I was looking forward to the new live action adaptation of “Dune” for a while, mostly because I’m a huge science fiction fan, and “Dune” seemed like it was offering a new experience I haven’t seen before. Having not read the book or seen the 1984 film, I came into this completely blind.
“Dune” takes place in 10191 in which Duke Leto I (Oscar Isaacs) of the House Atreides, ruler of the oceanic planet Caladan, is charged by the interstellar government’s emperor to oversee spice production on the desert planet Arrakis. Spice is a precious substance that acts as both a hallucinogen, a life-extending drug, and a key ingredient necessary for space travel, making it the most valuable commodity in the galaxy. Arakkis had previously been occupied by the brutal regime of House Harkonnen, who ruled Arrakis with an iron fist, committing many atrocities to the planet’s native population, the Fremen. The Harkonnens left reluctantly on order of the emperor, but they sabotaged the spice refineries at the city of Arrakeen the Atreides need to financially stay afloat on Arrakis before leaving.
The Duke has a keen plan to befriend the Fremen, admiring their mastery of the desert and its many dangers, of which his son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is supposed to serve a passive role during, until he is ready to take his father’s place. However, not all goes as planned, as they soon realize that the Emperor’s gift of Arrakis wasn’t a gift at all, but a burden meant to make the Atreides vulnerable to attack from the Harkonnens.
That’s all the plot I’m going to give away, as I genuinely don’t know what constitutes a spoiler for this film. “Dune” doesn’t necessarily adhere to the traditional three-act storytelling structure — it reminds me of the structure of “The Last Jedi” more than anything — but it is clear that this is meant to be Part 1 of a multi-part story I’m not sure we’re going to get to see a Part 2 to, given how much money the film’s studio has put into it and the overall diminished state of the box office. As such, the film doesn’t come to a natural close — it kind of just ends, leaving the audience hanging.
However it does have many positives. It’s an absolutely gorgeous looking film, with plenty of beautiful wide shots of the alien landscape of Arrakis, the world’s internal politics are interesting when the film is not over-explaining them, and I love how the film manages to maintain this distinct alien feeling throughout that makes it stand out from other sci-fi movies. And it has a pretty great cast of characters, including Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul’s mom; Atreides swordsmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa); Atreides weapon master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin); Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), head of the Harkonnens, and his nephew, Glossu Rabba (Dave Bautista); Chani (Zendaya) a young Fremen woman Paul has visions about; and Stilgar (Javier Bardem) a Fremen tribe leader.
And the film does have unique alien technology that looks pretty good on the big screen. I know that this film is available on HBO Max, but this really is a film you have to see in theaters to properly enjoy.
With all that being said, it is a lot to get used to, and the film’s over-two hour run time really does hit you like a brick — I got a headache watching this film. I think this is mostly because the film was not economical in its story telling — its first half really drags, and the film has an innate need to tell but not always show us things about its universe. I would argue that we don’t need to see anything before the main characters arrive on Arrakis — the film could have started on the desert planet with nothing lost. All the time spent before we land on Arrakis just communicates that the Harkonnens used to be there, Arrakis is a dangerous place you have to prepare for, spice production is very important, and the Fremen are very clever and know how to survive in the vast desert world.
I would also argue that the cast could have been slimmed down a lot — I get this is an epic story, but we meet so many characters who are just hacked down in this film that don’t justify the screen time they take up. There are certainly ways that characters who perish on the first leg of an epic can make an impact — Boromir from “The Fellowship of the Ring” is a great example — but it’s really hard to have five Boromirs before your story starts to feel repetitive.
I’m really torn on this film. There are several sequences that are done very very well, such as the Harkonnens’ attack on Arrakeen, Paul’s daring escape into a sandstorm, and several great sequences where Paul and his mother traverse the desert, but I just feel like the film is long-winded in a bad way, feeling the need to spell out a lot of sci-fi concepts that are easy for modern audiences to pick up.
I really hope we get to see the second part of this story, because this film has done fantastic leg work for a franchise I think I can fall in love with, but this movie unfortunately does not stand on its own as a finished narrative. “Dune” (2021) has a treasure trove of characters, dream sequences, sweeping visual shots, and exposition, but it doesn’t use its run time well to tell a complete story with developed characters that general audiences can get behind.
“Dune” has a lot of fantastic individual parts, I just don’t think it adds up to a satisfying whole. This film mostly serves as a means to set up the next one, which is a dangerous gamble especially during COVID-19, where many other studio films have struggled to crack $500 million at the box office.
“Dune ” (2021) gets a 6.5/10