October 21, 2021

Review: “Dune” Tells an Exciting, But Incomplete Story

In the case of a film adaptation of a novel, I’m in favor of letting both stand on their own. After all, the plot, ideas and characters of the novel is being re-interpreted for the screen, and it should cater to a wider audience and not just fans of the source.

The world of Frank Herbert’s Dune is so complicated and detailed, it’s quite a feat to even attempt a film adaptation. David Lynch’s 1984 movie worked for some and not for others, but Denis Villeneuve comes with a different approach: his Dune adapts roughly half of the original 1965 novel, which is both its strongest success and biggest disappointment.

In the very distant future, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is assigned to rule the desert planet of Arrakis, taking over the post from the villainous Harkonnen house. Arrakis is the most valuable world in the Empire, being the core source of spice, which makes interstellar travel possible. The Duke’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), troubled by visions of the future, travels with them but soon discovers that he is seen on Arrakis as some sort of messiah.

Sound like a lot? That isn’t even the half of it. I’ve left out the Bene Gesserit, magical women who are secretly manipulating the movements of the Empire; the Fremen, native people of Arrakis who have adapted to life in the harsh desert; the Baron of the House Harkonnen (Stellen Skarsgård), who plots against the Atreides from the shadows. This isn’t really a movie you can half-watch.

Dune is epic and visually thrilling, but it’s a noticeably incomplete story. It ends rather abruptly, which might be confusing for viewers who weren’t sure of its limit. However, its status as only “half a movie” is advantageous because nothing is rushed. Granted, the film moves at an astonishingly fast pace (despite a runtime of over two and a half hours), but we get to know the characters and world better than we would have if the storytelling was more hurried. I’m glad that this decision was made, but it doesn’t come without pitfalls.

One of Dune’s biggest issues is that it has some difficulty standing alone. The source material is dense and complicated, and so an adaptation could never include every detail from the novel. Because of this, some important elements key to understanding scenes are left out, which could make for a somewhat confusing viewing experience for some. I’m glad I decided to read the book in preparation — it really does help. But that’s just the thing; it shouldn’t be necessary. A film adaptation should cater to everyone, not just those who are familiar with its source material.

If you can get past that, though, Dune is an absolutely beautiful movie, in line with Villeneuve’s eye for stylistic imagery and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who also worked on The Mandalorian, Lion, Rogue One and the upcoming The Batman)’s visual sensibilities combined with some incredible visual effects. Having just read the book, I’ve wondered how certain things would be brought to life visually, and it’s very exciting to see how they compared with what I imagined.

I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but Dune is a satisfying science-fiction epic where nearly every frame is a painting. It might be helpful to brush up on the lore before seeing it, but you have to admire the ambition of all involved. If you have some trepidation seeing it, don’t be afraid — just remember: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.” 
[Grade: B]

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material
Available: Theaters
Fun Fact: Hans Zimmer gave up scoring Tenet in order to do Dune, as he is a big fan of the novel.

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