Based on Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a veritable sci-fi epic that can’t quite engage. The film follows the noble Paul Atreides as his family relocates to Arrakis, a planet rich in spice, the galaxy’s most valuable resource. The mining operations on Arrakis have long been overseen by the brutal House Harkonnen, but the Emperor reassigns such responsibilities to House Atreides due to Harkonnen’s constant strife with the planet’s native Freman people. Also found: space religion, soothsaying, magic pain boxes, floaty-slug-man, giant worms, and more. Dune is incredibly dense with lore, some of which is conveyed intelligibly, though one who has read the novel likely has the upper hand. Not quite impenetrable, the film’s intricate political relationships and religious mysticism can be followed by a novice such as myself, but they best pay attention.
Villeneuve is unquestionably one of the most talented living directors, known for his ability to bring great scope and beauty to rich stories in films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. While not quite as stimulating as his latter two offerings, Villeneuve’s signature eye for grandeur is on full display in Dune. An immaculate visual feast, Dune is rife with cinematographic beauty and jaw-dropping visual effects. The conjunctional use of astonishing practical locations adds verisimilitude to immense spectacle. Unfortunately, the story encapsulated by such exquisite craft is often as dry as the sands of Arrakis.
The opening title card ensures viewers that this film is only “Part One” of the story. That’s well and good, but for a two-and-a-half-hour movie, Dune leisurely sets up a surplus of ideas that are ultimately left unresolved and underexplored by the time the credits roll. Its involved story is hampered by copious exposition. While necessary, such a need for extensive explanations distracts from its plethora of characters, resulting in a muddled dramatic experience. The central Atreidies family consists of Paul (Timothée Chalamet), his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Their family dynamics were intriguing yet confusing. Jessica is the Duke’s concubine who has strong ties to the Bene Gesserit, a little-explored organization of politically influential… witches? She and Leto row about how much exposure Paul should have to this institution as their family enters a turbulent period. Isaac’s is the film’s standout performance, even though he feels miscast. I don’t quite buy him as a father to Timothee Chalamet, but his portrayal of the benevolent and wise ruler is charming and endearing, attributes that are not applicable to all the film’s leads. His drive to protect his son and struggle to establish operations on Arrakis are character motivations far more compelling than most others in the film. He is ultimately sidelined in favor of his progeny as the story shifts to Paul’s journey for survival in the throes of a violent political conflict. The film is so bogged down by its own complexity that when it comes time to truly focus on its protagonist, I felt little attachment to him. Paul is doubtlessly the main character, but in a film that dillies and dallies across an entire galaxy, I had no connection to this boy whose life I was meant to fear for.
Stunning to behold yet requiring patience, Dune is a unique accomplishment that amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Dune can’t strike a balance between explaining its story and telling it. While the drama may falter, there are exhilarating action set-pieces, bolstered by a unique score from Hans Zimmer. I enjoyed the film for its mind-boggling spectacle alone, but didn’t find myself particularly invested in much else. Dune is an impressive adaptation of beloved source material, though it fails to effectively tell the story to fresh eyes. I’m interested to see what Villeneuve will do with the next chapter of the story, but for now, I am left underwhelmed by his first foray onto Arrakis.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune hit theaters on October 22, and viewers, including me, had mixed feelings about it. First of all, nothing is explained. The setting is a diverse world, with multiple Houses or races, multiple planets, and an interesting plot line revolving around the harvesting of ‘Spice’, an entheogen that is also used as fuel for space travel. Although the world and its people are fascinating and original, these qualities are the very reason why a thorough explanation of the entire world is needed. For most of the film, the viewer sees only parts of the world that are not expounded until halfway through the movie.
For example, in one of the opening scenes, the main character, Paul, is eating with his mother. His mother tells him to use ‘The Voice,’ a concept which only viewers who have read the books are familiar with. After a few shots of inanimate objects paired with suspenseful music, a demonic voice suddenly erupts out of Paul, which definitely scared me! Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, refers to ‘The Voice’ as a ‘Bene Gesserit skill.’ The Bene Gesserit come into the movie later, and it is clear that they are some sort of witches. However, how their government functions, who exactly they are loyal to and why, how and why Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, and many more questions remain partially or completely unanswered. The lack of explanation of these compelling but complex aspects of Dune’s world results in viewers having trouble keeping up with the movie, thus contributing to a not so enjoyable experience.
However, there are some redeeming qualities. First of all, Zendaya is in it. Secondly, some of the camera angles and shots are well done. For example, they often zoom in on one object, which is usually a dying person, and in the background a blurry figure is doing some sort of important action. This shot both evokes an emotional reaction from the viewer as a result of seeing a person in pain, and it also creates a sense of unease and creepiness, because the background figure is usually a villain doing something sinister.
Although Dune has many, many flaws, it’s still an interesting and artistically well-made movie, one that you and your family can enjoy—even if only by laughing at it.