There are some works of science fiction that never seem to let go once they get their grasp on society. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was published in 1984, but it still felt just as vital and prescient when I read it in graduate school in the mid-2000s in its exploration of humanity’s interlocking life with technology. It pre-dates the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), which is more widely known and is a film which clearly drew inspiration from Gibson’s novel. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, yet the concepts of government control of what information should or shouldn’t be accessed remains prevalent as Senate Bill 1142 is set to go into effect in the 2022-2023 school year, a law allowing parents to report inappropriate library books and earn a fee if the books remain, while the librarian will be punished. As much as we’d like not to panic in our quest to understand life, the universe, and everything, the notions of these great forward thinkers linger in the air even more now than they did at the times of their writing. Enter Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. Inspired by his observations of a conservation attempt along the Oregon coastline, he imagined a story of incredible fantasy that explored the intersection of nature, tribalism, and capitalism. Though attempts have been made to adapt this work, none seem to have done so faithfully until Denis Villeneuve (Arrival; Blade Runner 2049) with his 2021 release, Dune: Part One, coming available on home video.
In the year 10191, the expansion of life has grown to the point of interplanetary travel throughout the universe and families overlooking entire planets as part of the new empire, led by Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV. In order to achieve space travel safely at near-light speeds, the ships require a key ingredient, called spice, found on the harsh planet Arrakis. This planet has been overseen by House Harkonnen for the last 80 years…that is until Shaddam transferred control from Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) to House Atreides’s Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), whose family currently oversees the planet Caladan. Under direct orders, Leto moves his people to Arrakis, including his companion Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), making plans to develop a partnership with the natives of Arrakis, known as Fremen, so that there can be harmony where House Harkonnen used violence and discord to rule. But while the House that manages spice production has the opportunity to earn untold riches, Leto’s more interested in how he can best serve those around him, making him a formidable adversary in the emperor’s game of galactic chess.
Having never read the book, I will not be making a comparison between the two forms of the story. What I will do is offer a perspective on the film through the lens of someone who is not already versed in the Shakespearean tribulations that befall House Atreides and the potential rise of Paul Atreides as the One.
Credit to Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange), and Eric Roth (A Star Is Born) in adapting Herbet’s work because this film is a meal and it’s not even complete. Most screenwriters attempt to make their stories as accessible as possible, often using excessive exposition or taking additional steps to spell things out so that none in the audience are left behind. For the most part, Villeneuve isn’t interested in holding anyone’s hand in the film, presenting things naturally for the characters, placing them first above the audience. This reverence is apparent throughout the film, as characters discuss the faith system of the Bene Gesserit (of which Lady Jessica is a member), the prophecy of Lisan al Gaib (translated to “Voice from the Outer World”) that both the Bene Gesserit and Arrakians believe in, as well as just identifying but not explaining what a cyrsknife is, the true significance of the Gom Jabbar sequence, and many other moments. If the prior sentence seemed like a word salad, to an audience member without the reference point of the book, that’s what it feels like watching Dune for the first time. I say “for the first time” because, despite the feeling of separation as one tries to navigate the political and personal relationships of the characters, trying to understand the significance of some of the relationships to characters we barely spend time with and more, we *want* to come back. We *want* to understand. Villeneuve uses the full power of cinema to help connect relationships or intent so that, even if we can’t fully comprehend what’s happening, we’ll know that it has meaning, we just need to be patient to understand it. For instance, in an early scene where Lady Jessica is having breakfast with Paul, he asks for her to pass her some water and she tells him to use the Voice. They don’t explain what it is, but there’re plenty of context clues between what is spoken, the actors’ performances, and what Villeneuve shows us to understand what’s happening as Paul speaks and it’s more than Chalamet’s voice that’s heard speaking. We can infer from the tight focus on Paul that he’s focusing, we can infer some significance of the location as Villeneuve jumps to objects of historical significance in the room, and this allows us to consider that the voices we hear are the combination of Paul and the people tied to those objects. It’s a moment which implies that the training Paul’s receiving from his mother, the way of the Bene Gesserit, enables him to tap into his ancestors to use this gift. Did I make this realization on the first watch? Nope. But I could feel it meant something. Gratefully, it began to click with the second watch and the bonus features included with the home release confirmed it.
In more than one home release review I’ve praised bountiful bonus features and mourned the entire absence of them. Whether a brief featurette or a short film, either of these enable the audience to learn something extra about a film they care enough about to purchase. Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One offers a feast of materials that compliment that meal that is the film itself. Good bonus materials will enhance the experience of the film through new insights into the narrative or by offering behind the scenes details. Dune: Part One does both *and* includes materials which elaborate on content that readers of the novel are more likely to be aware of, but that the movie didn’t take the time to discuss. Because of this, if you enjoyed the film, but didn’t read the book, I recommend jumping into the bonus features before rewatching the film. Not only is it a joyous experience (not sure I’ve ever seen so many cast and crew members absolutely giddy as they work or describe their work), but it’s incredibly informative. In the film, Lady Jessica is dressed down by Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) for having a boy when the Bene Gesserit are supposed to have girls, creating a suggestion that Lady Jessica made a choice rather than the usual 50/50 odds most parents face. Thanks to the two-minute featurette “Filmbooks: The Bene Gesserit,” I now know that members of the Bene Gesserit possess such control over their bodies that they are impervious to poison and can, yes, determine the genetics of their gestating children. On first watch, Reverend Mother’s line could be taken as disappointment at the accident of Paul, but, after watching the featurette, it’s easy to see that there’s more than disappointment, there’s frustration by Lady Jessica’s purposeful action of giving birth to a boy. This sets up a later reveal, courtesy of Paul’s psychedelic spice trip, that future Lady Jessica will join the Fremen and become a leader within it, displaying that while Lady Jessica is a loyal member of the Bene Gesserit, she has her agency — reckless or thoughtful is to be determined. Details like this are all over the featurettes, not just the filmbooks, offering bits of insight that benefit the novel illiterate and the cinematically impressed.
If you reside in the latter, make sure to check out each of the technical featurettes. My personal favorites are “Designing the Sandworm” and “A New Soundscape,” as they overlap in their discussion of the sound design and mix present in the film. For those who have seen the film, you’re aware of the thumpers used on Arrakis to distract or attract the Sandworms. In “Designing the Sandworm,” not only are you walked through the process of how the creature was designed for the film from a physical and a physics perspective, but how they sound. In this case, it’s discussed how the sound of the thumper is intentional, mimicking the sound Paul hears when the Sandworm “speaks” to him. Watching the film once, the tool is merely understood as it’s explained to us, the audience, but, with this additional information, suddenly the Arrikian tool transforms into something far more deliberate and thoughtful. Going further, “A New Soundscape” explores not only how to capture the sounds of the fictional Arrakis, but the sounds of Dune itself, pushing composer Hans Zimmer (Gladiator) to find entirely new sounds and new instruments to create the score. As you’ll learn in the bonus features, both Villeneuve and Zimmer are enormous fans of the novel, so they strove to make everything as unique as possible. Zimmer even mentions watching a certain popular space opera/action film that opened with French Horns and, when seeing it, he wondered how humanity evolved so far away from us yet sounded just like us. It’s not a denigration on that particularly famous and beloved score or auditory cue, it’s an acknowledgement of how Zimmer wanted to approach Dune so that even the music felt unique and a bit foreign. Tidbits like this are strewn throughout the more than 71-minutes of materials included on the 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and digital editions. Keep in mind as you pick your home release edition that the bonus features may be included on these editions, but the 4K UHD disc itself contains no materials. You need access to the Blu-ray or the digital edition to enjoy the bonus features. The DVD edition only includes the eight-minute “The Royal Houses” featurette.
If you’ve seen the film, there’s a constant physicality to it that frequently makes the impossible feel as tangible as the device you’re reading this review on. Part of that is the intricate detail in every aspect of Patrice Vermette’s (Arrival) production design and Jacqueline West (The Revenant) and Robert Morgan’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) costume design, as well as the fact that Villeneuve purposefully built as much as was reasonable in order to make the performances as authentic as possible. Only then did he use CG so as to marry the physical and the digital to create plausible sequences that trick the mind into belief. In the five-minute featurette “Constructing the Ornithopters,” it’s discussed in the process of designing the machines based on loose descriptions from the novel, showing how the cast and crew used these physical objects in their scenes, and then walking us through how the crew recorded helicopters to find the right camera angles so that they could then digitally replace them. Doing this may be a lot of work, yet the results speak for themselves as not once does the camera go somewhere inauthentic to reality, thereby supporting the illusion of cinema.
As great as the bonus materials are, there is a small case of “buyer beware” that you should know about before deciding which version of the film to purchase. For context, I’ve seen the film in three forms: first in 4K UHD streaming via HBO Max (there was no local press screening offered), second in Blu-ray on my 63in plasma, and a third partial viewing in 4K UHD on my 43in 4K UHD television. I mention this because anyone who’s been a fan of Dune the property or who followed the entertainment news ahead of the theatrical release is aware that Villeneuve wasn’t happy about the HBO Max simul-release because he felt his film should be seen in theaters. It’s easy to be glib about this notion as COVID’s variants continue to plague us and the capitalist response continues to hurt the social one (right in line with Dune’s message, amusingly), but after enjoying all the bonus features, there’s a shift from viewing Villeneuve’s desire for theater-only viewing as an elitist one toward an artist’s plea. Everything about Dune: Part One is designed for the theater, from the IMAX cameras to the sound design and score. They knew that it would be viewed at home eventually, but the aim was to create as immersive a theatrical experience as possible. Why does this matter now? In revisiting the film via Blu-ray, I noticed that the more CG-heavy scenes felt flat by comparison to my initial 4K streaming watch. The lack of depth created even more distance between myself and the story (even though I was more familiar with the material) because I could sense the falseness in the art. To its credit, the home release mix is superb, my 5.1 Yamaha stereo producing immaculate sound, even in its geriatric age, which conveyed the otherworldliness that Zimmer intended. By contrast, when I went back to the 4K UHD disc and watched several of the scenes that felt off, the enhanced picture generated the sense of texture and depth which existed in my initial 4K streaming watch. The sound, coming through my far younger 5.1 Yamaha sound system, took full advantage of the TrueHD Dolby sound mix, convincingly making me feel as though as I traveling alongside Paul on his journey of self-discovery. In short, if you’re planning to purchase a copy and can watch it in 4K UHD, that’s the version you want. Anything short of that may result in a cinematic experience that won’t live up to the vastness of Dune.
Dune is a narratively complex film. If I felt like I was capable of writing about that complexity with any authority, I would. As I haven’t read the book and what Villeneuve has given us is Part One, nothing I could write on its obvious correlation between global imperialism and the Middle East, capitalism, and conservation would hold water and water is a precious resource. Instead, all I can speak with any kind of certainty, for now, is that I *want* to see Part Two in order to complete the story and consider all its parts. If you’re interested in a deep dive of Dune: Part One and haven’t read Roxana Hadadi’s article “Dune Has a Desert Problem,” I can’t recommend it enough. That offered fascinating insights which I can’t possibly fully comprehend until after Villeneuve completes his adaptation. But before I saw Part One, I possessed zero interest at all in the film. Now, between a yearning to finish the story and Hadadi’s insights, Part Two has become an anticipated release in whichever form I am able to see it in.
Dune 4K UHD combo pack and Blu-ray contain the following special features:
- The Royal Houses (8:13)
- House Atreides (2:08)
- House Harkonnen (1:52)
- The Bene Gesserit (2:23)
- The Fremen (2:13)
- The Spice Melange (1:52)
- Inside Dune
- The Training Room (5:07)
- The Spice Harvester (3:12)
- The Sardaukar Battle (4:04)
- Building the Ancient Future (6:26)
- My Desert, My Dune (4:51)
- Constructing the Ornithopters (5:38)
- Designing the Sandworm (5:41)
- Beware the Baron (5:01)
- Wardrobe from Another World (2:53)
- A New Soundscape (11:12)
- Possible Futures (3:18)
Dune DVD contains the following special features:
- The Royal Houses (8:13)
Available on digital December 3rd, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD January 11th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Dune website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.