Let me be upfront, prior to seeing Dune (2021) I had never read the books or watched the 1984 film, I went in completely blind. That said when this film was over I was a newly converted fan! Quick warning there will be “light spoilers” ahead, you have been warned.
Now when I say that Dune is the thinking man’s Lord of the Rings, I don’t mean to rile anyone up. I’m trying to make two points. Dune is receiving mixed reactions not only in reviews but also in my very own social media timelines. I see a mixture of praise and disappointment for this flick, and it is all justified.
First point: People forget that when The Fellowship Of The Ring first came out only diehard Tolkien fans loved it. It wasn’t until at least The Two Towers that LotR fever caught on. I see a lot of people saying that Dune (2021) is boring, long-winded, and drab. The only people who are ardent fans of Dune who see what is coming are defending it, and fewer people (such as myself) who have no attachment to the intellectual property see the potential that is there for what could very well be this generation’s LotR. Both franchises are adaptations of older books, and both had an earlier film adaptation that were considered cult classics.
Second Point: Dune is full of politics. It presents politics to the audience overtly and covertly. Overtly in the feud between noble houses Atreides and Harkonnen as they maneuver political machinations for their own survival while still trying to present a legitimate front to the emperor. Covertly in that the film draws parallels between the valuable “spice” and real-world oil, and the desert planet’s indigenous population of “fremen” and the real life middle east.
Spice is needed for interstellar travel and can only be obtained on the planet of Arrakis/Dune. The Fremen are treated as lesser by the Harkonnens and killed without remorse, while Atreides wishes to form a peaceful relationship, or better known as “winning hearts and minds”.
The one thing every person I know who has walked away from the film with, whether they disliked it or loved it, agreed that this is a terrifically shot piece of art! For a movie with so much browns and greys it looks absolutely beautiful. Denis Villeneuve, the film’s director, is known for having fantastic cinematography in every single one of his works. Arrival (2016), Bladerunner 2049 (2017), and this film all use silhouettes against dramatic backdrops to great effect.
Not just the silhouettes, but there are several moments throughout the film where the audience gets a feeling for the massive scale of how grandiose everything in this universe is. Whether its the massive battleships that make their presence known later in the movie, or the gargantuan sandworms that everyone fears. The world of Dune feels massive, lived in, and majestic! There is so much spectacle in every set piece in this film.
This is as sci-fi as it can possibly get! The energy shields everyone uses, the hunter-killer assassination darts, the dragonfly looking ornithopter vehicles, the costume designs, the variety in planets, etc. It is all such a visual treat even when all we see is a barren desert or empty throne rooms with minimalistic design.
The sheer amount of world-building that we are treated to is massive, and I appreciate that. It reminds me of one of my favorite films, Inception, where we are introduced to the science, lore, and rules of this universe and that’s what justifies the long runtime of the film. And while it is a lot of exposition up front, it felt appropriate and timely. The things we are told or shown happen precisely when we need to know about them.
The story of Dune is a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and a lot of real world politics against a vast and empty but beautiful backdrop. You care for the plight of House Atreides and by the end of the film you are fully invested in seeing just how the protagonist, Paul Atreides, will survive the political and literal landscape of Arrakis!
Villeneuve was presented with a unique challenge, to condense as much of Dune’s story into a presentable film adaptation. Some moviegoers were surprised when the words “part one” appeared on the screen during the film’s opening. Very little was advertised to the average moviegoer that this would be a film without a conclusive ending. That said, the film manages to jam a lot in its opening hour and it goes by quickly. A lot of jargon and strange words are thrown quickly at the audience. Villeneuve does not really hold the audience’s hand and assumes you are smart enough to quickly capture what is unfolding on the screen. Unfortunately this can lead the audience feeling lost and confused as there are several “cough-and-you’ll-miss-it” moments of dialogue.
I watched the film twice at home through HBO Max (despite the director pleading us to watch it in theaters), where I had the luxury of subtitles and being able to rewind at my whim, of which I would have been lost without. The movie is very bass-heavy at times, and the audio sometimes drowns out the dialogue, which only further adds to the audience’s confusion.
Despite the ensemble cast of the likes of Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin, the acting feels very stiff. Either intentionally or unintentionally a lot of the line delivery is very dry and emotionless. There are a handful of moments where the actors command attention (particularly halfway through the film) but otherwise it comes across as either very pompous or just stilted. Also, despite her heavy promotion in the film’s marketing, Zendaya is not nearly enough in this film, more than likely we will see more of her in the sequel.
For a movie this long there are a lot of moments of brooding and closeups that don’t add that much to the mood. Lastly the film is quite lengthy. In an age where most movies are under two hours to maximize theatre showings, Dune is a time commitment at 156 minutes (2 hours and a half). It’s a justified two and a half hours, but for some audiences this can be a bit grating. It’s a con for those that dislike it, and a pro for those who love it.
Dune (2021) is a visual feast that asks it’s audience to keep up with it’s brisk pace. The political intrigue and character motives will suck you in while the stiff acting will gradually push you back. Despite the issues I found with it, the film’s pros far outweigh the cons. Fortunately this film has been successful enough that as of writing Dune Part Two has officially been announced and we will be able to see the promising story fully unwind. There has been a lack of truly great sci-fi movies in recent years, and Dune goes beyond the line in the sand.
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