Final Verdict: A visual masterpiece with just enough incredible spectacle to make up for its somewhat hollow and incomplete story.
About The Film
Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic novel, Dune, is a landmark work in science-fiction. Its influence can be traced to Star Wars and beyond. The novel is richly layered, complicated, and enigmatic, presenting a near-impossible task for a filmmaker to translate into a viable blockbuster. Following David Lynch’s nonsensical attempt in 1981, visionary director Denis Villeneuve now embarks on that Herculean task. He is the perfect choice, but much like the shifting sands of Arrakis, the success of his highly anticipated adaptation is difficult to apprehend.
Near the end of the movie, Zendaya’s character seemingly breaks the fourth wall as she peers into the camera and declares, “This is only the beginning.” Although not heavily emphasized in the marketing campaign (beyond talk of a desired sequel), this is clearly Part One. In fact, Villeneuve’s Dune is not so much one self-contained story within a larger series as it is the first portion a 5-hour movie that is split in half (like the extended edition of the Lord of the Rings movies split between two disks). The division point is logical, and it works well on a thematic level (if you are familiar with the source material), but it falls somewhat flat on a cinematic level. As a result, the film seems like constant set up without the climatic payoff.
Despite the unsatisfying ending, the film has a lot to offer. The film is visually stunning. Every frame is purposeful and compelling. The film—like the novel—is slowly paced, giving viewers ample time to bask in the on-screen spectacle. From the design of the spaceships to the massive scope of the sandworms, it is easy to see why Villeneuve has been so vocal about the importance of the traditional theater experience.
The spellbinding spectacle manages to cloak many, but unfortunately not all, of the deficiencies in the storytelling. The ensemble cast is solid across the board. The standout is Rebecca Ferguson as the complicated and mysterious Lady Jessica, a woman torn between her political, religious, and maternal duties. Oscar Isaac (rocking a fabulous beard) and Timothée Chalamet are more than capable as well. Unfortunately, despite the lengthy 2:26 runtime, none of the characters are fully developed. Circumstances happen and characters react, but the film struggles to convey the inner-workings of their minds or to give emotional resonance to the events. As a book reader, I was able to fill in the narrative gaps, but I’m not sure how the story will land with people unfamiliar with the source material. The end result is fairly hollow and stiff story beneath the outward grandeur of the spectacle and visuals.
In the end, I couldn’t help but think that Dune would have been a better served as an HBO miniseries rather than a set of films. Much of the compelling political and religious subtext from the book have been with action set pieces, and the film seems to strain at the boundaries of what is possible for a film, feeling rushed and overstuffed despite its sizable runtime. Despite its flaws, Dune is an engaging and impressive experience, and a refreshing change of pace from the familiar templates of comic book films or mindless action flicks. Adapting the novel was always going to be a monumental task and Denis Villeneuve deserves full credit for doing as much with the material as could realistically have be hoped for.
Profanity: Several minor profanities.
Violence: Characters die in battle, but very little blood or gratuitous depictions are shown.
Engage the Film
A Reluctant Messiah
On the surface, Paul Atreides seems an example of the White Savior trope that is very out of vogue with Hollywood today. Yet, his character is more complex “messiah” figure. Paul resists his destiny that seems chosen for him, the byproduct and culmination of centuries of political and religious maneuvering. He receives visions of himself leading great battles, but rather than lust for the glory, he is terrified of the bloodshed and consequences. Paul is not a “Christ figure” in a traditional way, but he reflects Jesus as a figure of two natures—the human side from his father and his mystical side from his Bene Gesserit mother. While not analogous to Jesus in a holistic sense, his struggles brought to mind Jesus praying drops of blood in Gethsemane.
Flawed Humanity & the Quest for Godhood
A world-building aspect that is less explicitly clear in the movie than the novel is that the world of Dune is one without computers. In contrast to most classic science fiction, computers and A.I. have been banned, as society saw only their own destruction in technological achievement. Instead, faith for salvation is put into people. People are developed and bred to be super-powered and higher functioning.
The lust for power, betrayal, colonialism, and violence in the film testify that the problem is not with human’s technological creations, but with humanity itself. Despite their best efforts, humans cannot transcend or repress human nature. Rebecca Ferguson’s character is an example of this. She is both an emotionless killer—part of a manipulative society controlling the Empire from the shadows—and also a crying mother who frets over the safety of her son.
At the same time, a slowly brewing menace revolves around Paul Atreides. As he becomes increasingly otherworldly and almost divine, embracing his powers and role as the prophesied messiah, there is an inevitable danger and promise of violence. Like Adam and Eve taking the fruit from the forbidden tree, Humanity grasping for godhood is a doomed enterprise.