Dune (2021) Review: The Story Must Flow

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson as Paul Atreides and the Lady Jessica. Photo: Warner Bros.

2021’s Dune is the second feature-length film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction classic of the same name. It takes place far into a space-faring future, where at the behest of the Padishah Emperor, the royal house Atreides assumes control of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis is home to “the spice,” the substance that makes spaceflight possible. It is therefore the most coveted thing in the universe, and for that reason watching over Arrakis will mean only danger for House Atreides.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and featuring an ensemble cast of stars, Dune has so much working for it. Everyone involved in this project is giving their absolute best for what they’ve been given to work with–but as it turns out, what they’ve been given to work with isn’t much. That’s not a comment on the source material’s deep backstory, but rather on the truncated cut of this film. American audiences have seen three-hour-plus movies in the past. Dune could have benefited from being one itself.

The world of Dune, like its namesake planet, is a rich one, and it is clear that Villeneuve has a great deal of love for it, but his script (co-written with John Spaihts and Eric Roth) is so obsessed with its own imagined history and lore that at times the story stalls from going forward. To their credit, this really only is a criticism for the first act. Once House Atreides does at last arrive on Arrakis, the film proceeds quite effectively for its remaining runtime–but that first act is just so damn expository, often to the point of repeating itself, that it leaves one to wonder if that time couldn’t have been better spent with some other material.

Time is of the essence for Dune, a project that Villeneuve reportedly refused to adapt into one film. But in constraining the film’s story the typically meticulous director has hindered one of his greatest assets–the use of atmospheric long-take master shots. There is so much mood here in this world, so much for us to take in, but editor Joe Walker shows us only snippets, never really enough to settle with. The few moments we do have of Greig Fraser’s frames and the wonderful work of the production and effects teams are fleeting, but my, what wonderful few fleeting moments they are.

The score is in turn likewise asphyxiated. The sounds are brilliant, otherworldly, and yet another testament to composer Hans Zimmer’s mastery over his craft. Yet, as it stands in this cut of the film, the music has no room to flow or to be absorbed and running parallel to a crammed story the score’s transitions are abrupt and confuse the mood of the pictures presented.

But the greatest victims of Dune’s problems with progression are without doubt its characters. Though nearly all of them teem with palpable personality, far too many of them lack a compelling arc (with exception to Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto). Gurney and Thufir are quite literally lost in the chaos, Glossu Rabban and the baron do not come to meet their comeuppance, and Chani is less an agent of the story and more a plot device for Paul to chase after.

Paul Atreides has always been something of a controversial figure. He’s the original Mary Sue, a messiah figure that rises to meet any challenge, overcoming conflict without all that much struggle. While I don’t deny that Paul’s prowess and natural, chosen-one aptitude are sometimes uninteresting, I’ve always appreciated in works featuring similar protagonists those moments that are more introspective, more contemplative and philosophical, which from a lack of outer conflict turn the story’s ideas and themes inward.

Unfortunately, whatever themes and morals it is that Paul is supposed to learn here in this version of Dune are lost in the sands of the film’s plot. He ends the film the confident hero he predicted himself to be at its beginning, having experienced nothing that he could not overcome, nothing that would have seriously demanded a reframing of his goals. Paul is a hero whose journey of family redemption isn’t even yet complete and thus he is incomplete. Audiences are then left with a half-measure of a product.

In June of 2020, cinematographer Fraser said that this movie would be a “fully formed story in itself.” Obviously, I do not agree with that. There’s so much that’s just absolutely oustanding about this movie, but I just really think it could have been longer. Studios have long been wary of hefty runtimes, but it was so disappointing to learn that the decision on Dune’s length was left to Villeneuve. It was a decision based in fear and, well…

You know what they say about fear.

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