Dune is a movie I had zero expectations of going into it. I know next to nothing about the original novel and it’s been years since I’ve seen the 1984 version of the film. I didn’t go into the movie expecting to have my mind blown by what Denis Villeneuve put to film. I also didn’t go into it trying to hate it because of the absurd levels of hype it’s getting from fans. I went into it as blind as possible because I wanted the film to be judged on its own merits. Away from the glitz and glamour of the press surrounding the film, I wanted to see why this version of Dune was gaining as much attention as it was.
The only thing I know about the book that this film is based on is that it was claimed to be an unfilmable as a movie. It was a deep sci-fi epic that not even the great David Lynch could accurately bring to the big screen, though studio meddling had a hand in that. So to see Villeneuve, who most certainly can tell a good sci-fi story when prompted to, try his hand at it, was probably a safe decision. But did it pay off? Sad to say, but no. It did not pay off.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Release Date: October 22, 2021 (Theatrical/HBO Max)
To be blunt, Dune is a mess. It’s a film that feels incomplete, a movie that is banking on you liking what it has to say so much that you’ll come back for more for the inevitable sequel. When the movie begins with a gigantic title with the subheader “Part One,” they’re already planning on what is to come next. And during that two and a half-hour pitch, nothing that Denis presented even remotely seemed interesting or exciting to warrant a second visit.
Before I go any further, I feel obligated to say that the production behind Dune is gorgeous. With immaculate sets and stunning attention to detail, Dune is gorgeous to actually watch. The architecture of the world is incredibly impressive and some of the creative choices on how certain characters behave or how machinery works is truly a sight to behold. I never thought I would be invested in the working of a gigantic sand sweeper, but here we are. These are the kinds of productions that you don’t see anymore. A big-budgeted, sci-fi epic that feels epic to watch, conveying a sense of gravitas the likes of which have been sorely missed.
But there’s the kicker. It FEELS grand and important, but it really isn’t. It feels like this is meant to be a huge event, the kind of film that is to be talked about for years to come, but it’s shockingly devoid of meaningful content. When you really break it down, the plot of Dune can be summed up simply. The royal family of House Atreides has been tasked by the emperor of the known universe to harvest spice on the hostile desert world Arrakis. Unfortunately for the members of House Atreides, it was all a trap by the emperor and Atreides’ rivals, House Harkonnen, to eliminate them as both factions see Atreides as threats. However, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) has been deemed to be a messianic figure to the people of Arrakis and sets out on a quest to avenge the destruction of his house.
That is the entire plot of this film. By the time the credits roll, nothing is resolved as this entire film is just set up for a larger conflict. It spends an absurd amount of time just to establish a basic plot that most movies are able to do in only a half-hour. Yet despite having so much time dedicated to establishing this gargantuan conflict, the characters all feel underdeveloped and underutilized. Dune has an all-star cast, featuring the likes of Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Mamoa, and the aforementioned Chalamet, and yet no one has any really developed character traits or personalities. Mamoa probably comes the closest to having what would be defined as a personality, but I chalk that up more to him exuding confidence wherever he goes because he’s Jason Mamoa.
The movie feels both dense and hollow because of this. We have concepts dumped on us without any real explanation to them, all in an effort to make a nothing plot feel more significant than it actually is. We’re told of the importance of Arrakis to the foundations of the universe, magical abilities that allow people to command others by words alone, how people can die of dehydration on Arrakis, but none of it lands in any meaningful way. I can’t help but feel that Villeneuve’s approach here was to make people think that the movie was important by framing every scene as important but never really explaining why that is.
It gets exhausting after a while. There’s no breathing room for us to get to know the characters or just to take in the world around us. It plods along like one of the film’s gigantic sandworms. There’s an art to pacing, giving the audiences enough moments of levity to appreciate those quiet moments before the intensity starts to ratchet up. But there’s not even a pulse half of the time to quicken. I would honestly say that despite the tiff Villeneuve had about his film not being theatrically exclusive, I honestly think that you should see it on HBO Max if only so you have time to take breaks as you go so you’re not bored to death.
Because make no mistake, Dune can be boring to watch. I know I praised the production design earlier for the movie, but 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. I just think back to Blade Runner 2049 how Villeneuve used color to great effect there only to look at what he did here and wonder just what in the world happened. Yes, this is a movie that takes place on a desert planet, but there are ways to make things visually interesting to watch.
The more I think about it, the more that I realize that Villeneuve might not have been the best choice to be a director for this project. Villeneuve’s style is incredibly grounded. From Prisoners to Sicario to Arrival to Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve has a way of grounding his films in next a way that the events feel like they could actually happen in real life. Sicario and Arrival are excellent in this regard, as their grounded nature is able to capture the brutality of a real-world crisis and an existential reckoning of extraterrestrial communication respectively. What he can’t really do is convey ideas that are more out there and naturally goofy. They just don’t gel with each other.
We’re dealing with a movie where space imperialists are fighting against each other over a drug that allows for space travel, but they need to go to a planet of giant worms to get it. That’s a goofy concept by nature, but Villeneuve plays it with deadly stoicism to a degree that just robs the film of any and all charm. In that regard, 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. There’s no fun to be had in Dune and very little that I found entertaining.
I almost feel bad that the cast has such weak material to work with here. They’re trying their best, but the direction is so bizarre to sit through as most of the characters are both over and underacting. Chalamet has the personality of plywood, but he may switch on a dime to shouting and raging like he’s trying to earn a Best Actor clip for the Oscars. I legitimately laughed where after a traumatic scene, Chalamet yells at his mom about how he heard people shouting his name in deafening roars in a vision he had, only to immediately cut to Zendaya gently whispering it to him. Did no one notice that weird disconnect between visuals and dialogue? The actors are trying, but the editing and writing almost seem to be united at making the actor’s performances have the least amount of impact.
But at the end of the day, this is just “Part One” of Villeneuve’s epic. The sequel hasn’t officially been greenlit, but it’s coming. The question is after seeing the film if I’m game for a sequel. And honestly, I’m really not. If the sequel is going to be more of this, then that’s a repellent for me. Why would I want to go see a movie that wastes its time on details that just exist to overcomplicate a simple plot, features great actors being hampered by numerous production decisions, all spearheaded by a director that seems to want to actually suck the energy out of every shot, no matter how stunning the production may be?
Halfway through the movie, I was reminded of the 2017 version of It and the excitement generated for its sequel after it premiered. People wanted to see It: Chapter 2 badly. Never mind the fact the Chapter 2 turned out to be a disappointment, both It and Dune serve a similar purpose. They’re meant to establish a world and tell a story that will be expanded and receive closure in the sequel. The difference is that in isolation, It has a solid story that feels complete. You can watch It and not see its sequel and still be satisfied. With Dune, it doesn’t tell a complete story. It has an ending that blatantly tells you there’s more to come, so don’t bother trying to look for any meaningful resolution here.
In case you can’t tell, I didn’t care much for Dune. I won’t call the movie pretentious, as that implies that it has something meaningful to say that it’s just dressing up as deep and portentous. It’s a standard criticism of imperialism with a Campbellian hero that can also double as a veiled criticism of the various wars in the Middle East. I never thought I would say this of Dune, but it feels very conventional. It’s being treated as cinematic royalty, but in reality, the emperor has no clothes. It’s a movie that we’ll look back on in a few years as an overbloated spectacle that has no bark or bite to it. Just pomp and circumstance that, without a sequel, is incomplete. Then again, even with a sequel, there’s no fixing the glaring flaws on display here.