Starting off this review by stating the obvious, I have not read ‘Dune‘ nor do I have any intention of doing so. No disrespect to Frank Herbert or this movie but if I wanted to engage with something that made me feel stupid, I would’ve gone back to math class. A Denis Villeneuve blockbuster has once again left me feeling stunned and speechless only this time, it’s not entirely positive. Despite the undeniable respect I have for ‘Dune‘, in that same realm there is also some bitter resentment. It has me feeling torn between thinking that maybe this just wasn’t for me or maybe feeling resentment towards a two-hour, thirty-seven-minute movie asking the viewer to do research to actually comprehend it. Or maybe, just maybe this new adaptation was just made for the wrong medium.
mild spoilers for the ending of ‘Dune: Part One’ are featured in this review.
Back in 2017, 15-year old me eagerly bought his ticket for ‘Blade Runner 2049’. I remember limping all the way to the cinema because I was experiencing some foot pain but I still jogged my way to my local (now closed) cinema to watch this event. I will never forget asking for tickets to the movie and the response being “Start the movie *unknown cinema employee*, someone came!” I remember skipping snacks so I wouldn’t miss a second and lo and behold, the theatre was actually empty, I decided to sit front row in the middle and I sat there for those two and a half hours completely absorbed. When the movie ended, there was such an immense rush of both awe and inspiration. It was this movie that made me want to write about movies. I still remember going out after the movie and for a split second hallucinating one of the spaceships from the movie in the night sky. I was lost in its world that I briefly carried it into mine. With ‘Dune‘ the experience is similar though contrasted. While the irritation towards this movie started at around the halfway point, it was in the second half where my cinematic experience went completely awry. At one point I swear I had an out-of-body experience where I felt my soul leave my body then come back almost to slap me back into reality and later on around thirty minutes before the movie ends, I had an existential crisis. I genuinely thought this movie was never-ending, I thought I was gonna pass away in that goddamn theatre. That’s how ‘Dune‘ made me feel.
Movies being split up into separate parts is not a new addition to cinema, it’s been around for ages. Some of the greatest movies of all time are parts of a trilogy however usually, those movies are as contained as possible and feel whole in their own right. ‘Dune: Part One’ never builds to its third act or a significant climax, it ends abruptly and comparing the ending to its action scenes earlier on, it also ends on an anti-climactic note. There is this divisiveness when it comes to the discussion of movies needing research to work. I am definitely not against it as sometimes it can actually be a fun experience. That being said, ‘Dune‘ feels more like a tiring obligation than a fun deep-dive. I use the word ‘obligation’ because unless you actually do some research or let’s face it, have subtitles on, ‘Dune‘ is just gorgeous backdrops with little to no impact. I cannot tell you how badly I yearned for some subtitles in that damn theatre. The amount of exposition that flew over my head was concerning considering it is actually crucial to the movie. There is more telling than there is showing at times. Worst of all is how the movie asks you to remember details and retain information that won’t be needed till the sequel. I still have no idea what the hell the relevance of the Crysknife is, nor do I understand anything Paul’s visions have shown despite there being long, extended dream sequences. There are so many mysteries created and all of them stay unsolved. There was nothing resolved other than Paul finally embracing his destiny but it was still gradual so leaving that as an ending doesn’t really have the effect the movie thinks it does.
‘Dune: Part One‘s biggest crime is that it is in no way a contained story. Despite there being an actual first arc, the movie’s structure progressively dilutes into nothingness as the second and third acts become one. There were around three times when I thought the movie was about to end and it ended on the most baffling of choices. It literally feels like the movie paused itself and refused to continue. It depends that heavily on a sequel. It’s also the reason why I just don’t know how I can feel about a movie like this because it’s essentially unfinished. The entire time I was watching it, I kept wandering off to a reality where this version of ‘Dune‘ was split up into episodes for what would’ve been a brilliant miniseries. It is very clear that this was made for a televised format. I don’t think anyone in their right mind is going to binge this and Part Two in one go, seeing as how that’s going to probably last around six hours. I would love to hear what fans of the book would have to say about this. Again, this is just from an outsider’s perspective.
On that note, there really is nothing wrong with the movie outside of its format. Had the actual movie been cut up and slightly edited into episodes along with Part Two, I would’ve probably loved it. As it is, I’m genuinely torn. Apart from the format, exposition and structure, everything else is pretty much stellar. The cast is in top form, as expected. Timothee Chalamet leads with undeniable on-screen presence and talent even though his character Paul Atreides doesn’t have that much depth thus far. The same can be said for Zendaya who has an unspeakably small role perfect for a perfume commercial. Rebecca Ferguson has what is probably the most emotionally-demanding role in this movie and she nails it. The heartbreak, dread and fear are palpable whenever she’s on-screen. Oscar Isaac is perfectly cast as Paul’s father, Duke Leto of Atreides, a genuinely good-hearted father with stoic-like leadership. Josh Brolin plays Josh Brolin and he’s great at it! Jason Mamoa delivered a highlight of a performance with his presence feeling almost out of place but in the best way possible. Villeneuve’s directing is stellar as expected, the cinematography is genuinely a cinematic event in and of itself. The epic scope this movie so expertly dons almost cover up its flaws. Hans Zimmer’s grand score is one that complements the scope of the movie. It demands to be heard with plenty of scenes highlighting it, rightfully so. The entire cast and crew are bringing their best to this movie and it shows, there is an evident passion in every scene.
Overall, ‘Dune: Part One’ is ultimately too weak to stand on its own as a singular movie from the perspective of an outsider to the ‘Dune‘ franchise. Once the structure between the acts falls apart, the movie starts feeling like an endless chore with no promising pay-off. While the performances are stellar and the visual language, jaw-dropping, Denis Villeneuve’s latest inspiring blockbuster feels like it was destined on a much smaller screen.
‘Dune: Part One’ is available in theatres as well as on HBO Max for a limited time.