"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Doing justice to the whole Dune epic storyline is difficult in the extreme."
As a Dune fanboy, I desperately wanted this movie to work. I read the books as a teenager during my science fiction phase— after I'd abandoned the von Däniken bat shit 'Chariot of Gods' genre. Unfortunately, despite von Däniken claims, the aliens weren't amongst us or at least they'd not made it to Hull.
Adapting science fiction to the cinema is always problematic because movies struggle to capture the depth of the culture, technology, and the breadth of the rich source material. As a result, some stuff gets skimmed over.
Thus, doing justice to the whole Dune epic storyline is difficult in the extreme, predominantly because author Frank Herbert paints a universe with textures that lends all the storylines and characters depth. Thus, we have the Emperor and his family, the Spacing Guild and the Navigators, House Harkonnen, House Atreides, the Lansraad, the Freman and the pivotal Spice Melange.
And that's for starters. To gather all the threads is a tall order, which is why this is only part one at two hours and thirty-five minutes.
Plus, Dune 2021 faces the double jeopardy of comparisons with David Lynch's 1984 version. At first, the critics panned Lynch's interpretation, which I thought unfair given the challenge.
Instead, in my view, it's a commendable effort, not a great movie - but a decent film that trims the story for easy digestion. Thankfully over time, Dune 1984 gained a cult following as people recognized its strengths.
I needn't have worried about Dune 2021 (Part 1). After all, director Denis Villeneuve proved his worth with Blade Runner 2049. Of course, it takes some audacity to reprise Blade Runner — one of the best science fiction movies ever made. Yet, he pulled that off with some flair.
Spoiler alerts! The arc of the Dune story looks like the archetypical hero's journey. Our protagonist, Paul Atreides, initially appears to be following the path of Luke Skywalker — off on a journey of discovery as another kid with hidden powers, facing challenges he didn't want.
It's classic stuff that usually ends with the protagonist triumphing. Except this is only part one, and if the sequel holds to the books, that arc is subverted. To quote Herbert, "I had this idea that charismatic leaders ought to come with a warning label 'may be dangerous to your health'"
There is a nod to the 1984 version in the esthetics, but then again, you can only portray a sand planet one way — with loads of sand. Meanwhile, the technology is all understated, worn and looks credible.
As this is Villeneuve, you expect superb cinematography. And he delivers in spades. The jaw-dropping set pieces of ornithopters flying, the massive space vehicles and the sweeping vistas are eye candy. This movie is the big-screen material only.
There are a couple of flaws. First, an awful lot of exposition looks like it's setting up for Part 2. Also, the repetitive dream clips need trimming because we get the message that Paul will meet the blue-eyed girl.
And while the casting is spot on, there is one notable exception. The fat Baron in Dune 1984 summoned up much more menace, creepiness and outright distaste. Stellan Skarsgård can't match the outrageous performance of Kenneth McMillan as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Skarsgård's manifestation of the Baron lacks a genuinely sinister edge.
At one point, for no apparent reason, we get a brief conversation in Mandarin. Is this a weak market-placement attempt? The audience thought so as it drew titters.
But for me, the absolute icing on the cake is the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Visceral and intense, the music and sound elements carried the visuals to a new intensity. Wait for the soul-wrenching cry the Shadout Mapes exhales at the moment of revelation — disturbing.
Then bath in the whine of the distorted bagpipes as House Atreides parades on Arrakis; at once familiar and haughtily strange.
Where is Part 2? Well, not even in production yet as another victim of Covid. However, work is due to start in 2022.
So, did I like it? Yes. This movie feels like the beginning, and I'm ready for more.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.