we begin:
First, Timothée Chalamet is acting antimatter. The live-action Edward Gorey drawing is undeniably some people’s cup of tea. Related: Apparently, some people think tea tastes good?
Second, the names chosen by Frank Herbert for certain characters in Dune were either a dare or a magnificent joke. Planets, languages, and other miscellany get elaborate original organizations of consonants and vowels. But then there’s Paul (Chalamet). His mom is Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). This means you hear things like “House Atreides is at war with the Harkonnens on Arrakis, right Jessica?” Let’s leave Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) out of this because that nomenclature is so hilarious it kinda wraps back around to being awesome again.
Third, dress Dune up any way you’d like – and director Denis Villeneuve does dress it the hell up – and you’re still stuck with a redundant, gross colonial White savior narrative that is such a thinly veiled Middle Eastern metaphor that the film should come with a see-through niqab. Because “problematic” is such a lame-o buzzy word these days, let’s call it what it is: manipulative bullshit at worst, boring at best.
Sorry, this is a lot of caveats…
Fourth, making a film that’s labeled “part one” without having “part two” already in the can or deep into production should be illegal. Are there bigger problems in America? Yes. But if we’re going to solve everything with legal chicanery and forceful imprisonment, then hurl any studio that releases Dune Part One without Dune Part Two on the schedule into the pokey.
Fifth, we don’t use the term pokey enough.
Okay, enough caveats. Villeneuve’s Dune follows space Paul, a very special rich White boy who is learning to speak in a magic voice that makes people do exactly what he says. His daddy, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), gets told by the unseen emperor that he must take his family and army to the desert planet Arrakis to “mine spice.” Spice is sand cocaine that lets people travel through the universe. Whatever, man, the book was written in the 60s.
House Atreides takes over Arrakis from the Harkonnens, who are led by a bloated human worm named Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). Before Leto, Paul, and Jessica can even find a horse with no name, things get ugly between the families. In the middle of all of this, Paul is having future-predicting dreams, and his mom reveals herself as a kind of intergalactic witch who tried to intentionally make him a literal messiah. And they drink their own pee through nose straws.
Dune absolutely crushes every small detail. Each vehicle and dwelling is marvelously envisioned. Hans Zimmer’s score is the good kind of bombastic. The battles are incredible, the transition shots are breathtaking, and the world feels more three-dimensional than Kyrie Irving thinks ours is. Everyone mumble-whispers or yells the whole time, but this is a sci-fi opera, so such things are allowed.
The problem is that the core of Dune as a narrative just kinda sucks. Paul is dumb. Not just because he’s played by walking Tim Burton fanfiction. The lame “hero’s journey” riff that Villeneuve so gracefully subverted and destroyed in his Blade Runner 2049 is laughably disinteresting right now. Who wants to watch space Elon Musk figure out he should be nice to oppressed minorities? Any subversive stuff with the cult of women Jessica belongs to, who secretly scheme to control the universe, is still sprinkling glitter on colonization. Even if, in the maybe-never-going-to-be-made Dune 2: The Dune-in-ing they realize that all such behaviors are bad and nobody should ever do colonizing again, the central arc is still about cosmic Eric Trump.
Also, everyone has wanted to anoint the “next Star Wars” for almost 50 years without ever realizing that part of what made it fun was that it was, itself, fun. Duncan Idaho gets like three one-liners here. That’s what counts as levity, unless you count the scene where Chalamet says, with a very straight and pouty face, “It wasn’t an allergic reaction!” to his mom. His mom being named Jessica.
Whether or not you’ll love Dune (Part One) or not highly depends on your affinity for the source material and willingness to tolerate Timothée Chalamet, charisma assassin. It’s too well made not to kinda want Part Two but not as much as, say, a final installment of Ridley Scott’s second Alien trilogy.
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Collier “CJ” Jennings at But Why Tho? says “Dune is a visual marvel and boasts a star-studded cast, but splitting the book into two films leads to what is essentially an extended prologue.”
Lonita Cook at the Black Bee Buzz says “there is just ill-measured Wizard of Ozing and going over the rainbow that sucks the second half of this flick down a hole bigger than a spice worm’s gullet.”
Patricia Puentes at Ask.com says “I’ll admit to having spent at least half of the movie wondering whether Chalamet makes for a credible offspring of Isaac and Ferguson. I still haven’t reached a conclusion.”