I gave up on seeing a faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s immensely popular Dune years ago. The way Herbert constructs the book and strange worldbuilding and philosophy that underpins the entire series make it, I believe, unfilmable. That conclusion hasn’t stopped the many fans of the book and the universe from clamoring for another visual adaptation, and so in 2021, we finally got a big-budget film of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve (who also directed Blade Runner 2049, which I still have no plans ever to watch).
Sort of. What was released this week was part 1 of, I presume, two, since the film leaves off just over half-way through the book.
Before I go further, let me say two things: First, I wouldn’t have watched or even known about this movie had all of you not told me about it and, I suppose, ground me down in asking me to analyze it. My interest in movie adaptations is zero, for the previously mentioned reasons as well as my general lack of faith in the Hollywood machine to adapt anything faithfully. Second, I enjoyed the movie, so I owe you all thanks, but please also keep that simple statement in mind as I dive into the criticisms.
I’m not sure who to recommend Dune to. If you are a fan of the books and were hoping to finally have a faithful adaptation… Well, I’m sorry to say what you will get is another mixed bag. If you are unfamiliar with the book or haven’t seen David Lynch’s 1984 film (or the SciFi miniseries), I’m afraid you might find the thing hopelessly strange as well as very unsatisfying as the film ends without any sort of resolution whatsoever.
If what you want is a modern, gritty, and bleak adaptation of Dune that aesthetically represents the “feeling” of Arrakis and maintains some of the bizarre elements of the original work, then absolutely Dune (2021) is worth your time to watch. That’s exactly how I enjoyed the movie. It represents the best and the worst of modern big-budget production in that regard: it’s big, bombastic, full of sharp effects and stark scenery, but it’s also very, very dark and desaturated and has the best (or worst) example of what I call a “dissonance” score to date. It also has both great and terrible casting and some poorly-conceived (if not poorly written) dialogue.
Remember, I enjoyed this movie.
Visually, this was the most yellow (or really, brown because of how desaturated most scenes were) film I have ever seen. Never have I seen such a narrow range of color in a movie. If it weren’t for the occasional blue eyes, the film would have been just as effective in black and white. Though it feels undoubtedly very modern and almost cliche, this photography choice enhances the mood of the piece because of the source material. Arrakis is a bleak and barren planet, inhospitable and mercilessly dry, and the visual style conveys that emotion well, though I did tire of it after more than two hours.
I think, as an aside, that the modern desaturated look may partly have something to do with enhancing the composite image since this sort of film is full of combined shots. When you work in a narrow color range, disparate elements blend together much better than if you are using a full range.
The costumes were a consistent no-color. That is, they were always in shades of grey or black; thus their details end up blending into the shot as a whole. The actors look convincingly part of the environments throughout. The costumes are not, however, very exciting, especially compared to other adaptations. The movie is gritty and modern by intent, avoiding flashy space opera, though the effects and battle scenes are certainly very vivid and intense. Something felt off about the fight choreography—it all felt there for show, not very real at all, much like the modern Star Wars films. The fight scenes are showy but not tense as a result.
These visuals are underpinned by some excellent high-contrast sound design. This movie does not feel compressed. Part of that sense of dynamic sound was the constant use of what sounds like close-micing (re-recorded in post, I assume) that allows voices to sound soft and relaxed while being loud enough to be heard. This, unfortunately, doesn’t work well for all the actors (more on that in a bit).
Joining that good sound design is the worst score I have ever heard Hans Zimmer turn in. I mentioned the “dissonance” score. When I use that term, I mean a music score that has a primary function of producing loud, dissonant chords at times where the movie needs tension, and otherwise has little function, producing nothing memorable or unique. Zimmer’s music fits this description so closely that the movie almost comes off as being without music. There is literally not a single memorable line, melody, motif, or chord progression. The entire score sounds like two hours of improvised synthwankery cranked up during mastering. It stays comfortably in the ambient space and is most noticeable when it chooses to be annoying. I’ve heard that is how Hanz composes his scores usually—by improvising with synths and that a team of composers end up “orchestrating” his music for the final score, so perhaps Dune’s score should have been expected. The only thing I remember about it was the incredibly obnoxious, reverb-drenched vocal screams that made themselves known repeatedly in the movie. The best way I can describe them is that they sound like a gypsy and a west-African tribeswoman competing to see who can get more coyotes to howl.
That being said, Zimmer’s score is paradoxically incredibly functional, matching the stark and flat world of Arrakis and supporting the action better than a more competent score would have. It’s quite the bizarre effect. The score, like most of the production elements in the movie, fit into the category of “I am usually annoyed by this trope, but this is one place where it works.” Grey space, limited color range, low contrast, yellow everywhere, grey suit, black suit, close micing, BOOM BOOM effects… somehow it fits the feeling of Dune.
That pervasive feeling of artistic intent with the visuals and sound makes some of the other flaws of the film more acute and immediately noticeable. Uneven casting and Hollywood snark dialogue stick out from the smooth, almost hypnotic texture of the movie like thorns on polished wood.
“Uneven” is really the best word I have for the casting. On the one hand, you have mammoth actors like Stellan Skarsgard (Baron Harkonen), Rebecca Fergusson (Jessica), Javier Bardem (Stilgar), and Josh Brolin (Gurney), who give their characters a deep gravitas. Particularly, Skarsgard turns in a version of the Baron that emphasizes his cunning and ruthlessness rather than showing that he is a grotesque pedophile. Even Dave Bautista (Rabban) and Jason Mamoa seem to fit their roles. Though Mamoa turns in another “Jason Mamoa as Jason Mamoa” performance, it’s close enough to the competent Duncan Idaho for my tastes. Other supporting actors all do a fine job.
What doesn’t fit, what sticks out like burs on a chrome surface, are the performances of some of the other actors, namely Timothee Chalamet and Oscar Isaac, as Paul and Leto Atreides. Oscar Isaac seems incapable of doing anything other than rushed melodrama, and just can’t carry the role of the introspective Leto. He doesn’t convey the necessary maturity on-screen, though, at times, he is able to do the necessary work in a scene. Timothee Chalamet is just a total-miscast, a waifish and effeminate boy who softly emotes his way through every scene, conveying nothing that is likable or admirable and certainly not showing the growth from competent aristocrat to messiah that the book portrays. That may be the problem with the adaptation, and perhaps director Denis Villeneuve wanted his version of Paul to be such, but even within the movie, the limp-wristed and passive portrayal of Paul is dissonant with what Paul does. He’s an expert in combat, trained since boyhood, and he’s also been trained in sorcery, but the boy on screen seems incapable of either of these right up until he does them. The casting of Chani (by an actress with a monogram which I’ve never heard of, Zendaya) is a non-factor, as she’s barely present in the film other than in some blurry prescient visions.
In addition to the casting itself, what sticks out are moments of slightly snarky, modern Hollywood-style dialogue. Early in the movie, I think the director was trying to show the casual friendship between the characters, but the lines don’t fit with everything else. They disturb the texture of the whole.
I’ll quickly address some of the other casting decisions, such as gender swapping Liet. I don’t think these decisions impact the movie negatively. Likewise, the diversity of the cast doesn’t positively or negatively change anything to me. I always imagined that the Fremen were dark-skinned, being accustomed to the sunny desert, so in that way, this movie is better than Lynch’s 1984 entry, where the Fremen were all lily-white under a blazing sun. What is, in fact, more noticeable to me is the diversity of accents within house Atreides.
The biggest problem with this movie is that it is very obviously a “part 1.” It ends without any real resolution and feels totally incomplete as a movie. Pasted on top of the more political plot is some sort of Fremen War of oppression discussed between Leto and Paul, which Paul reminds us of when he joins the Fremen to provide a feeling of arrival, but this doesn’t really satisfy. Baron Harkonen is quite dismissive of the Fremen in the book, and I always thought Herbert was using them as a sort of ascendant Arab. Nobody in the 6th century could have predicted the explosive rise of the House of Islam out of Arabia in the following centuries, and I saw the Fremen as a parallel to that—a powerful force rising out of nothing to take over the “civilized” world. I have to wonder what such a change will mean to the second movie, if it gets made.
Despite this movie being half the story and running over two hours, there is a surprising amount of worldbuilding that gets jettisoned in favor of action and meandering reaction scenes. Villanueve leans on some slightly disguised direct exposition to fill the audience in on the most important details. Rather than a narrator speaking, we have characters and Paul’s holovids (which in one case is speaking expositional information the character Paul surely already knows). There is little explanation as to why people care so much about the spice, that it lengthens life or is used by various groups to enhance psychic capacities, and I don’t know if they ever mentioned the spacing guild and its total reliance on it. All we get is some scenes showing Paul reacting to melange, with uncertainty over whether he is viewing the future or just hallucinating. This is a critical point, and the emphasis on the tacked-on Fremen oppression over what makes Herbert’s entire universe function—the spice melange—doesn’t help the story gel.
I’m curious if a person unfamiliar with the universe will be able to make sense of it all or if the absence of all these details is ultimately irrelevant to the plot as a whole. I’m too familiar with the material to say for sure, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t who would want to watch this movie. I imagine they’ll have to do some backfilling in part 2 to get the plot resolved.
So that’s Dune, part 1. For fans, it’s an interesting adaptation that is again imperfect but is directionally correct and effective. That long list of criticisms partly exists because between those burs and thorns, I can see a great movie, and one that is still enjoyable for what it is, so long as you don’t require the film to have what all full-length films are supposed to have: an ending.
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