You might get the sense, from the title of this review, that I didn’t love Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi novel. This is not the case, at least not entirely.
There are things I loved about the film, for sure. But there’s also a lot that I struggled with, not least the fact that I found it hard to care about the fate of the characters, particularly our ‘hero’, of sorts, Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalamet. This is through no fault of Timmy in terms of his performance. I think he did well, essentially playing a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood, a boy with a lot resting on his shoulders: fate, destiny, all that good stuff.
It’s just that the movie (and by movie, I mean the filmmakers and in particular the director, Villeneuve) seemed obsessed with lingering shots of the landscape, and also Chani (played by Zendaya), who appears in what I imagine were at least 20 dream sequences. All accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s ominous score… DARRGH, DURRR, DUH, DUUUUUUAAARGH. (Hans, if you need tips, I’m available).
The fact that this film was, for much of its run time, slow and ponderous and slightly full of itself, shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. It’s a Denis Villeneuve movie, what did I expect? Well, I loved Arrival (2016). I guess I expected a similar sci-fi story — one that kept me gripped throughout, in terms of story and character.
With Dune (2021) I felt like I’d seen this sort of thing before, just done in a more compelling way. Not visually, I should say. In terms of visuals it looked stunning. But with story and character, however, I found it sparse. Indeed, I’ve seen warring families of great houses done better in Game of Thrones. And yes, I get that was a TV show and that their approach (at least until the final season) was character-driven and followed the books. They had ample time to introduce us to everything. With a movie you only have a short window in which you can set up your world and characters before you get into meat of the story.
Though if we’re going the movie route, let’s consider other epic adaptations: The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001) was a sprawling fantasy, it had an impressive level of world building and introduced us to a stack of characters and made us care about their fates quite quickly. There was also a clear goal (first, get to Rivendell, then take the ring to Mordor).
With Dune I’m not quite sure what the goal was half the time. Simply staying alive? Something to do with spice and the Fremen? Paul discovering his destiny? Becoming head of the family? Was this a sci-fi version of The Godfather? No wait, I’ve got it. It was to ride a sandworm, wasn’t it?
Beyond the Screenplay do a great podcast where they break down this movie. At first I thought they were going to wax lyrical, like many excited critics, filmmakers and fans have already done, but then they got into their discussion and had some great critical points to make. One of which was that Paul is not hugely active as our protagonist. Things just happen to him, rather than him actively making choices. The other issue they brought up, which I agree with and is one that many others have commented on, is that this feels like an incomplete story.
It wasn’t in the marketing material, but when you sit down to watch the movie it says ‘Part One’ in the opening credits, which suggests a Part Two (now greenlit). So if we’re assuming this will be a two-parter and not a trilogy, then this is the first half of a single story. Now it may be the case that Part Two is more character focused, and in fact adds more depth to Part One. Or we may just get more of Villeneuve’s self-indulgence when it comes to the score and shots of the landscape. DUUUURGH! As you can perhaps guess, I’m praying for the former not the latter, but I guess we’ll have to see.
So overall I had mixed feelings about this movie. I liked the performances (particularly Rebecca Ferguson) and I liked the use of sound (less the Hans Zimmer score and more the sound design, like the use of ‘the voice’ to control people). I liked the visuals, from the costumes to the space ships and yet… I found it hard to love this movie from an emotional point of view. There wasn’t a lot I could grab onto in that regard. I’ll see Part Two because I’m curious. But that’s as excited as I’ll get at this stage.