Dune: A Review
Dune has a checkered cinematic history, as just about everyone at this point is aware of. There was the 1984 film by David Lynch that was, charitably, a real hot mess; Lynch was and is a brilliant director but he was overwhelmed by the scale of the production, the necessity of working with the De Laurentiis family and the attempt to put the whole book into just over two hours of film. And then the film was bogged down by the sheer 80s-ness of it all, from the era-standard special effects to the Toto soundtrack. The 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries had more time to play with, but also the budget and production constraints of being a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in the era before “peak TV”; the Fremen in this adaptation looked every bit the well-fed central European extras that they were, and the special effects were TV-level. Real cinema nerds yearn for the never-was 70s adaptation of Dune by Alejandro Jodorowsky, but I can’t help but think that ultimately it would have run aground on the same rocks that the 1984 edition did: Ambition hobbled by production realities and a special effects infrastructure that wasn’t yet up to the task of showing the scale and scope of Frank Herbert’s vast setting.
Now it’s 2021, and here comes Denis Villeneuve to essay the book in cinematic form. For what it’s worth, his version of Dune is absolutely the most successful cinematic take on the book to date. Leaving aside Villeneuve’s own (considerable) directorial talents for the moment, he is fortunate that here in 2021, movie studios have well established the concept of stringing out a single novel over more than one film, and that the state of special effects now allows a level of photorealism that Lynch or Jodorowsky could only dream of. It’s the right time, from a business and practical point of view, for a Dune film to be made in a way that won’t inherently let down the source material.
To bring Villeneuve himself back into it, it’s fair to say that he is a very fine match for the material. To begin, Villeneuve’s visual aesthetic, and its tendency to frame people as tiny elements in a much larger composition, is right at home with the Dune source material, in which legions of Fremen and Sardaukar and Harkonnens stab at each other, and 400-meter sandworms tunnel through the dunes of Arrakis. To continue, anyone who has seen Villeneuve’s filmography is well aware he is a very very very serious dude; there’s not a rom-com anywhere in his history. Dune’s single attempt at a joke is done and over in the first 20 minutes the film, almost before it even registers. One can argue whether or not Frank Herbert’s prose and story styling in Dune is exhaustingly and pretentiously serious or not, but it is what it is. Given what it is, it needs a director whose own style matches. That’s Villeneuve. I don’t care to see Villeneuve’s take on, say, Galaxy Quest. But Dune? Yup, that’s a match.
Thus Villeneuve’s Dune is pretty much exactly what it needs to be. Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters confine themselves to roughly the first half of the book’s action (the second half has already been greenlit and is scheduled for arrival in 2023). This gives the story enough space to breathe and for characters to, if not necessarily develop, at least be lived in a bit before all hell breaks loose (as of course it does). Villeneuve has created an 11th millennium universe that feels like it’s been inhabited for all that time, where everything is massive and even the spacecraft creak; the CGI objects actually feel like they have mass, which is a neat trick so many people directing science fiction special effects don’t quite pick up on. It is dour and more than a little underlit, and even the desert has a permanent pall from (one presumes) all the dust in the air. There was more than one scene where I wished I had brought a flashlight. But again: this matches the Herbert’s text pretty well! The Padishah Empire was not particularly well-lit, if memory serves! So I’m not going to ding Villeneuve too much for that.
I found the aesthetic of this version of Dune more interesting than the script, but this is not necessarily a complaint. The script is actually functional, relies not at all on internal monologues (which could be draggy in the novel and were ridiculous in the Lynch version), and Villeneuve, unlike some notable directors of science fiction that one could name, actually appears to prefer to let his prodigiously-talented cast actually act, rather than merely declaim their lines from the script, brows furrowed. I mean, yes, they do that — there are furrowed brows galore here — but they don’t only do that. Letting actors act really does do wonders for an otherwise primarily functional script. Who knew.
Also, the film gets Paul Atreides as close to right as any of the filmed attempts have managed. You will not believe that Timothee Chalamet’s take on Paul is 15 years old at the outset of this film (nor does the film suggest that you do so), but you will absolutely believe that his Paul is a kinda-twinky hothouse flower of a duke’s son, suddenly thrown into the deep end of the desert, if you will. On Caladan, Paul looks just as likely to pull out a chapbook of his own bad poetry and recite it to Gurney Hallack as he is to take knife-fighting lessons from him. Paul is precious, in other words, which I think is the right way to start him off.
This Dune isn’t a perfect adaptation. Some important characters and events have their arcs truncated or elided (the motivations of Dr. Yueh, for example, are left almost entirely off-screen), and some characters and events are not present. We have to assume Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen shows up in the second film, if he shows up at all. I think some changes here are for the better — I especially appreciated getting to see the Duke Atreides and the Lady Jessica having an important moment together — but some changes are just changes. The stuff that’s elided or changed or left out isn’t necessarily unimportant to the story the film tells, I just think the filmmakers assume that their audience has read the novel, or has seen previous filmed versions, and knows things that they then feel justified in skipping over. Which, I guess? But it would have been better to have added another five minutes to the film and spackled up those plot holes.
But overall, I think Villeneuve, his co-writers and this cast and crew have done as well translating Dune (half of it, anyway) to screen as it is probably possible to do. At least, I don’t see how much closer they could have gotten to capturing the weight of Hebert’s tale as they have here. Is it a masterpiece? Eeehhhh, check with me in five or so years, when I’ve seen the second half and have had time to live with it. I suspect Arrival will keep the crown for Villeneuve’s best science fictional effort. But given that the other filmed versions of Dune are “camp disaster” and “serviceable television product sliced up between commercials,” this one wins on craft, story, budget and overall vision. It’s now the definitive cinematic Dune. It’s nice to have something onscreen that finally comes within hailing distance of what the book imagines.
On that note, and to close out the review, I really would suggest seeing this film in the theaters, rather than at home on your TV, even if you do have a nifty big screen and sound system. I have a nifty big screen and sound system myself! But unless you have an actual home theater with a 200-inch screen, you’re gonna miss a bunch of stuff, or at least the best effect of that stuff. I’m not your dad, mind you. Do what you want. But if I were you: to the theaters with you.