‘Dune’ Review — An Epic Sci-Fi Disappointment

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Dune Review

Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune has been called unadaptable. That hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to bring the influential sci-fi novel to the screen. Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to bring it the screen in the ‘70s, though it fell through. David Lynch adapted the novel to the screen in 1984, though it was an infamous critical and commercial flop. Then there was the 2000 miniseries that was on the Sci-Fi Channel (before it was SyFy). The allure of the spice is too much for ambitious filmmakers to ignore, and now Denis Villeneuve takes his crack Frank Herbert’s epic. The resulting Dune (subtitled in the opening as Part One) is half of a movie, a sci-fi epic that is fundamentally incomplete. The reality is that Denis Villeneuve has confirmed what we all suspected – Dune is unadaptable. Dune isn’t a disaster, but it is a bloated, icy work that is nigh impossible to connect with on an emotional or intellectual level.

The first problem facing anyone adapting Dune is trying to cram its vast and dense mythology into an easily digestible package. That’s simply to grand of a task for the screenwriting team of Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth. The events of Dune mostly take place on the desert planet of Arrakis, a nearly inhospitable world where a mystical drug known as spice is mined and refined. Spice production has been overseen by House Harkonnen, led by the bloated villainous creature Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). The Harkonnen spice operation has had them in protracted war with the natives of Arrakis known as the Fremen, who see the spice as a religious sacrament and want to expel those that seek to ravage the resources of their home world.

When the Harkonnen leave the spice operation on Arrakis, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is assigned by the Emperor (an unseen intergalactic ruler) to take over the spice mining operations on Arrakis. Soon, Leto Atreides will take his wife Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) along with trusted confidants and servants Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) to the desert planet. For Duke Leto Atreides, taking over the spice mining on Arrakis is a task fraught with danger. Not only does he have to try and make some kind of peace arrangement with the native Fremen, there’s also plenty of opportunities for subterfuge from the shadowy enemies of House Atreides, including Baron Harkonnen’s ruthless minions like Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista). But young Paul Atreides has attributes that no one else in the universe possesses, due to his connection to the mystical psychics known as the Bene Gesserit through his mother. He has dreams that show him the future, including a mysterious young Fremen woman named Chani (Zendaya). But soon, a betrayal will rock House Atreides to its core and will change the landscape of Arrakis forever.

If the plot summary provided seems like it’s a bit much, well, it’s because it is. The vastness of Dune can seem intimidating because its dealing with so many characters and their own little subcultures, and Villeneuve seems to be so enamored with the intricacies of this world that he makes no effort to rein it in just a little. The result is a movie that is simultaneously overstuffed and incomplete. There’s little brevity to be found in Dune, as its teeming with scene after scene of expository dialogue that tries to make sense of everything but is lacking anything to propel the plot forward in a compelling way. A lot occurs in Dune but little grabs the attention of the viewer as everything is just dragged out due to some glacial pacing that wears on the viewer’s patience.

While Dune is effectively the hero’s journey of young Paul Atreides, the film is just such an overstuffed prologue that the character feels more like a passenger than a protagonist. Timothée Chalamet is one of the most captivating young actors working today and yet his work here feels practically pedestrian. Perhaps Chalamet is incapable of presenting the inner turmoil of his character because there wasn’t much written for him, but Chalamet is just the most noticeable of the film’s highly capable cast sold short by a script that is dedicated more to the minutiae of mythology than presenting captivating characters. It’s a real problem for the movie as you sit through two and half hours of sci-fi lore and walk out with little connection to any of the characters, but especially the story’s more important Fremen characters, including Javier Bardem’s Fremen leader Stilgar and Zendaya’s Chani. The Oscar-winning Bardem gets a handful of lines in his two scenes. Worse, though, is that Zendaya’s Chani isn’t even presented as a character. Most of her screentime in the film are as a part of Paul’s prophetic visions, meaning the character isn’t properly introduced until just before the conclusion. Villeneuve is trying to telegraph through these dreams that Chani is an important character. How important? Well, you’re going to have to wait until Dune: Part Two, if it’s ever made.

It’s hard to think of a better example of Dune’s failures to be captivating on a sheer visceral level than the film’s use of the infamous sandworms. Here are these vast, deadly creatures that can consume massive pieces of machinery in a single gulp. But Villeneuve is either incapable or uninterested in creating any tension throughout Dune. It’s due in part to the film’s languid pacing, the director would rather drag out scenes than speed them up to give them even just the slightest bit of immediacy.

Not everything about Dune is bad. For one thing, the film definitely has a look. The costume and set designs are nothing short of incredible. Each location has its own unique look and feel, and the vast amounts of CGI employed in the film is tiers above the standard Hollywood blockbuster. Cinematographer Greig Fraser captures the immense scale of the worlds that Villeneuve has brought to life, and his keen eye ensures that the film is always presenting something eye-catching.

After sitting though two and half hours of tediously paced sci-fi mythology, Dune ends with a line that made my blood boil – “This is only the beginning.” Then what in the hell did I just spend two and half hours sitting through? Normally I’d have no problem with an ambitious Hollywood blockbuster just setting hundreds of millions of dollars aflame to make some off-putting sci-fi epic. But I was incapable of connecting to Dune. In the end, it represents just another average Hollywood tentpole, purposefully incomplete to tease to the next massive installment. This isn’t a gripping politically charged sci-fi allegory about imperialism. It’s the longest teaser for a sequel in movie history.

Dune
  • Overall Score
2.5

Summary

Overstuffed and incomplete, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune isn’t quite a disaster nor is it a good movie as it’s much more devoted to honoring Frank Herbert’s vast mythology with grand visuals than delivering a complete story with compelling characters.

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