Does Dune bite off more than it can chew?
Dune is the most ambitious and most disappointing movie of the year so far. Director Denis Villeneuve has delivered masterpiece after masterpiece for the last decade, and when combined with an elite crew and an almost insultingly talented cast, it seemed like this had the chance to become truly groundbreaking cinema. However, despite a very tangible earnestness from everyone involved, I think this one missed the mark.
From the outset I should say that I haven’t read the books, and I tried watching the 1984 film, but found it nigh-incomprehensible and close to unwatchable. I feel this is important to mention when we’re dealing with sci-fi as dense as Dune. I suspect a majority of viewers will be going into it completely blind, given the sci-fi novel’s niche audience and the terrible reputation of the first film attempt.
So when I say that, going into the film knowing slightly more than the average moviegoer, I just barely understood what the hell everyone was talking about, you know where I’m coming from. I feel a subtitled version to clarify some of the non-English words being spoken would have made it easier to parse, and yes, I do appreciate the irony of saying that about a book adaptation. I can’t decide if it’s a strength of the film that it made me really want to read the book, or if it highlights how insufficient the film is.
I have to question the decision to have half the lines delivered in a whisper when the dialogue is chock-full of unfamiliar terms and buried under a wailing Hans Zimmer soundtrack. It was like being back listening to Tenet’s unintelligible script again. Even the famous “fear is the mind-killer” speech, spoken twice in this version, is barely audible each time. Credit is due to all the actors, especially Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac, as even when I didn’t understand the specifics of what they were talking about, their reactions clearly communicated how I was supposed to feel about it.
Still, most of the movie is exposition and it’s exhausting. Sometimes it comes as bluntly as a robot reading out the Wikipedia page for a culture; sometimes it comes more subtly through conversation. If two hours of explanations delivered as efficiently as they can be don’t fully clear up what’s going on, it might be worth reconsidering if your movie should even be made.
One thing no one can dispute is the visual beauty of Dune. Villeneuve brings to bear everything he’d previously put on display in Blade Runner 2049. Everyone in the production brought their A game and raised the bar for visionary sci-fi: the effects are flawless, the costumes and props are immaculate, and the sets are majestic. The worms in particular were spectacular every time they were on screen. Everything comes together in these scenes to make for the most magical cinema experience I’ve had since before the pandemic.
On a personal note, I have to say that it gave me eerie flashbacks to the prologue of Man Of Steel (go back and have a look, I’m not mad), but I don’t feel like I can hold Dune accountable for that.
A multitude of characters drop in and out of the film, all with complicated names and very little personality beyond their typecast roles (Jason Momoa is just Aquaman again, bless him). The biggest disappointment has to be Zendaya’s Chani, who only enters the picture outside of visions in the last ten minutes of the film, with a scant few lines of dialogue. I know she’ll be more prominent in the sequel, but given her prominence in the marketing, this feels like a bit of a let-down.
This is emblematic of a wider problem: Dune feels like half a story because it is. In an attempt to cover the heaps of source material, they’ve cut the story in half, which might seem a wise move, especially looking at how the Lynch version turned out. But I don’t consider this a necessary evil, because the events they choose to end the film on had the potential to be thrilling – and yet, they’re more bland and lacking in stakes than anything else that came before. Everything is a walk in the park that feels more like obligatory points on a line rather than decisions being made by characters with agency, who then have to suffer the consequences. Arcs were not rewritten or re-paced to better suit the half-story being told, so threads are wrapped up too soon or not at all.
At the time of writing this article, Dune Part Two has been written and planned but hasn’t yet been greenlit, a decision pending box office numbers, which themselves are in jeopardy thanks to a combined release on HBO Max. Visions of the future pepper the movie, full of exciting, momentous battles and shocking betrayals, none of which come to pass by the time the movie ends. The whole thing reeks of a JJ Abrams ‘mystery box’, enticing you with question after question, but ultimately revealing itself to be hollow at its core, a space to be filled in later by the money from your sequel ticket.
That’s what this movie is: hollow. All of the apparent strengths amount to one big glaring weakness – it oozes competence, but all that talent pools up around the movie and fails to take on the shape of a complete whole. I’d hesitate to call something so polished a waste of time, knowing that the story has every chance of being completed. But at the end of the day, the Dune we received this year made me feel next to nothing besides fleeting glimmers of awe. It leaves behind more of a feeling of petite mort than anything, though without even the temporary thrill of a climax.The visual spectacle is beyond compare, but at least for me, all of the splendour in the world can’t make up for a blandly-told story. Villeneuve clearly set out to make a sci-fi epic somewhere between Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he ended up making Avatar.