The strangest thing about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune—or Dune: Part One, as it’s titled on screen—is not anything that happens in the story, or that it took Hollywood so long to re-adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel after the 1984 film by David Lynch. Rather, it’s that a new work based only on a single source can arrive amidst a sea of sequels and shared universes and still feel like it has its tendrils in so many other texts. Dune is enormous in scale, and that enormity is matched by its evocations of a vast and winding history of the Middle East—which is to say, the Middle East that has existed in the Western consciousness for decades, across books, films, video games and other media, all of which have cross-pollinated to create a nebulous identity. The film itself is mostly fine, with breathtaking visuals broken up by a less captivating story that often drags its feet (despite several great performances). But its place within Western traditions—both real and imagined—is strange, unsavory, and fascinating.
One of the rare Hollywood films where the story begins even before the studio logos, Dune kicks off with a harsh and mysterious whisper about dreams, before the Warner Bros.
The film’s sprawling plot elements are established with more clarity and more panache than in Lynch’s version—action and dialogue stand in for dense exposition, while seeds are planted more carefully along the way, through character interactions. It wastes little time establishing who’s who, from the militaristic House Atreides—Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), their firm but kindly leader, his love Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of a secret matronly order, and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), a prince who searches for purpose and appears to dream of the future—to the desert planet Arrakis, where most of the action unfolds. Also known as “Dune,” the planet is littered with giant sand worms, populated by Bedouin-coded locals called the Fremen, and mined by colonial forces for a spice, “melange,” that’s part drug, part intergalactic fuel. The details are mostly unimportant, outside of knowing that an unseen Emperor has granted House Atreides the right to mine melange, thus replacing the gloomy House Harkonnen, led by a cartoonishly rotund Baron named Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård in an airy fatsuit).
The names and concepts date back to Herbert’s books, which were inspired by accounts of mid-19th century wars between Imperial Russia and Muslim tribes in the Caucasus, but over time, Arrakis has stood in for whatever conflict the Western world has wrought on “the desert”—call it prescient, or merely aware of the flow of history. The 1984 film, for instance, was a perfect match for the era’s Afghanistan conflict between American and Soviet forces. In the new version, the minor Fremen character Chani (Zendaya) hints at this dynamic in her opening voiceover. As she explains the recent history of her planet, and the handover of power from the Harkonnens, she wonders not about freedom, but about which colonial powers will rule them next.
In this vein, Dune: Part One is mapped onto the post-9/11 “forever wars.” Little in the plot needs to change for this to happen but some of the designs are tweaked specifically for this parallel, like the interiors of the bug-like helicopters, which closely resemble modern U.S. military equipment. Atreides’ weapons master Gurney Halleck feels plucked out of a modern Hollywood war film, between his gung-ho bloodlust and the tough presence of Josh Brolin, who Villeneuve previously cast as a CIA operative in 2015’s Sicario. The general attitude of House Atreides towards the Fremen is one of othership and disdain, unless of course someone like Duke Leto wants to harness their strategic power.
It’s an obvious and not altogether terrible approach to critiquing American militarism, but it soon breaks down in amusing fashion, when the father-son duo is revealed to have been coaxed into colonizing Arrakis, summoning forth the pervasive lie about the Bush administration being fooled into invading Iraq. Is it a stretch to draw such a comparison? Yes, and no. On one hand, the plot of Dune existed for nearly 40 years before the aforementioned events. On the other, such volatile subject matter is never far from the production’s mind, and the movie is, by its very nature, part of a larger history wherein images and stories about the Middle East are contorted, not only as a means to comment on the region, but to reaffirm the West’s conception of itself.
The blue-eyed, golden-haired Luke Skywalker was once a victim of the ruthless “Sand People,” monsters draped in Bedouin garb, and his heroism was partially established in contrast to their villainy. These optics exist all across western sci-fi, and while Dune: Part Two may eventually subvert them, Part One plays like an unapologetic fixture of that legacy. Lawrence of Arabia served as a partial inspiration for Herbet, so the story of T.E. Lawrence—a real person with real experiences—becomes watered down and takes the shape of Paul Atreides, who similarly wears desert clothing with the culturally appropriate fit, presaging his entrance into Fremen culture as their Western savior. However, unlike Lawrence, who travelled and studied extensively, Paul’s familiarity with Fremen customs is despite him having spent no time at all with the locals, who feature only briefly in the film, and are a mostly homogenous bunch, whose faces are obscured behind their keffiyeh. Most of what we learn about them in Part One is their combat rituals, and their prophecy that paves the way for the heroic ascendancy of the clairvoyant Paul, like a white Prophet Muhammad hearing the word of God.
Perhaps the presence of more Middle Eastern actors might have helped balance some of this iffy-ness, but Hollywood has created few Middle Eastern stars despite making the region a frequent setting for the last 20 years, so it has a built-in excuse. Besides, Dune (much like Aladdin) isn’t exactly the kind of story that can be decoupled from its permeating orientalism, without which it would barely exist. However, while the characters and dialogue always circle this ugly dynamic, the film is actually at its most thematically effective when cinema’s otherwise most useful tools—people’s faces and their words—are removed entirely. Dune is spellbinding when it captures architecture shaped by oblique light, sleek ships gliding across an unforgiving desert, and enormous industrial machines extracting natural resources from beneath the sand. At 155 minutes in length, the film has plenty of room for such scenes, where individual characters are no longer the focus, and the terrain tells its own story.
These images echo, more directly and more powerfully, the central conceit of colonial forces sucking a culture dry. Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser speak volumes with the way they portray scale, with human beings and their airships being dwarfed by these extraction devices, and the devices in turn looking minuscule and insignificant when the desert (via those gigantic sand worms) eventually strikes back and returns things to their natural order.
If there’s a cut of Dune: Part One that’s all establishing and wide shots, it would probably play like a sci-fi remix of documentaries by Ron Fricke or Godfrey Reggio. It would also avoid silliness like composer Hans Zimmer—whose percussions are certainly propulsive—accompanying every third close up of Paul with vocals bordering ululating. Or the sloppiness of coding House Atreides as a Western military power while dressing their women in vaguely Middle Eastern clothes. Or the disappointment of carefully choreographed hand-to-hand fights lacking any real weight or impact (Jason Momoa’s energy notwithstanding, as Paul’s fantastically named mentor Duncan Idaho).
Almost every tangible fixture pales in comparison to the film’s haunting atmosphere, from the way its interior and exterior locations envelope the senses, to the way its premonitions create a haunting tapestry of pictures and ideas. These visions don’t quite work when they portray entire scenes, which have little bearing on this half of the story, but when Paul straddles the line of consciousness, these moments become fleeting and ethereal, as they portray impressionistic hints of people and events—or even design elements, like desert sandals or scarves twisting in the wind, brief shots which strip the film’s exoticism of displeasurable context, and briefly transform it into something dreamlike and inviting. That is, until the two-part saga’s awkward and tensionless midpoint jolts you awake.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.