‘Dune’ Review: Dune Two! Dune Two!

We’re in the midst of a boom period for sci-fi on the small screen. Nearly every streaming service has its own space opera spectacle with production values that rival major motion pictures. Between Foundation, The Expanse, The Mandalorian, and a never-ending parade of Star Trek shows, there’s been little need to leave the house to embark on a rich space adventure. Now, even the year’s most anticipated space sci-fi feature, Dune, has been released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, offering us the privilege of watching at home. And while this might be tempting (and, depending on how well your area is recovering from the pandemic, necessary), this is one sci-fi epic which your TV (or, god forbid, your phone) cannot do justice. Dune is absolutely massive, the kind of film for which movie theaters were invented.

Get Ready for a Lot of Proper Nouns

Dune is the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name), heir to a powerful space dynasty led by his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars). By order of their emperor, House Atreides becomes the new steward of Arrakis, a desert planet that is the source of an essential natural resource called the Spice. Their assignment there, however, is part of an elaborate political power play that pits them against their rivals, the sinister House Harkonnen. While Leto makes overtures of peace towards Arrakis’ indigenous people, the Fremen, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Starsgård, Chernobyl) and his enforcer Rabban (Dave Bautista, Army of the Dead) prepare to retake the planet. Meanwhile, the Spice on Arrakis has accelerated the development of young Paul’s psychic abilities, inherited from his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, Reminiscence), a witch of the mystical Bene Gesserit order. Could Paul be the Kwisatz Haderach, the prophesied space messiah that the Bene Gesserit have spent centuries trying to create?

As complex as the story is, it’s still a streamlined version of the tale as told in the Frank Herbert novel on which it’s based, which is deeply mired in galactic politics, economics, and theology. Rather than cut this intrigue completely (which, frankly, would be losing the best parts of the novel), Director Denis Villeneuve reduces it to shorthand. Dune is preoccupied with hidden things — faces behind masks and veils, and knowledge behind the frequent switching of spoken and signed languages. We see only slivers of House Atreides’ new domain, but the world feels bigger because the characters are constantly on guard. They always behave as if someone is listening or lurking, unseen. Even the planet’s gigantic predators, the sandworms, remain hidden in the desert, surfacing to consume entire mining platforms with precious little notice. 

The reality of the galaxy of Dune is also sold through its performances. While Paul Atreides definitely suffers from a bit of “standard protagonist syndrome,” Timothée Chalamet makes the most of the role in the way he plays off each of his co-stars. Opposite the poised and charming Duke Leto, Paul is reserved, betraying both admiration and intimidation. Against his combat tutor and older brother figure Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, Aquaman), Paul is more playful but still on his toes, hoping to impress his more approachable role model. Duncan is the singular source of joy and fun in Paul’s life, which makes Paul as protective of Duncan as Duncan is of Paul. The dynamic that gets the most attention is the one between Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, who watches in frightened amazement as her son grows into something strange and new. Rebecca Ferguson interprets Jessica as a character whose composure is a mask hiding an utter panic over the circumstances of her life, particularly those which are her own doing. This portrayal doesn’t agree with the character as I read her from the novel, but it’s an interesting and effective choice for a medium that denies us her inner monologue.

Dune

Beginnings Are Such Delicate Times

By now, you’ve probably already heard that Dune only adapts roughly the first half of the Frank Herbert novel. Like 2017’s It, Dune’s real title is Dune: Part One, but this film has the decency to reveal this over the opening titles rather than at the end. One should not go into this film expecting a beginning, a middle and an end — more like a beginning, a middle, and an “until next time.” Rather than being disappointed when the film came to a close, the entire party I saw it with was left absolutely stoked to see more. (If you were at the AMC on 34th Street in Manhattan last night and heard people chanting “Dune Two! Dune Two!” on the escalator, that was us.)

Still, Dune does suffer a bit from being the first half of a five-hour movie rather than being a complete story in its own right. The pace of the film feels a bit off, with the most spectacular setpieces being packed into the middle, lining up with the end of the novel’s first act. The climactic conflict of the film doesn’t really measure up in terms of emotion or spectacle, and works as an ending merely because it feels as if, plotwise, this is a good place to put a pin in it. Some of the supporting cast ends up feeling superfluous or underdeveloped — Duke Leto’s advisors Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, Marvel’s Thanos) and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lady Bird) could probably be combined into one character here, if not for their separate utility later on. Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem, Skyfall) and the mysterious Chani (Zendaya, Euphoria) have barely entered the narrative by the time the film comes to an end. On the other hand, even stretched across two films, the story is still compressed enough that Dr. Yueh (Taiwanese star Chang Chen), a fairly interesting character in the novel, gets significantly short-changed.

If adherence to the source material is an important quality to you in a film adaptation, Dune will give you little cause for complaint. During my screening, I sat next to an obvious Dune super-fan who pumped his fist triumphantly every time something from the book happened, which was virtually every scene. (I would prefer not to sit next to this person for the sequel.) There are some downsides here, however — patriarchy and orientalism are so thoroughly baked into the novel that it would take significant revisions to extract or subvert them. It’s hard to know how delicately Villeneuve is going to handle these subjects without seeing the second half of the story, but playing it out as written could get pretty sticky. You can cut the book some slack for being a product of its time, but the film is being made now, and superficial alterations like recasting ecologist Dr. Liet Kynes as a woman (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Sex Education) might not cut it.

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Dune

Go Big, Then Go Home

From the moment the first promotional stills for Dune were released, there’s been chatter in film circles criticizing the film’s colorless, utilitarian aesthetic. Particularly after getting a peek at Alejandro Jodorosky’s unfulfilled psychedelic vision for Dune, there are definitely those who would prefer a take on the novel that is a bit more imaginative than Villeneuve’s. While I’m definitely tired of the trend of using washed-out color pallets to code genre films as being “grown up,” I’d argue that if there’s a single sci-fi world that should be beige and desaturated, it’s Dune. The world of Dune — or at least, of the Fremen — is extremely practical, born of the need to conserve everything down to one’s own sweat. It makes complete sense to me that it should be leathery and mechanical. The armors and vehicles of the various factions look plenty cool, but in a War Movie way rather than in a Space Opera way.

That being said, I do feel a bit let down by most of the film’s battle scenes. We are introduced early on to one of the book’s signature gimmicks, the body shield, which blocks projectiles or other fast-moving objects and can only be penetrated by something that’s moving slowly. This makes guns more or less obsolete and allows most of the action to play out in sword and knife fights, and also requires a distinctive fighting style in which one moves quickly to defend but slowly to attack. The film creates a clear understanding of when shields are working and when they’re being fooled, but once war breaks out it barely matters. Villeneuve doesn’t really relish in fight scenes — they are staged for intensity rather than clarity, and a shield glowing blue or red merely indicates if a character is winning or losing. The opportunity to invent and showcase a distinctive new martial art is squandered.

For as long and involved as the story of Dune is, you might wonder if it might not be better suited to a TV miniseries than a set of feature films. To this I say, “Not on your life.” (And anyway, it’s been done.) Dune’s plot might benefit from a more drawn-out format, but its overall experience demands big-screen treatment. Plenty of movies feel more spectacular and immersive on an IMAX screen, but scale is an essential ingredient to the story of Dune. The film hinges on moments of awe in which the characters are dwarfed by nature or the devastation of war. The sound design is likewise dense and intricate, using multi-channel surround to the fullest. If your personal circumstances make going out to a theater unsafe or impractical, then by all means, watch Dune at home on HBO Max — I’ll certainly be watching it again at home soon enough. But if it’s an option available to you, you owe it to yourself to seek out a screen big enough that you could fit your entire apartment in the sandworm’s maw. 

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