Review: ‘Dune’ (2021)

by Erik Amaya

To paraphrase the Shadout Mapes, when one has lived with Dune for so long, the moment of seeing Denis Villeneuve‘s new adaptation is a shock.

The long-awaited film, in reality the first of a two-part take on Frank Herbert‘s sci-fi classic, is an exquisitely shot science fiction film unlike anything else produced in the last few years. It’s serious-minded, contemplative, and courageous in its rejection of many tentpole film conventions. At the same, time, though, it is more of an action-adventure film than readers of Herbert’s incredibly complex and literally cerebral novel might expect.

Set in the year 10,191 AG (some 20,000 years after today), ducal heir Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) anticipates his family’s upcoming move from their ancestral home on Planet Caladan to a new fief on Arrakis, the single source in the known universe of a spice which makes space travel possible. And though his anticipation is filled with mixed emotions, his eagerness is centered around a girl (Zendaya) he keeps seeing in his prescient dreams. But soon after House Atreides takes possession of Arrakis, it becomes clear the Duke (Oscar Isaac), his family, and his followers, have walked into a trap.

And the fact they seem to blindly walk into that trap may set some fans on edge. The film streamlines a lot of the political maneuvering in favor of emotions. The Duke is more effusive in his affection for his son than in the novel or, indeed, the 1984 David Lynch film. Paul’s emotions, also heavily regulated in the book thanks to his mother’s teachings, also get more play. Although, curiously, this increased level of emotions never leads to the theatricality of the performances in Lynch’s version. Instead, the cast — which includes Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother, Jessica, and Stellan Skarsgård as the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen — all strike the ideal of modern film acting; subdued in volume, yet rich in expression. It is fitting in regards to the way emotion and expression are used in the book, but it will definitely come as shock to fans of Lynch’s version.

Watching Villeneuve’s Dune with the memory of Lynch’s Dune leads to an interesting experience almost akin to Paul’s prescient vision. The plot loosely plays out the same, but with a different emphasis in key places. Dr. Yueh’s (Chang Chen) role is practically nonexistent, for example, while Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) becomes a more important character. Key moments like Paul’s practice knife fight with Gurney (Josh Brolin) remain, but feel less important in regard to Paul’s emotional journey.

Make no mistake, that’s not necessarily a flaw. Paul’s journey on Arrakis is Villeneuve’s primary concern above and beyond all of the other concepts presented in the novel. But a book as expansive as Dune will leave each reader with their own key takeaway and that more than anything else will color your appreciation of his film.

As an example, I find it weird that all of the emotional content never really connects to Paul’s abilities or his terrible destiny. In fact, the one scene where his grief, fear, and foreknowledge is suppose to come together focuses more on the grief of the moment than the fear of a billion possible futures or even a concern for how the Spice is altering his prescience. Although, I’m willing to accept that, ultimately, that sort of thing may not translate into film and can only be a sensation experienced while reading the book.

In fact, so much of the tension surrounding Dune comes from the absolute difficulty in condensing a detail-rich, 600-800 page novel (depending on the edition) into a dramatic presentation. Villeneuve manages to avoid some of the pitfalls by de-emphasizing the language of Dune in favor of Paul’s throughline. In fact, short of a handful of wholly new scenes in the first half-hour, his film is an act of subtraction. The term “Mentat” and its connection to Paul is never uttered. The notion of the Kwisatz Haderach is introduced — and even makes its way into the soundtrack — but it is not a constant specter as Paul learns about Arrakis or even during his first Spice-induced head trip.

And, oddly enough, the headtrip quality of the film overall is one of its greatest assets. Even before the studio title card, the film reminds you how much dreams matter in Dune and that hallucinatory sensation fills the entire runtime, even as Villeneuve finds places within the text to dramatize scenes with action. In that respect, the seemingly abrupt pause at the conclusion — which is emphatically not an ending — may serve as the moment both Paul and the viewer wake up. What waking will feel like in the director’s concept of Dune: Part 2 remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, much like one of Paul’s Spice-induced visions, Dune is an experience worth having even if it turns out not to be the Dune you necessarily want or expect.

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