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MOVIES: Dune - Review

Dune was my most anticipated film of 2021 for quite some time – Denis Villeneuve adapting Frank Herbert’s novel, one of the ultimate science fiction classics in a bid to turn around the film from the messy but still somewhat enjoyable 1984 film from David Lynch that ended up being so bad even Lynch himself has openly admitted that he hated it. Thankfully, Villeneuve – director of Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival – delivers an improvement on the 1984 film with a perfect example of few better pairings between author and director since arguably Ben Wheatley and J.G. Ballard. On paper, everything about Dune looks good – mind-blowingly epic visuals from cinematographer Grieg Fraser (Rogue One, The Batman), that deserve the big-screen spectacle, and the all-star cast really help add extra gravitas to this.

For those unfamiliar with the plot – as spoiler free as I can make it – Dune has earned comparisons to Game of Thrones in space (it’s not), and Fellowship of the Ring (it’s also not, other than that it’s the first part in an epic genre series based off a critically acclaimed book), and it’s a big, sprawling spectacle that feels more akin to AppleTV+’s recent big-budget flop, Foundation, or at least, one of that series’ stories about life on the small planet known as Terminus, a small but important cog in a wide galaxy. Here, we are introduced to Paul Atreides – the heir to the ancient house of Atreides, who are sent to the desert world of Arrakis – a world with a huge galactic importance - under orders from the Emperor to act as its new protectors. The Fremon – the planets’ natives – are still sceptical, having been subject to harm from the previous rulers of the planet, but there are some that believe Paul could be their next Messiah, a chosen one – he demonstrates skills that few others possess, and is extraordinarily gifted at his age.

If you think this is going to be a typical chosen one story, fans familiar with the Frank Herbert novels will assure you that it’s anything but, much of Dune is setting up what’s to come in hindsight, so we won’t get immediate answers as much of the more complex themes are saved for later films – but Villeneuve does begin to go into the idea that he has himself too touched on the past in Blade Runner 2049, his magnum opus to date.

Unfortunately, big ideas – poor execution, is probably Dune’s watchword as I was left feeling remarkably underwhelmed by this – which has been on the receiving end of so much hype it was almost always going to fail to live up to expectations. But there are some valid points that I’ll get into, first of all – and I know this was a problem of Herbert’s novel, too, is that the characters themselves pretty much all universally feel flat and empty. I didn’t care about Paul’s struggles, the film never quite gave me a reason to. When crucial moments happened in the film that propel the plot forward I was just left feeling cold. In fact, the best performances of the film come from both Rebecca Ferguson, as Paul’s mother, and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, fresh off AppleTV+’s other big blockbuster sci-fi series See, with Momoa being the life and soul of the piece, infecting the film with charisma that it really needed. Don’t expect much from Zendaya though – she’s barely in the film – but Villeneuve has promised that her character, Chani, will be a central character in Part Two. But between this and Spider-Man Zendaya herself has mastered the art of showing up in movie trailers more than the actual movie itself.

Which brings me to my main problem. Whilst splitting Dune into two parts alienates the awkward pacing issues and the flat-out mess that was the 1984 film, it does instead create a film that exists, on its own – as purely set-up. Much of it is necessary exposition and world-building meaning that when we get to the plot it feels rushed and happens far too quickly. This leads to a shallow approach that ultimately rings false, with the film falling victim to a myriad of pacing issues that end up leaving it feeling something like a snooze-fest. Both Tenet and No Time to Die didn’t feel their runtime – although with both films, it took me a rewatch to fully come around on them – maybe the same will happen with Dune? It falls into the trap of everything that Blade Runner 2049 managed to avoid, feeling like too much of a first part of a storyline to offer any kind of resolution. Fellowship of the Ring, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Batman Begins, all told their own storyline whilst acting as a gateway into larger universes. Dune does not.

It might have just been my cinema but I felt that I had sound effect problems with Dune, too. The mixing could have been better (much like with Tenet which suffered a similiar problem), and it leads to Hans Zimmer’s score feeling overbearing on the dialogue at multiple times, going some way to cover-up the fairly poor script, with the music being used to convey what the characters are thinking especially in the first half, so it may have been a blessing. But this is not one of Zimmer’s best scores – he’s much better in No Time to Die, and the veteran composer almost feels like he’s repeating himself at times, which feels like such a let-down after the Blade Runner 2049 score that was a result of a collaboration with Benjamin Wallfisch. Dune feels like it’s missing a track like All the Best Memories Are Hers.

I loved the sheer spectacle of Dune; the epic visuals are easily its selling point and it crafts a desert world that feels real and lived in. The costume-designs are authentic, the set-pieces are meticoulsly crafted and yes, the worms themselves are phenomenal and the source of the most tension-packed scenes in the movie – I wish I hadn’t seen them spoiled in the trailer (like a good portion of the film was) to see the sandworm for the first time at the big screen would have been incredible. They’re the highlight of the film – the sheer scale is unparalleled and the immediate danger that the characters involved face every time that they encounter one is instantly felt. The care and craft-work in the spaceships themselves showcases excellent work by the visual effects department – every shot is breath-taking and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica both remain the best examples of hard sci-fi across film and television, but I think Dune proves that in order to make me invested in the world, no matter how big it is – it needs to give me a reason to care about the characters, which is where this film ultimately failed to do so. That said, I remain optimistic for the now-confirmed second part, as I’m sure, with the set-up out of the way, Villeneuve can plunge right into this world that he clearly cares deeply about – and hopefully, we’ll get beyond what has been put to film in this universe so far.

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