Fear Is the Mind-Killer – Dune: Part One (2021) 4K Ultra HD + 3D Blu-ray

If I have to be honest, I was never going to like any attempt to remake Dune. As I’ve mentioned previously, the 1984 film by David Lynch is my favorite movie. Given how little respect it’s typically afforded, I often feel protective of it, if not a little defensive. Also, the last time someone tried to remake Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic for a cable TV miniseries in 2000, it ended up a laughable disaster. Flawed though Lynch’s film may be, I’ve never wanted another movie adaptation of Dune. In fact, as the publicity machine drummed up hype for an all-new, big-budget Dune in 2021, I actively dreaded it.

With that personal bias acknowledged, I did try to keep as much of an open mind as I was able. I generally have a favorable opinion of most of the works I’ve seen from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. His 2010 drama Incendies just about wrecked me emotionally, and I was very impressed with how well he pulled off the nearly impossible task of making a long-belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner in 2017. On the other hand, I did not care much for his other big sci-fi picture, 2016’s Arrival, which felt to me like a kind-of dumb movie pretending to be a smart one. Still, if anyone might be able to change my opinion about the merits of a Dune remake, surely the man who made Blade Runner 2049 stood the best shot at it?

Unfortunately, I did not like Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One when I watched its premiere on HBO Max in the fall of 2021. Frankly, I found it to be an interminable bore. This put me in a decided minority. The movie garnered very positive reviews from most critics, made quite a bit of money at the theatrical box office despite being released in the middle of a pandemic, and eventually went on to receive ten Oscar nominations, winning six of them. Nevertheless, I was unimpressed. While a couple of subsequent viewings have tempered that disappointment somewhat, I still have trouble getting past that first reaction.

Dune (2021) - Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
Title:Dune: Part One
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Blu-ray 3D
Also Available On: HBO Max
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

I don’t want to waste a lot of time on a plot summary here. I’ve known Dune, both the book and prior movie, inside and out for decades. As a Dune fan, what interests me most about this new adaptation is how it compares and lives up to those, or doesn’t. For the benefit of anyone not already versed in Dune lore, here’s the very short version:

In the distant future year of 10,191, the universe has regressed to a feudal empire divided among several royal houses. The noble House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), has been ordered by the Emperor to leave their homeworld of Caladan and take over as administrators of planet Arrakis, a harsh desert world that is the only source of a very precious psychoactive spice necessary for space travel (among other things). This puts them at odds with the planet’s former oppressors, the cruel and sadistic Harkonnens, who aren’t happy about losing the job. The native population, called the Fremen, don’t take kindly to outsiders of any kind, no matter how benevolent they may claim to be. Also potentially troublesome are some monstrous sandworms that live beneath the desert where all that valuable spice is found.

The story that author Frank Herbert built from this framework is quite expansive and complex. It involves dozens of major characters, political machinations from numerous parties, and interference from a religious order playing all sides against the others while attempting to breed a superhuman messiah prophesied to cleanse the universe in an apocalyptic holy war. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a couple hours of screen time, and both movie adaptations have struggled to cram it all in.

The material would perhaps best be suited to a TV series more than a feature film. Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels before his death, after which his son took over to crank out a bunch more, leaving no shortage of Dune content to sustain multiple seasons of a television show. In years past, it might have seemed impossible to visualize such a richly imagined universe on a TV budget (as the awful cable miniseries proved), but the recent explosion of very expensive science fiction and fantasy dramas across numerous cable and streaming outlets would suggest that now is the perfect time for a long-form, episodic adaptation of Dune.

Apparently, Denis Villeneuve disagreed, and moved forward instead with making his Dune into another theatrical feature. As a concession, he decided to split the story into pieces rather than condense it all into one movie. The risk in this, of course, is that had Dune: Part One bombed, we might never see a Part Two.

Dune (2021) - Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin as Leto and Gurney

Dune vs. Dune

From what I can tell, I’m sure that Villeneuve would prefer no one call his Dune a “remake” of the Lynch movie, but rather a fresh adaptation of the source. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe I’ve seen Villeneuve so much as acknowledge the existence of any prior movie version of Dune in interviews he’s given, as if he were the first person to ever bring Herbert’s novel to the screen. I don’t necessarily fault him for this, as he has undoubtedly felt a lot of pressure to distance himself from a famous failure. To his credit, I haven’t seen him actively badmouth the Lynch movie either.

Still, the desire to make the new Dune as different as possible from the old one weighs heavily upon the movie, and can be felt in practically every frame.

The biggest change, obviously, is that the film only covers the first half of the book. Considering the many ways Lynch faltered in compressing Herbert’s epic narrative into a tight two-and-a-quarter-hour runtime, this isn’t a bad idea. In theory, it should give Villeneuve time to fill in all the story Lynch skimmed over, and let the characters and the plot breathe a little. In actual practice, however, the movie still cuts out many important parts of the novel. Major characters including the the Emperor, Feyd Rautha, and Princess Irulan don’t appear at all. Other supporting characters that Lynch managed to bring to colorful and memorable life are given short shrift here – especially Dr. Yueh (Chang Chen), whose actions at an important plot point seem insufficiently motivated.

Critical story details are left unexplained or ignored completely. Never is it clear that Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is only a concubine to Duke Leto, not his wife. Leto professing “I should have married you” to Jessica comes from out of nowhere, and even contradicts the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling, wasted in a role entirely hidden behind a veil) calling Jessica his wife in an earlier scene.

The fact that the studio handed out a glossary to viewers entering the theater for Lynch’s film was treated as a joke by critics, but Villeneuve doesn’t do any better of a job explaining the story’s arcane terminology. Both Lynch and Villeneuve cut out the backstory of the Butlerian Jihad, a religious war that purged the universe of computers and Artificial Intelligence. That’s understandable given how convoluted it is and the fact that the Jihad took place thousands of years before the main story, but at least Lynch clearly identified the Mentat characters as human computers who have taken over the roles that advanced technology once filled. Villeneuve tells us nothing about the Mentats; they’re just guys with weird lip tattoos whose eyes roll up into their heads for some reason. Poor Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian), the evil Harkonnen’s Mentat, isn’t even named in the movie. He’s left as an anonymous henchman who mostly stands in the background.

Dune (2021) - Harkonnen homeworld Giedi Prime

I don’t take issue with Villeneuve changing the pronunciation of many of the names and phrases (e.g. Harkonnen sounds like “hark-uh-nin,” in contrast to Lynch’s “har-koh-nen”). As I recall, Frank Herbert himself had some peculiar ways of pronouncing words in his novels. However, I’m more bothered that the screenplay credited to Villeneuve, John Spaihts (Prometheus), and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) greatly simplifies Herbert’s sometimes flowery dialogue to make it less poetic and more expositional. During protagonist Paul Atreides’ interrogation by Reverend Mother Mohiam, the passage “I hold at your neck the Gom Jabbar. A duke’s son must know of many poisons. This one kills only animals,” is reduced to: “I hold at your neck the Gom Jabbar. Poisoned needle. Instant death.” The lines convey the same general intent, but Villeneuve’s version is much blunter about doing so, losing the tone and flavor of Herbert’s writing. When interviewed about Lynch’s movie in 1984, Herbert claimed to be pleased that:

“The film begins as the book begins, and it ends essentially as the book ends, and I hear my dialogue all the way through it.”

Dune: A Recorded Interview – WaldenTapes audio book ©1984

I don’t think he could say the same for this one were he still around.

I’d go so far as to say that Villeneuve outright botches the staging of that scene between Paul and the Reverend Mother by transferring Paul’s recitation of the Litany Against Fear to his mother Jessica instead. This is a huge divergence from the book that undercuts the importance of the Litany. In this version, the Litany seems like a meaningless prayer coming from Jessica, rather than a mental conditioning tool that Paul uses to steady his own mind and overcome his panic. As a result, Paul’s ability to withstand the pain amplifier box is more stubbornness and luck than an act of extraordinary, superhuman willpower, as it should be.

Dune (2021) - Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam

I could go on listing out scripting differences between the two movies, or changes from the book, that I disagree with, but the crux of my disappointment ultimately comes down to tone. Lynch’s film is often (wrongly, I would argue) regarded as “campy” or “cheesy” by detractors. Lynch has never been afraid to flirt with melodrama, and allowed some of his actors in Dune to pitch their performances to larger-than-life proportions. It feels like Villeneuve was so desperate to avoid that, he dialed everything way, way down and smothers it in self-consciously “grimdark” moodiness. Almost all of his cast vacillate between barking out their dialogue in strident tirades or whisper-acting as if to impart some semblance of seriousness, often switching between the two within the same scene.

As the story’s hero Paul, Kyle MacLachlan did a better job in 1984 of conveying an entitled (yet serious-minded) aristocrat kid who evolves into a genuine leader. With adorable locks of hair strategically swept down over his eyes most of the time, Timothée Chalamet plays the character as too sullen and mopey. I fear that his casting will prove especially unconvincing when the problematic “White Savior” aspects of the story kick in during the second half. Watching this scrawny white boy rise up as messiah to the planet’s dark-skinned natives is not going to play well without significant rewriting of the book’s plotting.

As for the villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, I liked Stellan Skarsgård’s performance a lot better when Marlon Brando delivered it in Apocalypse Now, and Brando didn’t need prosthetics to play fat.

Dune (2021) - Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen

Whatever your feelings about it may be, the 1984 film had a very ambitious and meticulously thought-out visual design. David Lynch took great pains to spread the story across four distinct worlds, each with a completely different look than the others. His elaborate production design, costumes, and use of color conveyed a sense of centuries of culture and history and backstory for each society without needing to be explained in dialogue or narrative.

All of the planets in Villeneuve’s film, meanwhile, share a similar Minimalist aesthetic – big, empty, rectangular rooms in Brutalist style architecture. The main difference between them is that Arrakis is yellowish brown while the others are dim and gray. Otherwise, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the empty rooms on one planet from the empty rooms on another.

Dune (2021) - Arrakeen palace on Arrakis

On a personal level, the main reason I love Lynch’s film so much is that it’s such a thoroughly weird and idiosyncratic movie, filled with bizarre imagery and surreal touches that you will simply not find in any other big-budget sci-fi movie. It’s an art film presented in the guise of a major studio blockbuster. The narrative may be a mess (especially in the second half), but it’s a fascinating piece of work from an artist with a unique vision. That actually made Lynch a good pairing for the material. The Dune series can be very weird, increasingly so as it goes along. Frank Herbert was a fan of using psychedelics to expand consciousness, which obviously gave him the inspiration for the mystical spice in the novel. The later books go to some freaky places.

Villeneuve’s Dune has none of that. The director seems to have been so humbled by the box office failure of his Blade Runner 2049, and the fact that he was remaking another notorious box office bomb, that he was afraid to take those sort of risks. Instead, he sapped just about any trace of personality out of the film, leaving only the bones of the plot (which honestly isn’t much clearer than Lynch made it) illustrated with mostly workmanlike craftsmanship.

Dune (2021) - The desert sands of Arrakis

I don’t have anything against Denis Villeneuve as a filmmaker. I don’t love all of his movies, but he’s a smart and talented guy. As I confessed at the start, I went into his Dune with an inherent bias, and my disappointment with it may make me an outlier. The movie seems to have worked better for other audiences than it worked for me.

To be fair, the film has actually played better for me on repeat viewings than it did initially. Setting aside my preference for the Lynch adaptation, I can admit that the 2021 Dune has a good cast, some striking images of its own, and impressive visual effects. A few too many of the spaceships and other vehicles look like they came from an Apple Store, but the dragonfly-inspired ornithopters have a cool design (appropriate to their description in the novel) and are a big improvement over the awkward boxy things Lynch came up with.

I have mixed feelings about the Hans Zimmer musical score, which has some unusual sounds and interesting Middle Eastern influences, but (like most recent Zimmer scores) tends to drone monotonously. Give me Toto any day.

In terms of story coherency, the Lynch film really falls apart after Paul and Jessica escape to the desert and meet up with the Fremen. That scene is admittedly a garbled mess in his version. Villeneuve does a slightly better job with it, but it still doesn’t play quite right. Paul’s duel with Jamis (a sequence that Lynch shot but ultimately cut) feels very contrived and unconvincing, and the Fremen still accept Paul and Jessica too quickly.

Splitting the book in half also has the unfortunate consequence that this movie ends at a random point in the middle of the story, without much of a climax or even the suggestion of a cliffhanger. It just stops where it is.

I still don’t love the 2021 Dune: Part One, but I suppose I’m coming around on it a little. Perhaps some of my misgivings against it can be addressed if Part Two tries to be a little more daring and unconventional, and a little less solemn and dreary, but I’m not sure how much hope I hold out for that.

  • Dune (2021) SteelBook - France
  • Dune (2021) SteelBook - France
  • Dune (2021) SteelBook - France

Home Video

Dune: Part One premiered simultaneously in theaters and streaming on HBO Max in October of 2021. Physical media releases followed quickly just three months later in January 2022 across every relevant format from DVD to Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, and even 3D. As a SteelBook collector, I was tempted by a Best Buy exclusive 4K edition, but hesitated too long and missed it before it sold out.

In North America, the 3D version could only be purchased separately from the others. More comprehensive packages bundling Blu-ray, 4K, and 3D together were released in various European and Asian territories, some of them in SteelBook cases with differing artwork options for each country. The one I settled on was a 3-disc set from France originally exclusive to the FNAC retail chain. Because FNAC will not ship to the United States, I wound up acquiring a copy from an eBay seller, paying more than I would have liked. An even more deluxe edition from FNAC put this same SteelBook into a larger box with a copy of the novel (French translation) and a soundtrack CD, but that seemed like overkill to me.

All three discs have English-language menus and appear to be direct copies of those released in the United States.

Although Dune: Part One had a Variable Aspect Ratio presentation in IMAX theaters, for which certain sequences opened up in height to a taller screen ratio, all home video copies of the movie – including streaming and 3D – are transferred only at a constant 2.35:1 (technically 2.39:1 if you want to count pixels), as it appeared in all other theaters. Whether this was at the director’s instruction or not is unknown at this time. Some filmmakers (e.g. Christopher Nolan) like seeing shifting aspect ratios on their TVs, while some prefer to reserve the VAR experience only for IMAX theaters.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray

My first viewing of this Dune on HBO Max left me underwhelmed with the movie’s hazy and frequently grainy photography. The Ultra HD Blu-ray is an improvement, though I didn’t do a direct comparison with streaming again. The grain is still present, as director Villeneuve wanted. Although shot digitally, the movie had a digital-to-film-back-to-digital production chain for reasons that don’t make a lot of technical sense to me, but were nonetheless artistically purposeful. Villeneuve no doubt wanted to add a little texture and grit to the image. I was less annoyed with that on a second viewing than the first. However, a consequence of this is that the picture isn’t as exceptionally sharp as you might expect from 4K. It’s not soft, exactly, but the upgrade from 1080p to 4K isn’t as pronounced as some other films may exhibit.

The movie also has largely subtle HDR grading. Despite most of the plot taking place on a desert world, Villeneuve found excuse to shoot as many scenes as possible in dark and underlit rooms. Highlights don’t often call attention to themselves. Even outdoor scenes in the desert sun appear to be graded within or at least close to the SDR range.

Comparing a few scenes back-to-back, the Ultra HD has a small bump in detail over the Blu-ray and colors are a little richer, but I expect that many viewers could watch the regular Blu-ray and not feel they were missing much. None of this is to say that either disc looks poor. The movie looks as it’s supposed to, and is often visually impressive, but it’s very heavily stylized in a manner that deliberately underplays qualities that might make for home theater eye candy.

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack (found on both the Blu-ray and Ultra HD) is loud and bombastic, with plenty of powerful bass. Height channels are engaged a fair amount to create a convincing dome of sound around the listener. Scenes with the ornitophoter vehicles have some fun flyover effects. The movie has many quiet passages that rely on subtle sounds as well. Fidelity is excellent across the board in either type of scene. In all technical respects, this is a first-class audio mix.

The 3D Blu-ray

Dune: Part One was not photographed in native 3D, but did receive a 3D conversion in post-production that played in a limited number of theaters. For many sci-fi, fantasy, and action movies directed by anyone not named James Cameron (or perhaps Paul W.S. Anderson), these conversions to 3D typically feel like an afterthought. I’m not sure how much involvement Denis Villeneuve had with it, but Dune is his second movie to receive a 3D edition, following Blade Runner 2049.

The 3D for Dune is entirely depth behind the screen, with not a single pop-out effect that breaks the screen plane. As far as that goes, it seems better than average for a conversion. Most scenes have discernible depth and layering, with logical placement of objects within the three-dimensional space. That said, it also looks decidedly like a post-conversion. I doubt the director staged his scenes specifically with 3D in mind.

Early scenes are more aggressive with the 3D than those later. While it never totally reverts to 2D, the movie becomes progressively more limited in depth as it goes. The big action set-pieces that you might expect to be standout 3D showcases (including the first attack by a sandworm) are disappointingly subtle on that front.

With 3D on Blu-ray, you of course lose 4K and HDR. Viewing through 3D glasses, the image is dimmer and less colorful. The 3D Blu-ray also drops the Atmos soundtrack in favor of a standard DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but it upmixes well and the movie’s sound design is strong enough that this isn’t as much of a downgrade as you may fear.

At the end of the day, I’m inclined to favor watching the movie in 4K more than 3D, but the 3D version is decent enough to be worthwhile for fans of that format.

Bonus Features

Supplements are found only on the standard Blu-ray disc. The 4K and 3D discs carry just the movie itself. A dozen or so featurettes total around 75 minutes of promotional material straight from the film’s Electronic Press Kit. They cover the expected topics including visual effects, stunts, costumes, and adapting the book, but the content is all quite insubstantial.

Hilariously, in the featurette on sound design, Hans Zimmer acts like he was the first human to invent the concept of music itself.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a more substantive Special Edition is planned for future release, perhaps in a double-feature box set after Dune: Part Two is completed.


Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from the standard Blu-ray edition of the film and are used for illustration purposes only.

2 thoughts on “Fear Is the Mind-Killer – Dune: Part One (2021) 4K Ultra HD + 3D Blu-ray

  1. This movie has grown on me. I was a bit bored the first viewing, but repeat viewings were much more rewarding. I have the domestic 4k and 3D versions and a French Steelbook with both. It has really cool cover. I’ve never read the source material so can’t compare it to anything other than the Lynch version. I got the fully swagged Arrow Steelbook. Nice little set.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s