Dune arrives in UK cinemas on October 21st 2021
Let me start this review by taking you back to December 3rd 1984. On this day in Washington DC, director David Lynch was about to premiere his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune. The pre-release publicity for the Dino De Laurentiis production had been extensive, with paid-for reviews and publications, TV spots and a documentary. Therefore, to say the public appetite was wet would be an understatement. After all, the Star Wars trilogy had come to an end the year before, and the public was hungry for the next big sci-fi extravaganza.
Dune cost around 40 million dollars to make, but the news was not good as the first reviews rolled in. Panned by the critics, Dune would fail to earn back its production costs despite its all-star cast and spectacular sets and effects. So what went wrong? That very question persists; Lynch later disowning his film. But one thing is clear from watching 1984’s Dune today. While its visual and auditory beauty is plain to see, Lynch’s creativity and ambition utterly captivating, its story failed to deliver. Here the Herbert novel found itself crammed into a 130-minute runtime, the result a narrative mess that lost the interest of its audience halfway through. Lynch’s Dune felt like a chore to watch, its characters lacking any emotional connection, as the audience began to wriggle in their seats due to boredom.
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Dune (1984) demonstrated the importance of a solid narrative arc among the effects and beauty. It showed us that successful science fiction comes from the characters at the heart of the story, not just the brilliance of the director’s vision. Now thirty-seven years later, Dune is back under the creative stewardship of the visionary director Denis Villeneuve. The build-up to his cinematic reworking of Herbert’s novel, held hostage by COVID-19, allowing anticipation to grow as its release was repeatedly delayed. But, now Dune has finally arrived, what is the verdict? And did Villeneuve escape the narrative traps that consumed the David Lynch production? Before we delve into these questions, let me take this opportunity to provide you with a quick reminder of Herbert’s story.
Dune is set on the desert planet of Arrakis, where the heir to a noble family Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), arrives alongside his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) and father (Oscar Isaac). Their task is to rule the barren world and ensure that spice production continues to feed the galaxy’s unquenchable thirst. For spice extends life and enhances an individual’s consciousness while enabling interstellar space travel. However, a deadly plan is brewing in the imperium.
When House Atreides is betrayed, Paul and his mother find themselves rescued by the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, who control the giant worms that feed beneath the desert sands. But, Paul’s journey is far from over as he works alongside the Fremen, his destiny written in the sands surrounding him.
REBECCA FERGUSON as Lady Jessica in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Herbert’s novel is in its self divisive; many praise its groundbreaking place in the history of science fiction, while others claim it to be clunky and slow. However, just like Asimov’s, Foundation, Clarke’s, Childhood’s End and Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Herbert’s novel would go on to inspire multiple filmmakers and writers. After all, without Dune, would we have Star Wars, Game of Thrones or even Alien?
Watching Villeneuve’s epic and world-building adaptation of Dune reminds us all of the power held within Herbert’s story of betrayal, revenge, religion, politics and fate. Villeneuve clearly understands the importance of Dune and its place in the landscape of 20th Century science fiction. His movie, the first instalment of a two-part epic, doesn’t just inhabit the cinema screen but transcends it, engulfing the audience in a wave of sand, spice and sound. Watching Dune is a visual and auditory experience; every last inch of the screen and every speaker, used in its entirety. However, is Dune an experience that lingers in the memory? Or does its power, scale, and ambition quickly evaporate on leaving the theatre?
Let us start with the story and the very stumbling blocks of Herbert’s sweeping tale that tripped up Lynch. Here, the very structure of Villeneuve’s film as a two-parter helps to ensure the story has space to expand. However, this makes some of the choices in Villeneuve’s picture questionable. After all, just like the David Lynch movie, the opening of Dune initially follows a very similar pace and rhythm to its 1984 cousin. The betrayal of House Atreides, all relatively quick in the grand scale of a two-part production. This is expected but equally never allows the audience to develop an emotional attachment to the central characters—the final betrayal, visually stunning yet emotionally hollow.
Here, I found myself wondering why this expensive new adaptation was not planned as a trilogy—allowing more space and time in its first act to build a solid audience attachment to the story and its characters.
OSCAR ISAAC as Duke Leto Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Equally disappointing is the inability of the screenplay to reflect the deeper themes of Herbert’s book. For example, Dune holds wide-ranging discussions on colonialism, environmental impact, and cultural oppression, yet none of these themes finds a contemporary voice in the screenplay. The opportunity to speak to our present-day challenges through science fiction ultimately squandered in favour of heart-pounding action.
However, there is no denying the exquisite performances at the film’s heart or the near-perfect casting choices. Chalamet is utterly captivating, alongside Fergusson, Isaac, Brolin and Momoa. At the same time, Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is genuinely horrific. And yet, I left with a feeling of something missing – a deeper emotional bond to each character and the journey taken.
Despite this occasional lack of character focus, Dune holds its audience’s attention, unlike the 1984 adaptation. Much of this is achieved through the sheer power and thump of Villeneuve’s vision. But is that enough to make Dune a truly spectacular slice of science fiction filmmaking? The answer to that question will differ for each person watching, but for me, Dune’s lack of emotional resonance and contemporary story-building is a problem. After all, Dune (1984) taught us that beauty, sound and special effects do not make a picture great. What makes a movie great is its story, characters and emotional resonance. For me, the jury is out on whether Villeneuve’s adaptation will be classed as a modern masterpiece beneath all of its visual beauty.
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I also want to talk briefly about Hans Zimmer’s score, as for me, this is also a problem for Dune. The score of a movie is essential in building the emotional connection to the action on screen. A film’s score helps create worlds, characters and mythology; for example, imagine the Star Wars trilogy without Yoda’s theme or the Imperial March. Zimmer’s music engulfs the audience throughout the film but lacks nuance and texture. The result is a lack of any distinct tune or melody above the thumping noise. Unfortunately, this once again leaves Dune void of any emotional connection.
Is Dune a magnificent cinematic spectacle? Yes, this movie demands the cinema experience; its visual power, something to behold and praise. But does Dune live on in the memory long after its credits have rolled? This is debatable, and for me, the biggest weakness of Villeneuve’s movie. However, I do not doubt Dune will find a loyal fanbase. As an example of the sheer power cinema can wield, it’s undoubtedly epic, even if it’s also emotionally flawed.