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Dune (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 1

DUNE (2021)

Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Babs Olusanmokun and Benjamin Clementine.

Screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. 155 minutes. Rated PG-13.

I have a long, checkered past with Dune. I read Frank Herbert’s novel in high school – right in the middle of my science fiction infatuation, when I decided to read almost all the classics – and honestly, it left very little impression on me. All these years later I could barely tell you a thing about the book, other than the fact that I found it kind of underwhelming. (Even though I’m no longer as big of a sci-fi fan, I have long felt that I should revisit the book as an adult and see if perhaps it just went over my head at the time.)

I absolutely hated David Lynch’s 1984 film version of Dune starring a miscast Kyle McLachlan and Sting – and I am a fan of all three of those artists normally. I saw it in the cinema when it first came out and have actively avoided seeing it again, with no interest in revisiting that one. (Semi-interesting but useless personal trivia fact: a negative take on that film was my first published movie review.)

Therefore, I had a certain amount of trepidation when it was announced that the novel would be brought back to the big screen by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) a filmmaker who I have long felt was overrated. Don’t get me wrong, Villeneuve is a brilliant technical stylist – his films look amazing – but his storytelling style is dark, muddled, overly complicated, ugly and very, very cynical about life and human behavior. (And this is coming from someone who usually likes a healthy amount of cynicism in a film.) In fact, I hated Prisoners almost as much as I hated David Lynch’s Dune, and of the four films noted above I can only say Arrival was a film that I liked – and even that was far from a favorite.

Therefore, the good news is that the new Dune is a lot better than I feared it may be. It’s not a perfect film, or one I’m likely to revisit often, but while watching it I mostly enjoyed the story.

Honestly, it’s a bit too long (two and a half hours, and from what I understand it only tells half of the story of the book) and sometimes a little slow moving. And the ending sort of leaves the audience in a lurch – right in the middle of a larger story which we will not be able to see until the second Dune is made. However at least through this film I can see some of the appeal of Dune as a story, which again completely escaped me in the Lynch version.

The storyline is long and labyrinthine and slightly confusing – and I know how much director Villeneuve is averse to spoilers in reviews of his films – so I’ll only give the most thumbnail of sketches. Dune is essentially the story of two warring houses over the rule of Caladan, a dangerous desert planet, however it is the home of a natural substance called Spice with hallucinogenic qualities, therefore Caladan is very valuable.

The good guys are the Atreides – Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet). They want to care for the planet and its inhabitants, while at the same time making money for the Emperor. However, they have been assigned to take over from the Harkonnens, a violent somewhat lawless clan which is not taking being replaced very well. This leads to an all-out war between the factions.

As is Villeneuve’s main talent as a filmmaker – Dune looks spectacular. It has large expansive vistas and impressive CGI – especially with the sand worms – giant creatures which terrorize the planet. The film has the kind of epic scope which can be breathtaking on the big screen, so if you can watch it in a cinema, do.

Unfortunately, Villeneuve’s Achilles heel as a filmmaker is also present – the dialogue is often dry and clinical and the movie sometimes bogs down in the minutiae of its story, making certain stretches drag mercilessly.

I do feel that Dune: Part One (and how surprised was I when the opening credits actually gave the film title as that) is more for the fanatical followers of the book than a casual observer. However, since Dune is the best-selling science fiction book ever, that may not be a bad marketing strategy.

So, now, we all have to sit around and wait for Dune: Part Two to be ready. Or, conversely, we can forget the whole thing and leave it where it is. Honestly, I could go either way, but I think I will probably see the second Dune film to see what happens next, since we have been left right in the middle of the story. Or maybe I’ll just reread the book and find out more quickly.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: October 22, 2021.

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