Dune (2021) – Review


A Dune remake has always been kicked around Hollywood for quite some time, with the projects falling in the hands of various writers and directors over the years who have expressed interest in the project. And there’s obviously been a long history of adapting Frank Herbert’s novel; there was the failed Darren Aronofsky film which has become such a myth and legend in the world of filmmaking that it even got its own documentary about how mad the film was going to be if it had actually happened. But there was, of course, the film made by David Lynch which, while an admirable attempt to cram the entire book into one film is at times a bit of a mess. Though, I actually fall into the camp of someone who likes the David Lynch film. And if you want to watch a video in defense of that film, might I recommend watching Mitch Benn’s ‘5 Reasons Why David Lynch’s Dune Is Great’ video on YouTube. It also was adapted into a sci-fi series in 2001 though I haven’t actually seen that one, but as I’ve heard from people that have watched the series, they haven’t been incredibly kind to it.

Now, I always thought doing a Dune movie was always going to be a tough challenge and in order to really nail it they would have to get the right director. Fortunately for Warner Bros, they got just the man: Denis Villeneuve. I reviewed two of his films for the site prior to this, his film Arrival which is still probably one of my favourite science-fiction films in recent memory, and Blade Runner: 2049 where he did something extraordinary by actually making a great sequel to Blade Runner. When I heard he was directing Dune, it was basically a guarantee to me that on some level this film was going to work. Villeneuve always has a way of creating his films in a way that makes you feel that there’s something ethereal going on, that there is a fascinating world beyond your comprehension and he’s only going to give you a snippet of it. We saw this with Arrival and, to a certain extent, with Blade Runner: 2049, and I was really hoping he’d bring it to Dune. The smart choice as well was to bring on Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts as well as split the book into two films, similar to how Stephen King’s IT was handled. The downside is that normally when these two-parters are created, they’re both filmed around the same time, hence why Stephen King’s IT had a very short gap between films, having part 1 come out in 2017 and part 2 come out in 2019. Dune on the other hand hasn’t even begun work on part 2, and in fact part 2 is not even confirmed; it’s going to rely really on the box office takings and the critical word-of-mouth of the first film, which means that if it doesn’t do well we might be getting part 1 with no part 2. Given all that, how do I feel Villeneuve’s approach to Dune was?

Now, you’re going to see a ton of reviews that will go very heavily into the philosophy of Dune and the very symbolic nature of all the events and the character motivations, and how it relates back to the book. I feel like you maybe could read the book prior to going to see this film but do not go and see the David Lynch film prior to this one if you haven’t seen it already—not only will it spoil several elements of this film, it’s going to spoil how the next one’s going to turn out in several ways. Though from what I gathered, as an adaptation of the book this film is a lot more loyal to its source material than David Lynch’s movie was. The big thing that Villeneuve gets thanks to the marvel that special effects now give us is the sense of scale of everything that the book implied. Dune as a book always had this sense of really building up these worlds with massive ships and buildings that were so indescribable that years ago you wouldn’t have been able to make these kinds of designs. For example, Frank Herbert and Hayao Miyazaki had very similar beliefs on how air transportation would work in a desolate environment where birds hadn’t been seen in centuries: Most air travel would be more based around insects, hence why the ships in this look like dragonflies. But one of the things I found interesting about the film is it also kind of gives a retro feel. While there is a bit of a modern feel to it, it almost seems like using modern graphics to imagine how the far-off future would look like from someone living in 1960s; there’s both a futuristic and a retro feel to it at the same time, certainly something I wasn’t expecting.

Both visually and audibly, this film is a marvel. Please, if you can safely, go and see this film in a cinema—this is something that was made to be seen on a big screen with a massive sound system, especially considering that Hans Zimmer’s score might be one of his best to date. I’ve never been a huge fan of Hans Zimmer but what he brings to this film is outstanding. His soundtrack really matches the setting, making the desert feel powerful as well as desolate, and the use of sound in this film in general is phenomenal. The very first instant we heard a booming voice directly talking to the audience, everyone in the cinema I was in went instantly silent; it captures your attention so instantaneously. The other effect that people have wanted to know about is the famous giant sand worms, and once again the film does this phenomenally. Some of the best sequences do a great job involving them, giving the amazing effect of the worms almost seeming as though they’re swallowing the desert itself. I won’t give away too much more but, believe me, it’s going to stick with you when you see it. It also does an interesting job with its core themes which is something I’m wondering how modern audiences will react to given the geo-political situation it is right now, especially as—again, with rather unfortunate timing—this is coming a few months after the US and UK withdraw from Afghanistan.

The basic premise of Dune is that it is a film that takes place 8,000 years from now, involving two rival families competing with each other for control over a planet whose indigenous population are being subjugated or belittled by either side because the mind-altering hallucinogenic substance which gives them their distinctive blue eyes is also the source that is essentially fuel for their transportation and stands to earn the current galactic empire a lot of money. The theme of the terror of colonialism is very front and centre, and this is not something that was added to the film before someone suggested it; Frank Herbert very much put that theme front and centre of his book, and it translates very well here. And one of the things I found interesting is that unlike David Lynch’s film, the very Islamic-inspired imagery that was detailed in the book is very present here. Despite the fact that Atreides House are treated as the good guys, this film does a better job than most of really conveying that while their intentions are very good-natured, they are still kind of selfish in their choices and are hiding behind the betterment of the galaxy and improving the land of Arrakis which is the home planet of the Fremen. But, at the end of the day, they’ve not asked for this and this is still an imperial power—even with good intentions—trampling on the right of an indigenous population. It is certainly something that is going to hit hard with audiences in 2021. Even the soundtrack kind of reflects that; there are a couple of tracks in this which definitely feel like they could easily be the backdrop for various countries that have largely Muslim populations.

Now, what I’ve said so far probably makes you think that I think this film is great. And to a certain extent, I’d say yes: imagery-wise and respecting its source material, it’s very good. However, I also think the latter is kind of where it falters a little bit. Let’s face it, Frank Herbert’s Dune has always been a difficult book to adapt—it is a very heavy read, and the film really reflects this. The film is 2 ½ hours long. Keep in mind, this is just supposed to be part 1. And to me, I think this film is a little too exposition-heavy; there are a lot of scenes with characters just explaining stuff. And when I was coming out of the film it didn’t feel as though people were excited; they looked almost exhausted. I also think this is the action-heavy film people are expecting it to be. I certainly noticed a few walk-outs during the screening when I went to see it, including the two morons who were sat a few seats away from me that left at about 30 minutes in. 30 minutes is not enough time to judge a film; stick around a bit longer before you make a judgement! But I must be honest, it did feel like a bit of a slog by the end as there was a lot of stuff to remember and a lot of things to take in, especially considering that a lot of the story is told through quite trippy imagery. Remember, this is about a hallucinogenic fuel source based on a story that was written in the sixties; I think you can get an idea where a lot of motivation for the imagery came from.

And I think a lot of big stars that people were expecting based on the trailer are not really in the film as much as you’d expect because it’s really a story about the main character Paul Atreides who’s the son of the Duke Atreides (played by Oscar Isaacs), coming into his own whilst being given visions of a girl in Arrakis (played by Zendaya) trying to guide him onto the path of his destiny. Just what it all means isn’t exactly entirely made clear and I think people will come out of this film a little confused. The basic plot is still there but it’s a lot to take in, and there are certain things that the book makes clear that you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t read it. For example, they only briefly show off the fact that calculations are now done by servants who are high on drugs and allow them to do said calculations. But it only happens once in the film, and you wouldn’t get the context that Dune is taking place years after a failed AI uprising, so as a result artificial intelligence is considered untrustworthy and therefore must not be used (hence why the calculations need to be done by humans on, essentially, intergalactic LSD).

Now, that would all be well and good but it does also feel like the film is sort of bouncing around from set piece to set piece with tons of storyline going on, and it can be quite difficult to piece it together. The two most constant cast members are Timothée Chalamet as Paul and Rebecca Ferguson as his mother, Lady Jessica, who is preparing him for the possibility that he could be a messiah to her home planet’s mind control religion. And even just saying some of the plot elements in this review, it is things that like which can give you a sense of what I’m on about—there’s a lot going on in the film, and it definitely feels like it clunkily gets through. I think people might also be a bit disappointed by the fact that most of the stars they were hoping to see are not in much of the film. Oscar Isaacs isn’t in as much as you’d expect, and Jason Momoa, despite being featured in a lot of the trailers, is in a lot less of this film than I’d expected. And Javier Bardem and Dave Bautista were also two actors I expected to be in the film a lot more than they were. However, the casting is excellent; everyone feels perfectly cast for their role. If I had to pick some standouts, I would say Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica is excellent and Stellan Skarsgård does a brilliant job bringing the Baron Harkonnen to life. This is a villain that this time gets a lot more dignity, and the prosthetics they’ve used to make him look like the character from the book are brilliant.

However, something I did dislike about the film was its use of lighting. While in daytime scenes it will look great, some of the scenes shot in dark environments are a bit too dark, like there were a few times when I was having to squint to really see what was happening. And it doesn’t help that the look at the worm we got in the trailer isn’t much better lit in the final film than it was in that trailer. There’s also the fact that when I went into this film, I knew I was only going to get half the story. But at the same time, I think it would be better to experience these films with a gap between them rather than try to watch it all in one go. I don’t think this is going to be a Lord of The Rings situation where you can make an event out of it when all of the films are out.

Dune is a very ambitious film by Denis Villeneuve and succeeds for the most part, though it’s also bogged down by the fact it’s a little too long and a little too exposition-heavy as a way to make sure the film is respectful to its source material. However, the cast is really well-cast, the acting is great, and the cinematography is phenomenal. And for those reasons, I would really recommend seeing this, just know what you’re getting into prior to seeing it. And I would stress by all means to read the book but I would also say, if you’re going to see the David Lynch film, it’s not the best way to experience the story. In fact, I’d actually argue you’d be better off holding off on the Lynch film until part 2 comes out. While I’m not entirely sold by Dune, —I think a couple bits of it are underwhelming and, in trying to adapt its story well, it’s a bit too slow at times—it at least feels like a passion project rather than just trying to cash in on nostalgia or the David Lynch movie.
Calvin – Nerd Consultant

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