Monday 18 October 2021

Dune (Movie Review)

Rolling into 2021, one of my most anticipated movies for the year was the latest Hollywood adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. This was a book I had loved as a kid, captivated as I was by its descriptions of its desert world and the politics that governed that specific slice of the universe. And when word had initially come out that the movie was to be helmed by Denis Villeneuve, I couldn't think of a better director for the job. Now that the film is finally here, I am more than happy to share my thoughts on its grand ambitions and the overall quality of its execution.

The movie centers upon a young man named Paul Atredies (Timothy Chalamet), whose father is the leader of one of the great houses that make up the Galactic Empire. Despite being haunted by visions of a blue-eyed girl (Zendaya), he must instead grapple with the reality of his training to become leader of their house one day. But when his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), is appointed as steward of Arrakis, their entire family is forced to leave the comforts of their homeworld behind and forge a new path on the harsh desert planet.

It was always going to be a difficult task, adapting one of the most beloved sci-fi novels of the past century. And Denis Villeneuve steps up to that challenge with more than capable hands. Coming off the critical success he'd gotten with both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the visionary director puts his skills to good use on a property that is often compared to the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. And while we can definitely see its source material's influence on the former, I think the only real connection with the latter is in its scale.

Everything about Dune feels grand and epic, with some of the best production design I've seen in a sci-fi movie. The world of Arrakis is brought to glorious life, matching much of what I'd conjured up in my mind while reading the book. Except the film even goes one step further with its wildly unique interpretations. Everything from the insect-like ornithopters to the completely massive sandworms speaks to that distinct vision, and it is all captured with some truly gorgeous cinematography.

Aside from looking great though, Dune still has a story to tell, and for the most part, it faithfully adapts the one we got in the novel. The movie is well-paced, moving the plot forward in a gradual flow that should keep most viewers engaged. It does a decent job of establishing all the key characters and background lore, without getting too bogged down in boring exposition or information dumps. That said, the film is kind of light on action, at least compared to the average blockbuster, and when that action does happen, it is played for emotions as much as it is spectacle, so anyone going in expecting your typical popcorn fare would be best off tapering those expectations.

On the acting side, the performances were uniformly great, with Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd in particular managing to chew some scenery as the villainous Baron Harkonnen. The music was also appropriately rousing, conjuring feelings of dread and wonder to go along with the onscreen visuals. But all that is not to say that the movie is without its flaws, the biggest of which stems from the nature of the adaptation itself. Adapting just the first half of the book means there is still half a book worth of story to tell, making the film as it is feel less satisfying as a result. 
I am also concerned about how none readers and science-fiction casuals might take to its sprawling worlds and jargon-heavy lore, without the benefit of all the background details Frank Herbert was able to cram into the novel. The ultimate test would be how the film performs when it releases in US and UK theaters. But if its success in international territories is any kind of indication, then those concerns could very much turn out to be unfounded.

Dune is one of the more faithful book-to-film adaptations I have seen in years. But even more than that, it is a movie that serves as another showcase for Denis Villeneuve's talents, cementing his position as one of the best sci-fi directors working today. And while it remains to be seen if his current saga will be able to rise to the level of pop culture relevance we saw with The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones (most likely not), it is still off to a great start and I am more than eager to see what comes next.


  1. It's only half the book? Glad I was forewarned.
    Dune the novel never resonated with me, but I am looking forward to this adaptation, especially based on the director.

    1. Yeah. Denis Villeneuve is one of the greats. I am curious to see how you receive the movie though, given your lack of affinity for the source material.