Review: ‘Dune’ is a vast, beautiful film that loses sight of its emotional core

Expectation, thy name is Dune. Years in the making and then delayed for an entire year thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Dune has the weight of expectations hanging over it. Director Denis Villeneuve is an accomplished visionary with a clear eye for details and world-building alike, but how can the story of Dune –a famously dense work– be adapted into a movie?

The answer, as it turns out, is that it can’t. This version of Dune only covers about the first 40% of the story. It is a necessary change, but the result is that despite being gorgeous, well-acted, well-directed, well-produced, and with a scope more expansive than any film in recent memory, it ends up feeling entirely like the setup for a series of films that aren’t yet greenlit.

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A battle scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action-adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

None of this is to say that I disliked the film entirely, but where it excels in aesthetics (although more on that in a moment) and world-building, it fails in creating an emotional connection with the characters. Timothée Chalamet is probably perfectly cast as Paul Atreides, but by the end of this segment of the story, I still didn’t care if he lived or died. Given where the film ends, with what should be a big emotional choice, that’s a problem when you consider that I already know where it’s going.

And yet, there is a quality about the film that feels real, for lack of a better word. It feels like Villeneuve took a film crew 20,000 years into the future and filmed what happened. It feels like everyone involved cared deeply about getting the details of the world right, including which details to excise and which to keep.

The production design is second to none, with the dragonfly inspired ornithopters, particularly looking as photo-realistic as the helicopters they are based on. The massive transport ships in non-standard shapes and the shield effects look incredibly cool. I do have a complaint here that the film portrays two major feudal houses with opposite worldviews as having remarkably similar aesthetics. The film follows the current trend of eschewing colour for some reason, but these are relatively minor.

The cast is top-notch also. Oscar Isaac is in top form as the universe’s best dad, Duke Leto Atreides, a man balancing love for his son with the duty to his people and trying to avoid a trap that he knows will be sprung on him. Chamalet is good as well, his version of Paul is dour and conflicted, but that’s appropriate for the character at this point.

The real standouts among this cast of thousands are Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho and Stellan Skarskård as Baron Harkonnen. Duncan Idaho has been given the short end of the stick in previous adaptations, but this version is firey, physical, has enough heart for the rest of the cast combined, and we finally get to see his prowess with a sword. Likewise, Baron Harkonnen is a larger-than-life character, and while Skarsgård’s version is far more reserved than previous versions, he is all the more menacing.

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JOSH BROLIN as Gurney Halleck and TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action-adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimately if Dune has any single feeling, it’s that of being unfinished. While the end of the film’s story comes at one of several natural stopping places in the narrative, it can’t help but feel abrupt. For those of us familiar with the source material, it also stops just as the setup ends and the exciting stuff begins. While it’s true that a sequel has now been greenlit, that doesn’t excuse this film not being able to stand on its own, narratively or emotionally.

Other Thoughts:

  • In 2021, in a filmmaking climate that seems to be ever-chasing that Marvel money and trying to start up new franchises, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that if Villeneuve wanted to make two (or three) films that they weren’t filmed all at once.
  • There are entire characters that are yet to appear so now that a sequel is greenlit, let the fan-casting begin.
  • The sandworms are, in a word, magnificent. My seat in the cinema was near the D-Box seats, which rumble and shake with the movie, and it was the first time that that rumbling even felt appropriate to me.
  • I haven’t talked about Zendaya or Javier Bardem at all, but that’s because they basically aren’t in this movie. Like I said, this movie ends before most of the interesting stuff in the story begins.
  • Despite everything I’ve said, I do honestly hope that Villeneuve gets to make as many of these as he wants. While I didn’t connect with it, it also hard to not admire the pure ambition at making this thing at all.

Dune is in Canadian cinemas now and on HBO Max in the United States through Sunday, November 21st.


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