‘Dune: Part One’ showed us how to make a blockbuster beautiful

By Ben Konuch

“For the future of House Atreides, there is no call we do not answer, there is no faith that we betray.”

When I first saw “Dune” in theaters during the fall of 2021, I realized something about the film: “Dune” is not an action film. You may not think that from its opening scene, an explosive spectacle that shows the people of the desert planet Arrakis desperately fighting back against their invaders. You may be tempted to assume the contrary from any of its trailers or the discourse since the film has left theaters. But appearances, and marketing, can be deceiving. “Dune” is so much more than just an “action film” or the “new Star Wars.”

Instead, “Dune,” at its core, is a political drama filled with emotion, character, style and even great action. But it is also a film that takes its time setting up its world and characters, a film that prioritizes dialogue and character insight over empty action scenes so that when battles and conflict do come, they have a weight to them that few films can match. Through balancing Dune’s three greatest strengths – plot, acting and style – director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in making it a spectacle worthy of the heralds.

The plot of the film follows Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, heir to the Empire’s House Atreides, and shows Paul’s journey and struggle with becoming the leader that the world expects him to be. The film takes its pace slowly with the progression of the plot at first, prioritizing building a foundation of the world and the conflict of power between Houses in its audience. The central conflict then arises when the Emperor takes the planet Arrakis, which holds a valuable resource, from the powerful House Harkonnen and puts its care in the hands of House Atreides. Knowing full well that House Harkonnen won’t give up claim to Arakkis easily, the Emperor pits these two factions against each other in order to weaken both and maintain his supremacy.

This is the central guiding story of the film, and we watch as Paul struggles with the concept of going to Arrakis as well as the idea of destiny. His father, Duke Leto (played phenomenally by Oscar Isaac), knows that House Atreides has a duty to fulfill, even if that duty comes at a cost. 

One of the most interesting elements of this film is the dynamic between father and son in the face of this impossible task, demonstrated by an early line in the film. “What if I’m not the future of House Atreides?” Paul asks with uncertainty and fear. To which his father replies, “Your grandfather said that a great man doesn’t seek to lead. He’s called to it, and he answers. And if your answer is no, you’ll still be the only thing I’ve ever needed you to be – my son.” When conflict inevitably arises, we see how Paul and his father both rise to meet it and how their relationship is defined through the fires of Arrakis.

Duke Leto and Paul, father and son ruling together

This intersection of plot and characters is where “Dune’s” writing truly shines through the most. The film has a long list of characters, including Paul and his father Duke Leto, his mother Lady Jessica, advisors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Hallack, and antagonists Baron and Rabon Harkonnen. Yet, even though many of these characters are only in the film for a short while, the ways the characters are written and the actors portray them allow the audience to fall in love even with the supporting cast. 

Part of this is from actors who bring a level of talent and skill to even small portrayals. Jason Momoa plays the loyal yet charismatic soldier Duncan Idaho with such heart that it’s almost impossible not to smile when he and Paul joyously reunite after being apart. Josh Brolin plays the stern, fierce commander Gurney Hallack with such a powerful presence that you feel nobility and honor practically radiating off the screen.

Beast Rabon looks out at Harkonnen-controlled Arrakis one last time

The main cast, however, steal the show. Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto was my personal favorite performance of the film, and the depth and care he shows in his interactions with Timothée Chalamet’s Paul felt incredibly genuine and heartfelt. Paul, in contrast, typically comes off as a cold and detached character, and Chalamet’s emotions and characterizations are far more subtle because of this. He manages to portray a character that’s cold without seeming heartless or blank, and the few moments where Paul does let this cold exterior melt away are some of the best-acted scenes of the whole film. 

Lastly, Rebeca Furguson rounds out the main cast with a beautifully mysterious portrayal of Lady Jessica, and the chemistry she has between Oscar Isaac and Timothée Chalamet feels incredibly natural and authentic. She shows her love for her family more than anything, yet there always seems to be something unknown beneath every word.

I believe “Dune’s” greatest strength, however, is more than just the plot, characters, or acting: it’s the way the film itself has been made. Denis Villeneuve hasn’t just made a film, he’s crafted one. His cinematography and style of directing are genuinely breathtaking at times, with multiple shots seeming like paintings. The use of colors and contrast, whether it be the orange of an explosion against a dark night sky or the bright blue eyes of an Arrakis native against the browns of the dunes, is beautiful. In a word, that’s what “Dune” is. It’s beautiful. 

“Dune” is still a Hollywood blockbuster type of film with a blockbuster budget, but with the attention to craft and visual style that usually only tends to be seen in indie arthouse-type films. Pair that with Hans Zimmer’s score, which mixes the aggression of warlike drums, the melancholy of haunting vocals, the soothing sounds of elegant strings and yes, even bagpipes briefly, and you have a visually stunning film with music and sound design that elevates the scope and wonder of the visuals to a whole different level.

In conclusion, “Dune” is one of the most well-crafted and unique films I’ve seen in the last few years. It utilizes an intriguing original story, full of relevant themes such as duty, sacrifice, colonization, human nature, religious fanaticism and political struggles. Its characters are both realistic and relatable which is made possible by phenomenal performances by an A-list cast. The film is shot beautifully with attention and care for creating visual art, and is paired with a soundtrack that won Best Music from the Oscars for a good reason. In total, “Dune” walked away from theaters to secure a sequel, six Oscars at the 94th Academy Awards and definitive proof that a blockbuster can be more than just another action film.

I give Dune a 9.5/10.

“Dune” is currently streaming on Netflix and its sequel, “Dune: Part Two,” is currently in theaters

Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and one of the A&E editors for Cedars as well as the social media lead. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and swing dancing in the rain.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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