Dune: Part One

Movie Review

Nathan W. Toronto

November 15, 2021

Like most Frank Herbert fans, I have waited years for a movie that captures the scope and feel of his epic novel, Dune. Denis Villeneuve’s movie adaptation, I am happy to report, absolutely nails it. Yes, the dialogue sometimes drops in foreshadowing and story elements that seem a bit forced—like an off-hand remark about Paul’s play for the throne—and there’s a lot of nuance that those who haven’t read the book will miss. But Dune: Part One gets two really important things exactly right: the scale of military forces needed to control a planet and the everyday details of desert life.

I’m a war geek and I study military effectiveness, so all those Star Wars movies that reduce control of a planet down to a single city or town drive me absolutely batty. Unless military forces can deploy really quickly (within minutes) to any place on a planet, and unless intelligence networks and analysis can provide exceptionally accurate details about threats to a ruler’s control, it would take a lot of force to control a planet. So, seeing dozens upon dozens of Sardaukar and Harkonnen transport ships stream out of a spacing guild navigator over Arrakis, each transport bearing dozens of landing craft, made me positively giddy with military planning delight.

Duncan Idaho also makes a sound military point about the operational plan: the attackers hit every population center simultaneously. If they hadn’t, the defenders would have been able to develop a defense-in-depth, cut off the attacker’s extended supply lines, and eventually wear down beachheads to nothing. When it comes to invading a planet, military scale matters, and Dune: Part One goes to great lengths to show this scale, which is exhilarating.

This movie also pegs the details of desert life. I’m not talking about the Fremen sand walk to keep Shai-Hulud from sensing their presence. I’m talking about the little things: how the date palm gardener moves with such economy in the heat of the day, ladling water lovingly at the base of the trunk; how Jamis sits on his haunches waiting for battle; the utter lack of wasted movement among the Fremen; how Fremen find the shadows by instinct; how Fremen circle around the coffee pot, conversing in hushed tones; how venturing outside occurs in the morning or evening, never during the heat of the day. These behaviors are all suited to the desert.

I lived in the Middle East for eight years, six of those in the Arabian Peninsula. I speak Arabic, and I've learned some of the ways of the bedouin. In Dune: Part One, the Fremen talk, move, and interact just like bedouin do today. The resemblance to modern desert mannerisms is uncanny. It leaves a sneaking suspicion that Villeneuve accepted advice from some true desert experts while making this movie.

So, to say that I can't wait to see Dune: Part Two is a healthy understatement. In Herbert has given us so much raw material to work with, and I am confident that Villeneuve will know just what to do with it.

Nathan W. Toronto is a data strategist and scholar of civil-military relations. He is the author of How Militaries Learn: Human Capital, Military Education, and Battlefield Effectiveness and Rise of Ahrik, a military science fiction novel.