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Review: ‘Dune’ is an epic worthy of the printed saga

‘Dune: Part I’ acts as an introduction to a vast universe with a unique ruling system and the characters embarking on a life-changing journey.

A scene from 'Dune'
A scene from 'Dune' courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures
A scene from 'Dune' courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

‘Dune: Part I’ acts as an introduction to a vast universe with a unique ruling system, familiarizing audiences with the characters as they embark on a life-changing, transformative journey.

In 1965, Frank Herbert’s award-winning science fiction novel, Dune, was published. The book would spawn five sequels, creating a saga that spans thousands of years. The sprawling story explores the multilayered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion in a fantastic and complex universe set in the distant future. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the second (but really third) big-screen adaptation of the franchise’s first volume about a young man who finds his destiny on another planet.

In an interstellar society, “the spice” is the most valuable commodity in the universe and it is produced on only one planet: Arrakis. The Harkonnens grew very rich ruling the desert world, but the Padishah Emperor has decided they will be superseded by House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). Leto wants to replace his predecessor’s iron fist with an open hand and harness the power of the native Fremen population. But before they can settle into their new home, the city is attacked and the survivors are cast into the desert to hide from assassin hunters. The Fremen are their only hope of survival, but generations of distrust make an alliance very difficult.

The movie is officially titled Dune: Part I as it only scratches the surface of the story told in the novel. However, it does present a fairly comprehensive overview of the positions of the various ruling houses and the multifaceted power struggle at play when the story begins — without an overwhelming amount of exposition like its predecessor. Understanding how these groups interact with each other is key to comprehending the rest of the narrative, so the care and simplicity with which this is conveyed is worth noting. The Bene Gesseritt, of whom Jessica is an acolyte, has a particularly intriguing role as they are not an official house, but find ways to manipulate circumstances to ensure the outcome they desire. These women also possess extraordinary abilities that include a commanding voice and the gift of foresight, which play a significant role in later events and the direction of the universe’s counsel.  

This expansive universe has proven very difficult to adapt in the past as its unique science fiction world is described in the finest detail, which is essential to the narrative’s function. The first version failed after years of planning and the second did not receive favourable reviews. However, one of the key factors contributing to this adaptation’s success is the advancement of visual effects. Via CGI, Villeneuve is able to recreate Herbert’s universe as faithfully as possible considering the change in medium. Viewers who have read the book will appreciate the care taken in adapting the material, not only in its presentation but in conveying the very distinct personalities at its heart.

The cast is filled with accomplished actors, which in addition to those mentioned above include Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård (nearly unrecognizable under Harkonnen’s fat folds), Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Zendaya and Dave Bautista. They may not all physically fit the characters formed in the readers’ imaginations, but they each embody the spirit of the characters they’re portraying. However, the unfortunate consequence of producing such an awe-inspiring picture and placing much of the focus on ensuring audiences understand the intricacies of the universe is it makes it difficult to become thoroughly engaged with the characters — particularly those who are not long for the screen — since it feels as if they’re several layers deep into the onion.

As this installment of a potentially epic franchise only scratches the surface, it will be interesting to see how future movies dig deeper into the history and further develop the characters.

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Zendaya

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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