2020s, 3/4, Denis Villeneuve, Review, Science Fiction

Dune (2021)

Dune (2021)

Reminding me of the ending of The Fellowship of the Ring without the assured satisfaction that the next part is definitely coming, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One is a beautiful looking film that sets out to accomplish the impossible: telling the first half of a story. David Lynch managed an adaptation in the 80s that stuffed the whole plot of the book into a single two-hour and seventeen minute film, but Villeneuve has about two and a half hours to tell just the first half. The story has time to breathe now, and even though the film is largely setup without much of anything regarding payoff, it actually feels like a story being told rather than a series of events.

I still hold the belief that one could adapt Dune into a single two-hour film. It would just require the cutting of a lot of stuff while finding the core of the story and nurturing that first and foremost. Villeneuve and his writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth went the much more traditional route of an adaptation of trying to include as much as possible. Well, that’s not entirely true. They cut certain supporting characters like Feyd-Rautha and the Princess Irulan completely, characters who do have some limited presence in the first half of the book itself. That is not to say that there is no core to this telling, and I think the core is right.

I’ve always maintained that the core of Frank Herbert’s Dune was Paul’s journey from boy to man to king to godhead, and that is the center of everything in Villeneuve’s adaptation, mostly revolving around the relationship between Paul and his mother the Lady Jessica. Sent into what everyone in House Atreides knows is a trap, Jessica has to build off of what the Bene Gesserit sisterhood had established on the planet, the idea that the Fremen savior was coming. Jessica knows that for her survival as well as that of her son, they are going to need to play into these superstitions. This is established early, and the evolution of the idea is how the film ends, providing something like an arc for Paul, though it remains truncated.

Around this is as much detail as can be stuffed into this movie, but Villeneuve’s steady hand along with the healthy runtime never makes the film feel overstuffed. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels like we’re getting too much information. In terms of the extra detail brought in, I think my favorite is the focus on Leto’s father and his death at the hands of a bull. Excised from every adaptation up to this point, it provides a sense of familial history about the dangers of taking unnecessary risks that helps color the family’s move to Arrakis. There’s also more attention paid to Duncan Idaho, the Atreides man sent to Arrakis first to make contact with the Fremen (which makes sense if the plan is to extend the films into a franchise where Jason Mamoa will pretty much become one of the most important stars in later installments).

One of the things I love most about the film is its design and sense of scale. I think I would prefer Jodorowsky’s more colorful variations on designs in the end, but the embrace of curves and impractical shapes for flying machines is a refreshing take on science fiction technology. The idea that a civilization tens of thousands of years in the future is no longer bound by how we move objects through space is nice, and the ovals, squares, and flapping wings of the ornithopters (finally realized in film properly) is all fun to look at. The different planets all have distinct looks that easily place the audience. Caladan is green and blue. Geidi Prime is black and gray. Arrakis is orange and white.

In terms of the actual story, I’m not going to run through it. I will note some things, though. The relationships between the core three characters of Paul, Jessica, and Leto is strongly handled. Jessica obviously loves her son, and Rebecca Ferguson is a standout in the film for her performance, bringing both feminine strength and emotional openness to a well-written character. Oscar Isaac is strong, reserved, and fatherly as Leto, pushing his son to be as good a man as he can be, but also worrying for his safety in the face of danger. As the lead, Timothee Chalamet is fine. He’s at a bit of a disadvantage because the central arc of the story is his, but it doesn’t follow through. He starts the film as an eager, confused young man, and by the end he has to step into his own, moving beyond the objectives of his mother. He spends most of the movie quietly taking in the world and changes around him, but he does get some moments to shine. The supporting cast is mostly very good, my favorite probably being Javier Bardem as Stilgar. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is largely a non-entity as Liet, though. I imagine someone with gravitas holding the role again (like Max Von Sydow in Lynch’s film), especially with Liet’s expanded role in this film, and those scenes could just end up working better.

In terms of some of the more fantastical aspects of the film, I think the film really captured some sense of otherworldliness that helps sell the universe. The Voice used by the Bene Gesserit is guttural and primal, and the way we see it through Paul’s eyes gives it a dangerous factor as Paul loses even basic consciousness of what’s happening. The visions, though, are something I really like. Visions and prophesies in stories are usually pretty mundane, straightforward, and entirely accurate predictions of what is to come. The visions here have some kind of tangential relationship to reality, most exemplified by Paul’s vision of Jamis. In the vision, Jamis is a kindly and helpful Fremen, offering assistance to teach Paul the ways of the desert. Well, in reality, Jamis isn’t helpful at all, but he does teach Paul the ways of the desert. It’s a very interesting use of the concept.

I was loving the movie at about the halfway point, but by the end my reaction was more muted. I think there are two main reasons for it. The first is Yueh. He’s a linchpin on which the whole movie operates, and he’s barely present, relegated to a plot point and not much else. In a large film like this, downgrading Yueh may be necessary, but it makes the key actions feel kind of out of nowhere which is not great for such a large change in direction for the movie’s story. The other is the film’s structure. As just the first half, we’re left with the movie pretty much just stopping after the movie quiets down for a bit and we get one small spate of violence to end the film. It resolves nothing. Everything that’s been planted in the first two hours go unexplored. The Fellowship of the Ring had a similar issue, but it felt like the end of a beginning. Dune just feels like it stops in the middle of a scene, more like the end of The Desolation of Smaug.

Overall, I had a good time with the film. It’s got great design, a wonderful sense of scale, good performances, and interesting looks at the world all while circling the central idea of Paul’s journey. It’s hampered by some stuff here and there, but not enough to completely demean the film.

EDIT: Just an added thought that I had leaving the theater but forgot to originally include: Hans Zimmer’s score is borderline embarrassing. It’s 90% just noise. Zimmer can be very good. He obviously knows music, but whenever he’s given carte blanche he goes extremely experimental and produces stuff that could be generously called interesting noise. This is that.

Rating: 3/4

17 thoughts on “Dune (2021)”

  1. I have thoughts. I won’t re-state what I’ve already written but I do want to respond to a few things.

    Dune, the novel, was always two stories. There’s the A plot and the B plot in each as well. The first half of Dune was about coming to Arrakis. The A plot is focused around the politics and personalities of this move: Atreides vs Harkonen. The B plot is focused around Paul. Who is he, why do powerful forces want him dead or controlled.
    The second half of Dune switches the focus. The B plot, Paul, becomes the A plot as he is forced to become a man, a Fremen, a husband, a lover, a warrior, a Duke and possibly a messiah. The A plot of the first half becomes the B plot of the second half, as the Harkonen try to retake their fief in the face of an uprising and galactic politics take a back seat.

    This is why I consider this version of Dune to be a failure. It fails to tell the story of Paul and it fails to tell the story of the Atreides vs Harkonen. The protagonist of this movie should have been Leto. His betrayal and death should have been the epic climax and cliffhanger of the film. Paul should be the focus of plots and concerns, we shouldn’t be spending too much time on him in this film, he’s the B plot and will only become the focus in the second film/second half.

    I thought Timmy was too emotionally detached. He barely cares about his mother, his father, his house and vassals. The only time he lights up, as an actor or character, is when Momoa is on screen with him. I thought Rebecca Ferguson was not very good, she was neither Bene Gesserit, nor mother, nor consort convincingly.

    Denis squandered his run time, frankly. It wouldn’t have taken too many screen minutes to give us moments like we had in the 1984 film to show us Jessica and Yueh, or Jessica and Thufir, or Thufir and Yueh.

    I don’t hate the film and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen. But it failed.

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    1. I don’t think the film is flawless, obviously. I agree with the thinness of someone like Yueh, but I think your reaction may be more about you being too close to the material. The book is important to you, more important than to me it seems (I’ve read it three or four times over the years, but never poured over it line by line), and you have an extremely specific picture in your mind about what needs to be in the film version. It seems more like a critique of adaptation choices rather than how it works as a film. Where does one critique start and the other end? It’s mushy, but I think there’s a distinction.

      Going your route of making Leto the protagonist of a first part would, I think, be a very valid way of moving forward with an adaptation that would more accurately preserve the larger world mechanics that Paul isn’t really a part of until the latter parts of the story.

      However, since that’s not the tact that Villeneuve and his screenwriters took, how do they do with what they did try to focus on? I see it, as I wrote, about that personal journey for Paul. In that case, then a lot of the political stuff becomes background.

      The movie could have used more of the political stuff (the absence of the dialogue about vendetta seems particularly large in my mind), but ultimately it’s detail that I don’t see many complaints from people who don’t know the book thinking that this stuff doesn’t make sense. Yes, there are instances of dialogue covering motivations, but it’s not nearly as bad as what happens in Lynch’s version where he admits that whole scenes were whittled down to single lines. I’ve seen far more people unfamiliar with the book call Lynch’s version incomprehensible than Villeneuve’s version.

      No, it’s definitely not any kind of perfect adaptation or filmed version of the book, but I think it succeeds in a strong way with its focus on Paul and Jessica.

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      1. I tried hard not to compare the 2021 movie to the book. Maybe I didn’t succeed either, there :). Books are books, movies are movies and they have different needs. But storytelling is largely the same between the two art forms, I feel.

        I still don’t think they succeeded in their attempt to make the first movie all about Paul, either. We don’t get enough about who he is, his abilities, his affections, fears. Timmy’s performance is too cold and aloof, I’m afraid.

        And Jessica…whew. Yeah, she didn’t work. She has one good scene with the Shadout Mapes, but she is too weepy and emotional to be a Bene Gesserit….though I suppose if you knew nothing of the books or movies that wouldn’t occur. She didn’t feel maternal to me. Timmy didn’t feel like her son. Neither of them seemed to mourn Leto’s death, especially compared to Kyle and Franchesca’s performance in Lynch’s version.

        I have critique the adaptation choices. Denis chose visuals over storytelling. I think that’s a mistake. I guess we will see.

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      2. Wish I could edit posts, I didn’t mean to imply you didn’t know anything about the Bene Gesserit. I was using the impartial ‘you’.

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      3. It’s fine. I got it was a general you.

        In terms of Ferguson’s performance, it seems like Villeneuve wanted her to be a mother first, especially in that scene with the Reverend Mother. Her worry for Paul, that she had sent him to his death was the point, and it points to the general distrust that the sisterhood had of Jessica after she had given into Leto’s wishes for a son rather than her command for daughters. Does that go against the written description of the emotional command of the Bene Gesserit? Yes, but I also think it humanizes her and helps sell the idea that Paul really could die. The rest of the time she’s with Paul, they’re pretty much on the run, so there’s not a lot of opportunity for her to act all matronly when her young adult son is becoming a man through a trial by fire. I think it works.

        I don’t think you really compared the two all that much, but you used pretty much identical phrasing to describe the plotting of the newer version that I had used for Lynch’s version. Probably more of a mental connection on my part than anything else.

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  2. I agree that Dune could be told in two hours. As I’ve said, the story is basically Robin Hood.

    The biggest problem with Lynch’s version was that it wasn’t a story that he originated (or sought out), and he didn’t quite grasp what was important and what wasn’t. All Herbert’s terminology that really should have been jettisoned, for example–would it have been so terrible to call it a poison dart rather than a “gom jabbar”?

    That said, I honestly don’t have much interest in seeing the new one. Hope it does well, but I’m happy enough with Lynch’s.

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    1. It’ll be sad if there’s no sequel. I’ve heard rumors of an announcement happening this week to help next weekend’s box office numbers. Villeneuve has said that he would be able to film in 2022 if greenlit soon, so I have my fingers crossed.

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      1. The studio did more or less say no part 2 unless this one has a big box office. Seems like that is happening. Also, if the viewer rating at IMDB is anything to go by, plus the number of votes (187k so far) word of mouth should be good, you’d think that’s good for it hanging in there for a while in the theaters. I haven’t see it yet, sometime in the next two weeks, this is one I want to see in a theater.

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      2. Yeah, box office is promising. Best BO for an HBO Max release helps. They’re also taking in HBO Max numbers as well. I’ve heard rumors of an announcement this week, so fingers crossed.

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  3. It seems not everyone has the exact reaction to things like music, if you can believer that. Zimmer did the same sort of thing in Blade Runner 2049 that he did in parts of Dune. I think it’s great, it’s different, I think of it more as sound design than a traditional score. Intended to create a certain mood or emotional tone, and it does that very well (for me).

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  4. PS. I saw the movie today, loved it, although I do agree with you that it loses a slight bit of momentum in the second half.

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  5. I’d say score one for Patrick, but that would be petty, plus I don’t even remember any of this, plus it’s art, all subjective, but anyway, along with someone getting belted, this award was handed out –

    Original Score

    WINNER: Dune

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