Review: Dune (2021)

Even before reading the novel I had of course heard of Dune. I knew that it was considered one of the milestones in the history of science fiction literature.

Because it brought into existence some of Sci Fi’s most iconic heroes, villains and creatures and because it contained as much depth and vision as many tomes of philosophy.

The tale set around the planet Arrakis, called Dune, was compulsory reading for any serious fan of science fiction. Unfortunately I had absolutely no interest in it.

This disinterest had mainly been caused by having casually watched a few scenes of David Lynch’s interpretation on cable television. I can’t exactly recall which scenes exactly, one of them involved Baron Vladimir Harkonnen as portrayed by Kenneth McMillan and I think the other involved the Spacing Guild navigator.

Still pretty early into the movie, it seems. In any case back then I did not like the overall aesthetic and quickly switched the channel. That was my first Dune experience.

Years later I discovered that I very much enjoyed the acting of Kyle MacLachlan by way of the groundbreaking series Twin Peaks. This time David Lynch had got me intrigued. Even though I would find that Twin Peaks as a whole was not my thing Special Agent Dale Cooper struck a cord with me. One of my friends even suggested that I had become a bit obsessed with the guy. She might have been right.

Enter Paul Atreides

As I now had somewhat of a man crush I wanted so see more of his acting and that’s why one day in London I found myself holding a copy of David Lynch’s Dune 1984. From then on the character of Paul Atreides, heir to house Atreides, would in my mind always look like Special Agent Dale Cooper. With floppy hair.

When Alec Newman gave life to the character in the Dune miniseries (2000) and the continuation of the story in Children of Dune (2003) I had watched with interest but though there was some good to be found in these efforts to me they remained something akin to fan-fiction. A somewhat arrogant sentiment coming from someone who at that point hadn’t even read the novel.

When I finally decided to read the books many years later I was deeply fascinated by them. Paul Atreides still looked like Kyle MacLachlan, but the mental image shifted and flickered at times, as can happen when reading a book.

The essential Paul though remained the same. These were the boots any wannabe-Paul would have to fill in the future. And by reading the book they got bigger and bigger.

Here we go again

After hearing that Denis Villeneuve, who had previously established himself as the new go-to-director for heady Sci-Fi with awesome visuals by directing Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), was giving Dune a shot I barely took notice.

Sure, he was a very talented director but Dune was one of those iconic universes were the expectation was that any movie would have to fail in some regard.

In short: I decided to keep the movie on the radar and give it a go once it hit the screen. But no hype at all.

In spite of history

Bringing Dune to life on the screen was thought to be impossible. Beginning with Jodorowsky’s hyper-creative movie that never happened and ending with the somewhat tame second miniseries it seemed for a long time that this would never change.

Apart from the odd boardgame and an ongoing series of novels primarily reaching already converted fans a mainstream breakthrough did not seem likely. The franchise was as static as my mental image of Paul Atreides.

Seeing the first picture of Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides changed all of that. The lush landscape of what I knew had to be Caladan with the enormous vessels hovering in the background and Paul’s solemn expression in mid-stride immediately clicked with me. This could be an interpretation to rival my head-canon Paul.

Seeing Arrakis for the first time

With every new bit of information that would come out it seemed more likely that we would finally be able to explore the planet Arrakis in all its harsh glory for the price of a cinema ticket. When the first full trailer finally hit the internet I was both blown away and mildly annoyed.

Blown away because this seemed indeed to be the real thing and annoyed because, like many trailers, it spoiled a lot of the story. And I wanted people new to the franchise to explore this universe with an open mind. I wanted to see the surprise and delight on their face when encountering the many twists and turns of this epic for the first time. I wanted to see a completely honest and unbiased reaction.

Because of this I was quite happy when I was told by a friend that we would be watching Dune 2021 with two buddies who had barely any idea what Dune was all about. Their impression of the franchise consisted largely of half-remembered bits of the Dune video games.

They were to be my litmus test establishing how the movie performed as a narrative standing for itself. Content with this experimental setup in place I almost felt as if I myself had never read the novel. Then, after the usual forty minutes of advertising, the movie finally started.

Facing complexity

The complexity of Frank Herbert’s creation is one of the greatest challenges to be faced when attempting to distill Dune into something which can be viewed and understood in a couple of hours.

The complex political system, the history, the cultures, the eco-systems, the (meta-) physics Herbert describes just scream for extreme and unfiltered exposition-dumps. How is anyone to make sense of this story otherwise?

It is therefore not surprising that both Dune 1984 and Dune 2021 begin with just such an introduction to the planet of Arrakis and its primary asset: The quasi-magical, all-natural yet highly psychoactive resource called spice.

The spice must flow (SPOILERS AHEAD)

In the interstellar economy of the Imperium the spice must flow. All depends on the spice. Around this resource arise the central conflicts of the narrative.

While in 1984 we were greeted by Princess Irulan, the daughter of the Emperor, in 2021 we are immediately introduced to Chani, a character who belongs to the Fremen, the human faction closest to be natives on the planet.

They inhabit the great desert wastes and suffer under the rule of whatever feudal house the Emperor sends to govern the planet.

At the beginning of the movie the planet is in the grip of House Harkonnen, a particularly cruel family. As the reign over Arrakis is transferred from House Harkonnen to noble House Atreides, the real story of Dune begins.

Setting the stage

The homeworld of House Atreides is the planet Caladan which as an ocean-planet could not be more different from the desert-planet that is Arrakis. Dune 2021 takes its sweet time before we even set foot on the sands of Arrakis and that is a good thing.

Some of the, in my opinion, most striking scenes take place on Caladan and central themes are established here. But as Duke Leto Atreides, who in my mind will now always look like Oscar Isaac, says: There is no call House Atreides will not answer. And so we must move on to Arrakis.

Between the first glimpses of Caladan and the landing on Arrakis we are introduced to many characters in the entourage of Duke Leto, far too many to mention them all here. All of them are excellently portrayed.

Arrakis realized

The acting throughout the movie is fit to successfully capture or conquer any idea one might have had of the looks of Dune’s heroes and villains while reading the book. From an acting perspective I can’t find a single fault in the movie. It is stellar.

The other star is the look of Dune universe. Everything about it. From wide establishing shots, to the design of the spaceships to the way the uniforms and clothes are tailored. There is a vision of Dune at work here one also can hardly find fault with.

During the first half of the movie I often wanted to magically pause the movie screening to soak in the images. There are countless scenes which would make excellent art prints and I think I might just decorate my study with some of them.

That lived-in feel

As said the narrative takes its time. And while I was dimly aware that this might not fly well with people who had not read the book I was far too impressed by the world-building, the many characters and the spectacular visuals.

Where after the trailer I had feared that the movie would become too grandiose, that artistic ambition could get in the way of immersion I now saw a fully realized setting. This was the Dune I had wanted to see. It made me feel like I had felt when watching the first thirty minutes of The Force Awakens but this time the elated mood did not come to a grinding halt.

The world felt lived-in. The technology looked real. The designs successfully communicated the military, political and material structure of the Dune setting. Everything seemed to fit together, from the gigantic spice harvesters to the tiny Arrakis desert mice.

A nearly perfect first half

Although I knew this to be a long movie time just flew by. Every scene no matter how trivial was of interest to me. This was silver-screen-magic at its finest.

I was glued to my seat as House Atreides prepared for the night after a stressful day of braving the desert. The protective shields of the palace were being activated and characters exchanged meaningful dialogue full of foreshadowing. The mood was quiet.

Suddenly there was bright light around the screen and the movie stopped. Ah, the real world! The break necessary to refill softdrinks and go to the bathroom. A whole room woke up from the dream that was the near perfect first half of Dune 2021.

Bathroom break-ing point

Before I jumped out out of my seat I shot an inquisitive look at one of the Dune-virgins. He looked at me and said: “This is great and all, but when does the movie start?”.

I don’t know whether he could see my puzzled look in the semi-darkness but he added, “Is there even a story?”. I was truly baffled.

What a ridiculous question. Is there even a story. Of course there is. The beginning of a millennia-spanning saga of politics, love and betrayal. Is there even a story. Ridiculous. It was evident that he simply did not get Dune.

Poor litmus test

Dune was an acquired taste not fit for everyone. I would have liked to explain to him the possible reasons for why he failed to see the work of genius put before him. But I had no time for that. The break was only fifteen minutes long.

While I was running to the cinema’s bathrooms to avoid the queues, which are the perfect storm of scarcity and large overpriced softdrinks, I mentally typed the tweets I would send out if I had any time left before the end of the break.

My future tweets contained words like “perfect”, “art”, “poetry”. I was pretty sure that I had found my movie of 2021. Next time I would see the movie with people who could appreciate it. I had completely forgotten about the litmus test.

Things go boom

I did not manage to get to buy a softdrink, the queue had been too long, so I settled back into my seat with a dry mouth befitting of Arrakis but full of excitement of what would have to come. Judging by my memory of the novels the Harkonnen attack on House Atreides was imminent. Soon we would see the fall of Arrakeen city and Paul’s exile into the desert wastes.

The attack on House Atreides fell like the blow of a hammer. The armies of House Harkonnen and Imperial Sardaukar troops converging on the palace, the heavy barrages of bombardment by the Harkonnen ships. It was utter carnage.

The sound effects and explosions pressed us into our seats. Yet among the feelings of joyful terror I could to my surprise discern other thoughts bubbling.

… and there goes the bubble

Why was I even thinking? This was a time of experiencing and not thinking. What had changed?

A lot unfortunately. The tonal shift to large scale conflict reminded me too much of other blockbusters. Too many explosions and flashy lights. Mixed between the absolutely stellar style of fight choreography already shown in the first half of the movie there were now elements I had seen before countless times.

In some instances this battle looked like any other battle of any other science fiction franchise. Soldiers and ships going pew-pew. My bubble of the perfect Dune movie burst.

Rhythm disrupted

On top of that I found the non-stop action slightly stressful. Maybe this was due to the very calm first half of the movie, maybe it was because I am not used to movies with a runtime of over two hours anymore. Pressed into the seat I was beginning to feel impatient. Were movies always this flashy and chaotic?

In any case I would have been glad if after the initial shock of the attack on House Atreides we could have gotten some rest. But the hammering did not stop. For a while it seemed that one action piece was following the other. Of course the attack was followed by a fair share of quieter sequences and exchanges of dialogue but the rhythm and flow of the movie had been changed for the worse.

Instead of scenes linking together like a perfect narrative chain scenes now seemed disjointed, ushering viewers from one scene to the next without any greater, how, why or where?

Stumbling to… the end?

A friend of mine once called this style of movie “Stolperfilme” which roughly translates as films stumbling from one scene to another without again finding their pace.

This impression was further aggravated by what can only have been a conscious decision by the director. Dune 2021, as it stands, is also called Dune: Part One as it tells only about half of the novel’s story.

This initially had not worried me as I had faith in the director’s abilities to still establish a story with a beginning, a middle and an end for this first of at least two movies. Unfortunately this isn’t entirely the case. Standing by itself Dune 2021 is lacking an arc. It starts the journey but only arrives… somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Who are these guys?

Once I had realized that this story was only but a beginning and lacking some essential elements other issues kept popping up. One highly problematic issue is how the movie treats its characters. Many of them simply get lost on the way. While we are being briefly introduced to the court of Duke Atreides we know very little about them.

Take Gurney Halleck, Paul’s weapons master, for example. We simply never see him again. While true to the book (he reappears later) this simply doesn’t work in a movie. People start wondering why they were introduced to the guy in the first place.

With other characters it gets even worse. Duke Leto’s chief of security Thufir Hawat not only shares Halleck’s sudden disappearance but his characteristics are never properly explained in the first place. He is a mentat, a human with incredible analytical talents. Basically a computer on two legs.

Seeing the gaps

Cinema-goers who have not read the books could only guess this because he sometimes rolls back his eyes in a weird way, has a strange mark on his lips and sometimes spews Wikipedia-entries at Duke Leto.

The leader of villainous house Harkonnen has a mentat at his side too who looks even weirder. Oh and why is Baron Harkonnen able to fly? And where do the powers of these space witches come from? Terribly confusing for people who don’t know the books. And that’s were the penny dropped for me:

I loved this interpretation of the Dune setting because in my mind everything was there. I was not seeing the gaps because my imagination was filling in the blanks. For someone completely oblivious to the setting this movie must have been a confusing experience. What was all this strange stuff about?

Made for the fans

In deciding to stay very true to the source material and to at times include tiniest details while missing out on including explicit or implicit explanations for major phenomena of that particular setting Denis Villeneuve took a huge gamble.

While fans of the setting would most likely be ecstatic to see Dune realized to such an extent all others would have to be either hooked by storytelling or wowed by the visuals. In my opinion only the latter was successful.

The structuring element of this movie seems to be halves, with the first half of the movie being very dinstinct from the second and the full movie being just one half of the complete story.

A giant gamble

This is an even bigger gamble. Nobody knows whether Dune 2021 will be economically successful enough to warrant a sequel. Chances seem to be very good and that the spin-off series for HBO is still scheduled for production adds to chances for long-term success of the franchise.

I think it is important to point out that Denis Villeneuve is very aware of his decisions. The structure of the movie is no accident as he has called his first Dune movie an “appetizer” which would later allow him to go whole hog on the Dune setting.

Reading about his plans and the enthusiasm with which he puts them forward makes me feel optimistic for Dune’s future. It also makes me very happy to see an artist care so much about his creation. Whether one likes it or not this movie is, as Chani says at the end, just a beginning of more to come.

Final thoughts

Where does that leave me? Did I like the movie enough to recommend it in its current state or do I partake in the gamble of betting on the future potential? The first thing to clarify is that I did not dislike the movie.

I overall enjoyed the experience and it made me want to buy the books and read the saga again. Whenever that happens a movie is either really good or really, really bad. So yes, the first half of the movie is one of the finest cinema I have seen in a while.

While the movie, in my opinion, lacks a proper structure and ending I can, after thinking about it and reading a few interviews, understand and respect the decisions made by the director. He definitely has a vision for his interpretation of Dune and maybe, just maybe, he wins this high stakes gamble and creates a modern masterpiece once he has assembled the whole thing.

Back on Caladan Duke Leto and Paul spoke about the future of House Atreides and Paul’s role in it. The Duke told his son that the key to the success of House Atreides was adaptability. That while on Caladan they had been an air- and sea-power they would have to become a desert-power on Arrakis.

He also told his son that he would be proud of him whatever path he chose. In the final moments of Dune 2021 Paul sees a Fremen riding a sandworm and mumbles the word “desert-power”. So in a way the movie does have an arc after all. Paul has found his path.