I suppose Flixist will soon be renamed to Duneist…or something. After our rather scathing review and a much more positive retort, I’m here to set the record straight about Denis Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi epic. Far from an absolute garbage fire or a modern-day masterpiece, Dune was mostly okay. It had some good things, it had some bad things, and it certainly had a super long runtime. That’s my honest impression after watching it a few weeks ago.
Lest you think I’m not a Dune aficionado, let me set the record straight by explaining my history with the series. When I was in elementary school 65,000,000 years ago, I met someone that was a bit of a recluse. Taking more to nerdy hobbies, he was one of the kids that went on about Lord of the Rings, Redwall, and Star Trek while everyone else was enjoying the then-brand-new Nintendo series called Pokémon. You may have heard of that last one if you’ve been alive at any point in the last 25 years.
Anyway, I made friends with this kid and he introduced me to a ton of different media I would have otherwise ignored. One such thing was Frank Herbert’s Dune, though oddly not the actual book. I had gone to his house and he whipped out his PlayStation to show me Dune 2000. A then modern remake of Westwood Studios’ classic Dune II, I was very much intrigued by the atmosphere and setting that I saw in this game. What were these giant worms? Why was everyone fighting for spice? What the hell is a House Atreides?
From there, I asked this kid some questions about the series and he informed me of the hexalogy of novels that Herbert had penned. I quickly bought all six and promptly read the first book before giving up about three chapters into Dune Messiah. As a kid, I had more tolerance for flowery language and languid pacing, but Dune was maybe a bridge too far for my small mind.
Even with the novels not drawing me in completely, I still loved the series and its unique setting. Making the obvious link to Star Wars, I liked that it offered a different take on science fiction from the usual fare I had seen in my youth. I was drawn to the warring factions sub-plot from the games but learned a lot about religion and indoctrination from the words on the page. I also found the David Lynch film and watched it when no one was breathing of word of that travesty. I got a crash course in how to dissect things in a critical manner from a young age.
My last exposure to the series was with the criminally overlooked strategy game Emperor: Battle for Dune released in 2001. One of the most important RTS games in a pre-Warcraft 3 world, I wondered what had happened over the last 20 years to make Herbert’s groundbreaking text disappear from the public consciousness. Were people just sick of grand-scale sci-fi? Was a story about religious fanaticism and xenophobia too far ahead of its time?
I’ll never have a definitive answer to those questions, but it seems that another stab at a live-action film had been in the works since at least 2008 (this is ignoring the two SyFy mini-series that…well, I’ll forgive you for forgetting about those). The timeline for this gets murky as the IP shifts hands, but someone out there wanted to correct the errors in Lynch’s version to provide viewers with the definitive Dune experience.
Enter Villeneuve and his sprawling two-parter that was presumptuously put into production without greenlighting a sequel. Wanting to do proper justice to the monumental text that Herbert gave us, this latest film covers the entire novel in two separate movies so that you miss none of the narrative. Except, it doesn’t really do that because even in its first (and, currently, only available) part, you miss an incredible amount of subtext and nuance from the book. It’s actually kind of shocking how shallow Dune is, especially for a novel that would go on to define not only its genre but countless other mediums in the decades since its original publication.
As our own Sian Francis-Cox wrote in her defense piece, “Coming out of my first screening of Dune, it seems to me that there are so many small details that you’d have missed if you’d have not read the first volume of the novel.” Having done that many years ago, I can 100% confirm this. I watched the film with my mother on HBO Max -don’t worry, we have a 55-inch 4K HDR equipped television with some rather incredible Bowers & Wilkins towers- and she was a bit lost. I filled in a lot of the details for her, but without my aide, she would have left her viewing with more questions than answers.
The earliest moment in the movie I can point to is when Paul attempts to use “the voice” while having breakfast with his mother. One of the most crucial skills that Paul has at his disposal, Villeneuve’s Dune never thinks to explain to you where this technique comes from and why it might matter. We do see Lady Jessica and Paul use it to successfully escape capture, but what the fuck even is “the voice?”
Since I know the outcome of Paul’s fate and have been delving into Dune lore for some time, I was able to fill in my mother about this technique. I also kind of spoiled some of Dune Messiah, but we’re likely six or seven years away from Villeneuve’s adaptation of that movie releasing, so she’ll live. Other similar moments are sprinkled throughout the 156-minute duration, including body shields that are never explained, hunter-seeker robots that appear out of nowhere, and an exposition dump about thumpers before we even truly know what sandworms are. On the topic of sandworms, some characters casually mention worms before the film decides to let you know that they mean massive creatures.
It’s a sprawling mess of frontloading the film with a ton of exposition but then never explaining things that will actually matter in the long run. Paul opens a book and is given a history lesson on the planet Arrakis despite already knowing all of that information from his father, Duke Leto. To steal a line from our review, “The movie feels both dense and hollow.”
On the flip side, even with all of the questions Dune raises and promptly does not answer, the film moves along at a rather nice pace. The beginning can be a bit much to get through, but the middle act is filled with some thrilling action and absolutely gorgeous set design. I do not agree with Jesse Lab in our review when he wrote, “the use of color in this film is just depressing and sucks all of the energy out of the room. Everything is brown and gray. The movie looks drab and relentlessly lifeless and causes everything to blend together into one gigantic mess.” Yeah, that’s a big no.
Dune may not be as impressive as Villeneuve’s work on Blade Runner 2049, but the film uses moments of relative darkness and drabness to punctuate the bits where we see the surface of Arrakis. You go for 30 minutes in underground tunnels and sparsely filled rooms to this explosion of light, color, and atmosphere. When watching on a proper screen (HDR really is a game-changer), it can almost burn your eyes with how intense it looks.
Contrast this with Lynch’s Dune and I’m not sure how anyone could see that campy ass joke as more enjoyable. Again, Jesse wrote in our review, “I think that Lynch’s version of the film is probably better because for as flawed as that one is, it remembers to have fun with the premise.” Dune isn’t meant to be a fun premise as it was a scathing critique of capitalism, religious fanaticism, and xenophobia. Even if you think it should be campier, it’s not like Villeneuve left all humor out of the proceedings. The character of Duncan Idaho (which is a stupid name regardless of tone) is constantly smiling, recounting tales of past glory, and living life to the fullest in combat.
It’s just sad that Dune never thinks to give these characters any kind of arcs for the viewer to live through. Paul is about the only multidimensional character here as everyone else plays like an archetype. We certainly have some fantastic lines -I really love Duke Leto telling Paul he only ever needed to be his son- and it’s not like the actors are putting in bad work. The real issue is just that by the time the film concludes, it can feel like nothing has happened.
Going back to our positive feature, Sian wrote, “I’d so much rather we had a story that entices us with a sequel than one that tries to cram too much into a single instalment with little world- or -character building and with too little explanation.” A nice sentiment on paper, but Dune spits in the face of that. It simultaneously has too much explanation with not enough explanation. It has an abundance of visual details that do nothing to expand the world. It has a massive cast of characters that then only get one paragraph worth of dialogue each.
Does that mean I hate the film? Nah, absolutely not. In the truest sense of the phrase, Dune very much is a movie you need to watch to understand. We can write all day about its failures and missteps, but Dune works on a purely visual level. With film being a medium based around the expression of visual ideas, Villeneuve absolutely captures the atmosphere of Herbert’s work better than anyone before.
As I mentioned above, there is also some fantastic action in the second act. Once the film drops the pretense of explaining shit and simply starts moving, you feel like things just won’t let up until the rather disappointing conclusion. Had part two been available immediately, I may have sat there for five hours straight instead of looking at the credits and shrugging.
I’m not a fan of films needing sequels to justify their existence, but maybe Dune truly is too big for one movie. At the same time, there are ways Villeneuve could have remedied this problem by ending at a more natural closing moment. In the here and now, though, I’m just left feeling that this movie is neither good nor bad. It’s just there, waiting for consumption from hungry masses looking for ever more entertainment to distract them.
As we continue to move into an era where film has to contend with on-demand streaming, sci-fi epics like Dune will fall out of favor for longer serialized shows that can expand on this material better. Dune already had two cracks at the TV adaptation, but I could see someone like Villeneuve taking his ideas and spreading them out across 10-to-12 hour-long episodes. It would certainly allow for more character development, not to mention provide the opportunity to adapt the entirety of Herbert’s work.
There’s something to say for seeing Dune on the big screen, but I don’t believe any particular method of watching a movie is correct. You do what works best for you regardless of what directors or writers claim. Villeneuve wants you in a theater, but I say turning on Dune with an OLED TV and surround speakers will give you a much richer experience. However you go about seeing the movie (if you even decide to), no experience will change the fact that Dune is merely okay. It’s a fine enough movie and nothing more.