Review: Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is good in a lot of ways and bad in a couple of critically important ways

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Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, Dune, has long been considered unfilmable, but director Denis Villeneuve, adapting with John Spaihts and Eric Roth, almost makes it work. Villeneuve’s Dune is good in a lot of ways and bad in a couple critically important ways. It’s a mixed bag of a film that is in turns boring and frustrating and thrilling and epic that is also curiously flat despite its obvious expense. Villeneuve’s visual style is marked by a preference for drained color palettes, but usually he offsets his monochromatic tendencies by choosing one or two colors to pop off the palette to enliven the frame, such as the orange and violet of Blade Runner 2049, or the green of Arrival, or the yellow Enemies. Here, though, there is no signature color, only a signature lack of it, as the desert planet of Arrakis is rendered in muddy browns and greys. Truly spectacular visual design elements—costumes, architecture, spaceships—are rendered uninteresting by the visual style. This world of “great houses” and intergalactic empire and latent rebellion does not feel grand or exciting, it feels utilitarian to the point of being dull. 

That visual sameness does not help the story, which is terribly paced. Part of Dune’s defiance of cinema is the sheer scope of the story, which Villeneuve & Co. have split into two parts (Part Two was just greenlit for 2023). In some ways, they do a decent job of breaking the story down into an understandable structure. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is the heir of House Atreides, son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine, the witchy Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is part of a religious order called the Bene Gesserit. Paul carries not only his father’s aristocratic and political legacy, but also his mother’s magical legacy, and Dune is a little bit concerned with this family that is not only part of something larger than themselves—politically and magically—but also sincerely caring of one another. Leto and Jessica are each aware of the pressure they are putting on Paul and the things they are asking of him at just 15 (at no point does Chalamet look 15, but it’s not as distracting as, say, Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen). But Dune has far too much plot track to lay, so there is no time to really explore this family dynamic.

This is the biggest problem with Dune. Even splitting it into two parts, it’s too much for one movie. The story is horrendously inefficient, leading to the bad pacing and the feeling that the film is both overstuffed and boring for long stretches. Take this creative team and cast and make a ten-part TV series, and maybe we’d get somewhere with it, but as is, it takes almost 90 minutes to get through the setup, and even when the film ends at just past two and a half hours, it feels like very little of real import has happened. That’s not to say that NOTHING happens, just that the story isn’t told economically and the run time to stuff happening ratio is deeply out of whack. 

But Sarah! Part Two is coming! Sure, but this isn’t Part Two, this is Part One, and Part One doesn’t work as a film. Adding a second, entirely separate film later isn’t going to make Part One work, either. Part Two will just be a second, entirely separate film, because that is how films work. Films are contained units. That’s what makes them films, and not episodes of television.

But there are moments where Dune comes together and shows what it could be if the story engine ever gets into working order. The attack on the Atreides household is thrilling. The political maneuvering between houses is not engrossing, but the stuff about Jessica’s order of magical ladies being mad at her for bearing a son and not a daughter is interesting (if treading dangerously close to eugenics). Paul has visions that he is either misinterpreting or deliberately defying, either way it casts a shadow on his potential role as a chosen one because he kind of sucks at it, getting things wrong all the time. How much can you trust your messiah, when your messiah’s visions are always a little bit wrong? Big, interesting idea! 

But speaking of Paul as a chosen one, hoo boy does Dune walk right into some ugly Orientalism and white savior complexes. Paul might be special not only to Jessica’s magical ladies, but also the Indigenous desert-dwellers of Arrakis, the Fremen. The actors playing the Fremen are all BIPOC, and Javier Bardem, who Hollywood thinks is BIPOC. Fair-skinned Timothée Chalamet thus stands out sharply among them, making him the latest cinematic white savior. I do think there are some seeds planted here for Paul to not quite be that down the line, but the optics for this film, at least, are bad. Worse still is the Orientalism, which exists in Hebert’s books, but goes completely unchallenged in the year of our lady 2021. 

Arrakis and its primary resource, “spice”, is a clear allusion to the Middle East and natural resources such as oil or the literal spices of the spice trade. House Atreides is meant to govern Arrakis as interloping outsiders, controlling the spice for the “Imperium”. And just in case you miss the allusions to real-world Western resource exploitation of the Middle East, Hans Zimmer’s score leaps out with a MENA-flavored ululating woman singing on the soundtrack to drive the MENA influence home. (There is also, hilariously, a bagpipe theme for the Atreides that includes actual bagpipers in space.) It’s just amazing that people have been discussing the Orientalism in Dune for 50-plus years and the new film adaptation has nothing to add except using the trappings of the MENA influence without, you know, casting any MENA actors in significant roles.

Dune has enough going for it—good acting, cool spaceships, a character named “Duncan Idaho”, the objectively hot cast—that it is sure to have its fans. It’s also self-serious and pretentious enough to appeal to those who take “grey” for “drama” and like their entertainment to be aggressively dour so that it feels important. Occasional glimpses of verve, particularly from Jason Momoa and Javier Bardem, show what Dune could be if the characters are given more room to breathe amidst all the plot, but they are fighting against a tide of exposition and setup. As a singular narrative, Dune doesn’t work, and the addition of a second movie later is never going to fix that. We can only hope that Part Two will stand better on its own than Part One does. 

Dune is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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