There’s a lot riding on 2021’s Dune film adaptation. Not only does it have to live up to the expectations of faithfully bringing Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking, genre-defining 1965 masterpiece of a novel to life, it also has to live up to the high expectations that inherently come along with being a film directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has been on something of a roll in his career with critically acclaimed films such as Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Not to mention the task of overcoming the somewhat infamous reputation David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation gave the series.
Before watching Villeneuve’s latest take on the series, I personally never read the Dune books, nor did I watch Lynch’s adaptation until very recently (more on that later). I was familiar with some of the overall themes of the franchise, such as the ecologically-minded message promoted within the story and the heavy influence the allegorical geo-socio-political commentary has had on many readers over the decades since the original novel’s publication.
But as far as the specific details go, I went into the movie as a blank slate.
And my immediate reaction upon watching it for the first time was that it wasn’t as deep as I had anticipated and that it was good but slightly boring. However, I was impressed that I could recognize many sci-fi tropes that Dune itself probably started within the film. Now I know where George Lucas got his inspiration for Tatooine in Star Wars. Heck, I can even see where Hayao Miyazaki found inspiration for the aesthetics and tone of many of his films, especially Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Watching dragonfly-like planes soar and flutter over a desert landscape lit up parts of my imagination that have laid dormant for what seems like ages.
Seeing the sand ripple like water as a worm larger than a blue whale splashes out of the ground also tapped into something buried deep within my subconscious mind.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a spiritual experience, let’s not get carried away here. But it was certainly the closest I felt like being in a lucid dream while watching a movie.
And a lot of that can be accredited to something Villeneuve excels at: sound design. He did a great job creating the otherworldly sounds for the extraterrestrials in Arrival that truly sounded like they were indeed from a faraway star system, but he’s outdone himself in the sound department with Dune. I felt like I was transported to another world through the audio cues alone. It often felt tense and eery for sure, but in a good way.
The sandworms sound exactly like you’d think they would, too: terrifying. And ‘the voice’ that certain characters use is convincingly sold.
And the cherry on top is that Hans Zimmer delivers an exceptional score that really is among some of his best work to date – which is really saying something.
The visual effects are a sight to behold as well. Villeneuve didn’t go overboard with distractingly flashy CGI that gets lost in its own spectacle, but instead seems to have either done an outstanding job of seamlessly blending practical effects with computer-generated imagery, or he’s just gone the Life of Pi route and utilized technology to such a successful extent that I can’t really tell the difference any more. Either way, the film doesn’t disappoint in this arena.
As for the acting, I can’t really find anything to complain about either. Two standout performances include Stellan Skarsgård who gives us one of the best villainous performances on the big screen in recent memory with his portrayal of the Baron, and Jason Momoa as the rambunctious Duncan Idaho who serves as a mentor for our main protagonist Paul Atreides. Oscar Isaac, Dave Bautista, Javiar Bardem, and Rebecca Ferguson also turn in solid performances.
Timothée Chalamet stars as the previously mentioned primary character Paul Atreides, a royal heir from a family with lots of political clout who gets roped into visiting Dune (aka the desolate planet Arrakis) with his parents.
There’s nothing wrong with Chalamet’s performance in the role. I found him to be suitable for the character. But… the character himself doesn’t really go through enough development in this film to allow Chalamet to show much of a range in his acting ability. He’s just… the hero. And at this point it’s more or less the coming-of-age point of the story where he’s kind of just along for the ride. I’m assuming we’ll see more growth in him as he becomes a fully fleshed individual, for better or worse, in a follow-up installment.
The same goes for Zendaya as Chani. She certainly looks the part. She’s nailed that ‘IDGAF’ expression on her face that you’d expect from someone brought up and living in the environment she inhabits. But that’s kind of it. There’s not a lot of substance to these younger characters yet.
Which brings me back to something previously noted: the film isn’t nearly as deep as I had expected. Don’t get me wrong, there’s way more to philosophically contemplate and chew on here than in your average Marvel or Star Wars affair, but I guess I was expecting a little more meaty?
After all, it’s one of the things I hear about the original novel all the time, that it fundamentally changes many of the ways its readers view and think about the world. And having listened to several interviews with Frank Herbert, I can tell he was the kind of man to think deeply and critically about society as a whole from entirely fresh angles that many people hadn’t considered before.
Now, it could be that since it’s been over half a century since Herbert’s ideas came onto the scene that he may have influenced so much of our modern entertainment that his ideas, which were revolutionary at the time, are now commonplace and mainstream. So perhaps there was a time that what I saw on screen was considered deep and profound, but has since become somewhat outdated.
Or, the more likely explanation and the one I hope is true is that this movie is merely the first part in a set of films, so it hasn’t yet gotten to the deep mindf*** material yet. It does identify itself as ‘Part 1’ in the film itself, so hopefully we’re just getting warmed up with this first chapter and now that the setting and characters have been established, Part 2 can take things to the next level whenever it is released.
Still, I can’t ignore the fact that there’s not much of a payoff once the credits roll. More of a “that’s it?” feeling. It feels incomplete. Which makes sense but is also undeniably a wee bit disappointing. And it makes me question some of the editing choices made. It feels like this didn’t need to be over two and a half hours long. The first act is a bit of a drag, and while the second and third acts are more engaging, they still lack that extra oomph I was hoping for.
To be fair, at the end of the day Dune did leave me wanting more. And it was good enough that I actually went back with my wife to watch it again the next night. I very rarely see movies twice in the theater, but hey, I caught the Dune bug. Something about the spice just got me hooked.
It also got me so curious about the Dune universe I even took the plunge and watched David Lynch’s notorious adaptation. And I’ve got to give him some credit, it wasn’t as bad as some people have made it out to be. IMDB currently gives that 1984 version a 6.4 rating, which I’d say is fair.
As for the 2021 version, I’ve give it a solid 8. If it didn’t lack that extra oomph I’m craving, it could’ve been a 9. But I now have high hopes for the sequel, so let’s see where this strong if not somewhat flawed opening leads us.
Dune – Score: 8/10
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