REVIEW: Dune 2021

A film directed by Denis Villeneuve based on the legendary science fiction novel by Frank Herbert

Once regarded as nearly impossible to adapt to the screen, Frank Herbert’s Dune has been made into movies and TV miniseries a handful of times, usually resulting a mixed bag for a number of reasons. The Sci-fi Channel (before it was called SyFy) Miniseries was lauded for being fairly true to the books, but not for it’s budgetary limitations. The classic 1984 David Lynch film was lauded for special effects, but critically panned for a number of odd things Lynch did with the script including baffling tone shifts and weird exposition dumps via people’s thoughts. That film ended up being considered a failure and nothing more was done in Hollywood. I haven’t even mentioned the abandoned Alejandro Jodorowsky take on the material, which I’m sure would have been a nonsensical LSD trip if the 2013 documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, is any indication, When yet another attempt at the book was announced a number of years ago, many fans were cautiously excited for good reason, but it looks like the wait has paid off as Dune as told by Denis Villeneuve is a critical darling at the moment.

“A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, “Dune” tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence-a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential-only those who can conquer their fear will survive.”

Before I get to the nuts and bolts on just how I felt about the film, let’s address the elephant in the room – Herbert’s Dune is a massively enormous and dense book so any attempt at a film is always going to be tough. That’s not even considering the fact that there are now over a dozen books in the franchise written by Herbert and his son after the elder died in 1985. Rather than cram everything into one film like David Lynch attempted to do, Denis Villeneuve has opted to make two nearly three hour films to give the story more time to breathe. I bring this up because, I really like this film, but let’s say Warner Brothers ends up pulling a “John Carter” on everyone and they opt to not make the second half? It would make this film a poster-child for missed opportunities, and shift my review of it quite a bit. Time to be a tad optimistic here, let’s assume that they will finish the story up as I get going here, and without further ado, here are my thoughts.

If I was rating Dune merely on visual and music presentation, it would be a definite 10/10 – it looks absolutely amazing and the score (by Hans Zimmer) is gorgeous and not much like anything else I’ve ever heard. Where as are you going to see a film with Arabic-infused bagpipe riffs and Mongolian throat singing set to ambient synth tones? It’s almost like the Japanese animated film Akira, in that the score sounds like nothing else out there. The visual effects, costuming, and set design are a true feast for the eyes, but there is one quibble that I take with it. Had I not gone in with knowledge of the plot of the book (and older films) beforehand, I might have been somewhat baffled by what was happening as the film, as it is the polar opposite of the Lynch film when it comes to any sort of exposition. Rather than having characters clumsily discuss, or in some cases internally monologue, hefty walls of exposition this side of a Wikipedia article, there is almost none. A newcomer really has no idea why many things are going one – what is spice? what’s up with that math/computer guy? Speaking of which…why are there no computers? why did the emperor double cross Leto? etc. Here’s hoping some of that is addressed in the next film.

I noticed many people online are torn on the casting with some comparing Timothée Chalamet to Kyle MacLachlan saying that the former is less likeable than his forbear. To me, this is actually closer to how the character is in the books and takes him away from the idea that the protagonist is always some kind of superhero “good guy”. At his core, Paul Atreides is a spoiled, sheltered rich kid that has grown up being told he is special and “the chosen one” by many around him. He has the ability to see the future and gets somewhat of a savior complex; he also acts on revenge and anger most of the time, making him somewhat similar to Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars. While Paul doesn’t don a mechanical helmet and become a true villain ala Darth Vader, he is definitely a flawed or failed hero. Frank Herbert expressed that his intentions of the character were to show an example of the danger of heroes and following charismatic leaders. So when many were saying this about this portrayal of the character I was happy, now lets see if the story can follow through.

That said, some of the characters seem oddly emotionless at times, which can be a bit off-putting. There are moment in the film that should have resulted in bigger reactions from many characters, when the reality is people just stand around looking depressed. I can’t wait to see some of the upcoming fight scenes, as they are truly some of the best parts of the book, including just about every section starring Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen who is oddly not present in this film – the character was famously portrayed by the musician Sting in the 1984 film. Hopefully they are holding out for some extremely great casting.

Watching this on HBO Max at my house, I was somewhat annoyed at how uneven the sound mixture was for people that don’t have huge, expensive sound systems. I had to crank the volume to hear dialogue, then turn it down during battle scenes. I know that professional film reviewers dole out tons of money on 12.1 Dolby Giga-surround sound or some nonsense, but that isn’t me – I just have a decent TV and a sound bar, I shouldn’t have to keep messing with it as I watch the film. Perhaps I need to break my Covid-Exile from going to movie theaters to experience this on the big screen as intended.

In closing, I feel that Villeneuve has pulled off an impressive feat of sheer film craftsmanship that, despite its flaws, makes it one of the best science fiction epics in recent memory. Assuming we get part two, and I have no reason to doubt it due to what Warner Brothers keeps hinting at regarding the films international success, this could really be something akin to Lord of the Rings in terms of re-invigorating a stale genre saturated with plenty of missteps as of late. It would be awesome if one of the biggest hits of the year was something from nearly sixty years ago – thus proving that in the right hands any classic should have a time to shine yet again. I highly recommend this film for the visuals and music alone, as even if you don’t like the film, those aspects are really cool.

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