While this is not a movie blog, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the new Dune film that was released yesterday – except in the USA, where it will be released on October 22. For those that are interested, I’ve invested quite some time writing about Frank Herbert’s books and my reread of the Dune series in particular, resulting in a series of long posts – links at the end of this review.
What I will not do is compare this movie to Denis Villeneuve’s other sci fi work, as I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 or Arrival – even though I did read both stories on which those were based. I will also refrain from commenting on what David Lynch did or didn’t do better with his 1984 adaptation – I’ve seen that movie multiple times, but it has been years, and my memories of it are sketchy to the extent I can only say two things about it: I liked it, but the movie probably won’t make much sense to somebody that hasn’t read the book.
I’ll simply try to give an honest appraisal of how I experienced the new film, based on just one viewing. I have no intention of writing a lengthy analysis, nor add to the Twitter bloodsport on Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Keynes or the White Savior Myth.
So, is the movie any good? Does it do the book justice? The short answer is a double yes, loud and clear. The longer answer needs a bit more words. No spoilers, I promise.
It is important to stress that Villeneuve made a Hollywood blockbuster. Its basic mission is to entertain. There is nothing wrong with that, but it explains certain things I would have done otherwise. Even though Villeneuve has talked about the political relevance of this movie in interviews, it is all a rather flimsy affair: the Harkonnens are greedy, spice could be seen as a metaphor for oil, yadda yadda yadda. Talk is cheap, and if you look at the screen time these topics get it’s clear this is not the heart of the film. Interviews like that are part of the promotional job in these hyperpolitical times, so I can’t hold it against Villeneuve, but they are basically marketing: an attempt at coating a popcorn movie in Serious veneer – however heartfelt it may even be.
A Hollywood blockbuster, yes, but one with an old school vibe. Most blockbusters I’ve seen over the last decade all suffered from the same thing: giant plot holes, scenes cut too quickly, and action shot with ultra short shots. In most of those movies, you simply don’t have the time to take everything in, to let your eyes linger on the set pieces, to be in thrall of the eye candy on screen. Almost none of that in Dune: Part One, Villeneuve takes his time, and the viewer has ample time to be amazed.
I think the sets, the design of space ships, gadgetry and costumes is probably the movie’s strongest selling point, and that’s not a bad thing as this is a visual medium. The action scenes were clearly shot, cool and convincing – don’t expect too much artistic choreography however: I’ve seen that done better.
Acting and casting felt excellent as well – I’d say only Josh Brolin as Guerney Halleck felt a bit lightweight compared to the character in the book, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat felt a bit cartoonish – but that gets a pass, as Dune has a pulp side too. Timothée Chalamet does a solid job as Paul Atreides, but I can’t say his acting awed me – his job is basically being the silent type in this movie, as things happen to him, not that hard to do, not that much agency. I’ve only seen Chalamet as a child in Interstellar, and none of his other movies, so I’m not aboard his hype train yet.
Larger than life villains, when they are well done, often are the black hole of a blockbuster: they draw the attention, and we wish we could see more of them. I must say the Harkonnens were extremely well done, both Stellan Skarsgåd as the Baron and Dave Bautista as Beast Rabban were very convincing and a pleasure to watch – and again, that’s including the sets they played on. In subtle ways Villeneuve also managed to convey the Baron’s perversion, without it gobbling up all the attention.
That brings me to the movie’s biggest failure: Lady Jessica. Not that Rebecca Ferguson is a bad actress or a bad choice for the role: she isn’t, as she has the necessary allure. So the fault is Villeneuve’s, and possibly co-writers Eric Roth or Jon Spaihts. The character is portrayed as a whimpering, distressed, emotional mother – totally out of touch with the Reverend Mother from the book. Yes, she gets a quick fighting scene at the end, but Villeneuve never manages to convey the tremendous power and both physical and emotional control of an experienced, fully trained Bene Gesserit – even though he manages to portray the use of Voice in a convincing manner.
This is all the more strange since so much has been written on casting a woman for Liet Keynes, which I guess was done to correct a possible gender imbalance. In that light, it is hard to understand why Villeneuve chose to portray a severely weakened form of the strongest women in the book. Maybe he felt the movie needed a soft center too, a more relatable, realistically human mother? Be that as it may, that choice also chips away a bit from the aura of the Bene Gesserit as an order, even though the rest of the order’s portrayal is well done for sure.
Another minor point of critique might be Hans Zimmer’s score. Not that it is bad, but the “etnographic” vibe of the thing is simply a giant cliché – I thought I was listening to District 9 at times. But again: what to expect from a blockbuster? On a side note, we watched the Imax version, and I have to say the volume was very loud, I’d say so loud that it felt unhealthy. I was glad I brought these.
A final item of critique is inherent to the choice to only tell the book’s first half – up until the Jamis knife fight, which I’ve analyzed in detail in my review of the book, should you be interested. While the movie can indeed stand on its own, more or less, the story isn’t finished, and as such it could be considered to be a long prologue. Villeneuve even said that “For me, Dune 1 is like an appetizer. Dune Part 2 is the main meal.” As such, it suffers a bit from being the first part of a story set in a vast speculative setting: things need to be set up for the uninitiated.
That brings me to the million dollar question: what would people who haven’t read the book think of it? I went with two other big Dune fans, and they liked the movie as well. But fans have it easy: they already have an emotional connection to the characters. We already invested hours and hours of time in this world, with these people. Villeneuve doesn’t need to convince us about their nature or motives. We intimately know them already.
Praise were praise is due, Villeneuve managed to faithfully translate a complex story to the screen. Everything is explained, there are no loose ends. To Villeneuve’s credit such explanations generally come naturally, and only a few times they are done through unrealistic dialogue. But it also needs to be said that those backstory explanations happen quickly at times, and are hardly repeated. So I can image that somebody not familiar with the book might still be lost about certain things. Put like that, this movie might still fail to convince that part of the audience. It’s hard to gauge. I really can’t answer this question, and nobody that has read the book first can.
A very large majority of the professional reviews I’ve read are positive about the movie. Mark Hanson‘s is one of the few negatives to be found, and I have the feeling he might not have read the book. I have to say I can understand his point of view, and there is definitely truth in his analysis too. Similarly, Owen Gleiberman’s review in Variety asks questions that are clear to anybody that has read to book, but indeed are crucial to the film as mere film.
These reviews also contrast with what Denis Villeneuve himself said about this film: “For me, the science fiction and fantasy elements are seriously background in this story. I really focused on the character’s journey and the epicness and the qualities of this adventure, the human journey (…) At the end of the day, it’s a great human story. The technological elements are there in the background.”
Although I liked to movie a lot – I’ll watch it again for sure – I have to side with Gleiberman and Hanson: this first part isn’t really about humans. That’s also what David Ehrlich says in a snarky negative review for IndieWire.
It may try to be about them, but in the end, it’s about epic cool entertainment stuff. It’s not a psychological study or a Bildungsroman on screen. A brooding facial expression doesn’t equate with character depth. Paul is a character that hardly has agency. That’s not even a negative, as I’ve tried to show in my analysis of the book that it is about the lack of free will, about ecology determining the biological creatures that humans are. Granted, near the end Paul and Jessica are put center stage, and so yes, this movie is about them, sure, but we’ll have to wait for the emotional pay-off in part two.
I don’t want end on a negative thought though. I fiercely hope that part 2 gets made, so every Dune fan reading this: go buy a ticket already. Seriously. [Update: Part Two has been greenlit bij Legendary Entertainment, and is set for release in October 2023.]
I’m also very curious whether the prequel tv-series Dune: The Sisterhood will actually be made. It seems that HBO Max still plans to do it, and Villeneuve is said to direct to pilot. Even though it’ll probably be based on the books of Brain Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, if it is done with the same visual flair as Dune: Part One, we should be set for a few exciting hours of quality entertainment.
Click here for my Frank Herbert book reviews: long analyses of Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune & Chapterhouse: Dune, and more regular reviews of Destination: Void, The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star, Soul Catcher & The Dosadi Experiment. I’ve also tackled Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune.
My text on Dune focuses on the issue of Paul as a tragic hero, without free will, and has some notes on the book as a literary construction. The one on Messiah compares it with the first book, and also deals with its relationship to the concept of eternal recurrence – a strong Nietzschean undercurrent that ties into Paul not being an Übermensch – and with the relationship between prescience and the absence of free will. The text on Children of Dune is over 10,000 words and deals with the tragedy of Alia and Amor Fati, among other things; my analysis of God Emperor of Dune has 8,700 words with a focus on Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot, an examination of the Golden Path and a critical look at various inconsistencies in that novel. I’ve written 11,600 words about Heretics of Dune, that, among other things, look at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examine the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It also discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those of Dune. I explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcomings, and try to shed light on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality. The final text on Chapterhouse: Dune has 10,700 words. It has an assessment of the book’s shortcomings, plus a further examination of the Bene Gesserit, a section on free will and shorter sections on change & creativity, on Nietzschean morality, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy. It ends with an reflection on the Dune series in general.