Movie Review: Dune (Part 1) (2021)

TL;DR – Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel masterpiece is brought to life and tells the story about a galactic empire seeking to maintain its power by controlling the “spice” trade (a substance that allows the user to see into the future).

Review (warning: spoilers)

Political intrigue on a galactic scale is the name of the game in Dune. Based on the Hugo and Nebula award winning novel of the same name by Frank Herbert, the galaxy created and imagined by Herbert operates under a monarchy ruled by Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. Basically, think of it as a feudal sci-fi story.

Planets are ruled by houses with established noble families and have titles based on traditional European ranks (e.g. emperor, duke, baron etc.)

Dune (Part 1) introduces us to three main players:

  • House Harkonnen is ruled by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew, Rabban (Dave Bautista). The Baron is a hulking, grotesque creature that reminded me of Jabba the Hutt with a human head. A violent, military house, the Harkonnens were tasked by the Emperor to subdue the desert planet Arrakis and farm “spice” (a valuable chemical substance that brings about expanded consciousness and limited prescience).
  • House Atreides is ruled by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). He has a son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), who is learning the reins of how to rule. When the Duke receives orders from the Emperor to go to Arrakis and takeover the spice operations from the Harkonnens, he knows that political manoeuvring is happening behind the scenes.
  • Bene Gesserit is a religious sisterhood where the women are trained physically and mentally and acquire superhuman-like powers. Women who master these skills become Reverend Mothers, the leaders of the sisterhood. Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is Leto’s concubine, mother to Paul, and acolyte to the Bene Gesserit. She seeks to teach Paul in the disciplines which includes the Bene Gesserit power to use “the Voice” (an ability to control others using verbal commands).

The Emperor is also a main player, but he is kept hidden in part one. However, he is the one responsible for the manipulation of events that occur. He orders House Harkonnen to vacate the planet and make way for House Atredies, but this is a ploy to then assist Harkonnen to stage a coup against Atredies. The Emperor lends his forces, Sardaukar troops, that aid the Baron against the Duke.

Duke Leto is mindful that the Emperor sees him as a threat and anticipates that Baron Vladimir will make a move against him, so he organises a meeting with the Fremen (Arrakis natives, who have been fighting against Harkonnen rule) seeking to create an alliance.

Unfortunately, the coup is only part of the betrayal. To his dismay, Leto discovers that Doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), who has been a loyal servant for House Atredies, is the one responsible for lowering the shields that allows the Harkonnen army and the Emperor’s troops to invade the city. Dr Yueh was being blackmailed by the Baron who has his wife. Sadly, the doctor’s act to save his wife by betraying Leto was for naught as the Baron, being the vindicative slime ball he is, ends up killing the good doctor and his wife. The invasion results in House Atredies fall, but Lady Jessica and Paul manage to escape and eventually meet up with the Fremen. Thus, ends part one.

‘But what about the Bene Gesserit?’ I hear you ask. Well, that’s where things get interesting. The focus of the film is not on the Duke and the ensuing coup, but on Paul. Seems like the Bene Gesserit have been keeping a watchful eye on young Paul and there lies a prophecy of some sort where a male Bene Gesserit (a messianic figure) would come into existence with the power to guide humanity to a better future.

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) pays Jessica and Paul a visit prior to their departure to Arrakis. She tests Paul, which involves a poison needle and placing his hand in a box that causes him extreme pain. Gaius Helen tells him to not remove his hand otherwise she will stab him with the needle causing him instant death. It’s a riveting scene especially when Jessica is made to wait outside the doors preventing anyone to come in and help Paul. Her expression shows plainly the maternal instinct to go in and save Paul, but she restrains herself displaying an inner torture that mirrors the physical torture Paul goes through. In the end, he passes the test, and we discover he has been having dreams of a Fremen woman that appears in some of his visions to help him and other visions to kill him.

The Fremen woman in question is Chani (Zendaya). From what I can gather, she will play an integral role in Paul’s destiny whatever that may be. And when Jessica and Paul flee the coup and are found by the Fremen, lo and behold, Chani is part of the group.

The chess board is now set, and the opening forays have been played. Dune (Part 2) is slated for release in October 2023.

The visuals are astounding, and this is matched by sound effects that had a significant impact when I watched it in the cinema. The vast expanse of cities, planets, and armies are matched by sci-fi drooling spaceship constructs. The best of which are the ornithopters, which were a cross between a helicopter and a dragon fly.

All this investment in the sound and visuals would be for naught if not for the story and cast. Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Stellan Skarsgård were the highlights. While Skarsgård is somewhat one-dimensional in his evilness, my fingers are crossed that there are more layers beneath that slimy, obese exterior that will show the Baron is not a mere pawn. Ferguson and Chalamet have great chemistry as mother and son, and Chalamet especially embodies young Paul’s desire and angst to try and see the entire chess board when parts are clouded by fog.

This is not a straight sci-fi film like Star Wars but delves more into the political machinations of an empire trying to hold on to power across an entire galaxy. If multiple story threads are not appealing to you then this may be one to skip. To me, the complexity added to its depth rather than take away from it. I was giddy from beginning to end.

9 out of 10

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