Going back even further in time, I can safely say that I really wanted to enjoy Dune. A 155-minute sci-fi epic shot by Denis Villeneuve, scored by Hans Zimmer, with a murderer’s row of onscreen talent - what’s not to love? So, I sat down to the film with moderately high expectations. After all, hype is the hype-killer (a vintage Parekh quote, feel free to use it elsewhere in your life). I certainly did not want to place unattainable expectations on the film so that no matter how good it was, it would fail to meet them.
After taking some time to digest the film, I can safely say that my efforts were unwarranted. They were unwarranted not because Dune completely blows away expectations, but because it is a film which is not good. Let me reword: Dune is a failure. It is gorgeously mounted, handsomely edited, with a sparkling coat of varnish to delude you into thinking there’s substance below it - but there isn’t. The novel, which so painstakingly crafted a world of political intrigue, decaying empires, and false heroes has been fully hollowed out. Where has the director of Blade Runner 2049 gone? Was he so awed by the challenge of crafting the desert world of Arrakis that he failed to remember filmmaking basics?
First, let’s get the world-building out of the way. Yes, Dune is a visual marvel. It is majestic, immense, awe-inspiring, grand, visually transportive - you can apply any grandiloquent adjective to this film and it will apply. Villeneuve and DP Greig Fraser find the best way to lens the universe Herbert so painstakingly penned. From the technological advancement of Caladan to the dark halls which House Harkonnen calls home, and of course to the desolate dunes, disarmingly deep and deceptively destructive: Villeneuve succeeds in crafting the environment. It is also Dune’s only positive quality. All the splendor cannot mask the inherent shallowness of the script. World-building is a nice illusion, but characters are what we, the audience, are drawn to.
It is actually ironic. Herbert’s Dune inspired a generation of filmmakers to prioritize character over world-building. George Lucas achieved this with Star Wars, George Miller spectacularly succeeded with Mad Max, and even James Cameron understood this as he crafted first The Terminator and then Avatar. The most fundamental rule of a sci-fi film is to never allow your universe to expand beyond your characters. What so many people love about Star Wars and Mad Max and The Terminator isn’t their world-building, but their characters: Han Solo, Max Rockatansky, Sarah Connor, and so many more. Villeneuve has completely forgotten this principle. His characters are paper-thin. The seething conspiracies of the novel are reduced to simple narrative tricks, making the characters feel like caricatures in a soap opera instead of actual people. Sequences which are fundamental to establishing character relationships and drama are entirely cut out. So many times, Villeneuve’s camera lingers on long shots of the Arrakeen fortress or the solitude of the dunes. Why could this time not have been spent on character development? Why, despite the movie clocking in at a length 155 minutes, does it all feel so distant and weightless?
The screenplay for Dune was adapted by Jon Spaihts, whose previous acclaimed sci-fi outings include The Darkest Hour, Prometheus, Passengers, and The Mummy; Eric Roth, a 5-time Academy Award nominee for the “Best Adapted Screenplay” category and who also has never written a sci-fi script; and Denis Villeneuve, who himself has not written a screenplay since Incendies in 2010. You read that right. Denis Villeneuve is a gifted director, but did not write the screenplays for Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, or Blade Runner 2049. Could the screenwriters for this movie have been selected more appropriately? Possibly. Do I think that the screenplay is the biggest issue with the film and if better writers had been hired for this monumental undertaking, it might’ve gone better..? Yes. I think that exactly. The screenplay is atrocious. Villeneuve the director is fine for this project, but it is Villeneuve the writer and his scriptwriting compatriots who bungled the whole affair. Everything that could’ve been better about this movie is likely laying on the editing floor of the writer’s studio now.
The tone of the film is just one casualty of the poor script. Dune is filled out by standard action tropes with absurd noir tendencies. Every sequence in the movie is infused with an unbelievable amount of over-seriousness. The Lord of the Rings is another 21st century film franchise which adapted a beloved 20th century fictional universe, and when compared to this adaptation of Dune, it’s easy to see why. The filmmakers of LOTR showed their respect to the source material by translating Tolkien’s written world to the cinematic medium. This meant that they allowed themselves to deviate from the source material at times to allow characters and relationships to develop more realistically on-screen. No text can be converted into a movie with absolute obedience - it’s simply impossible. The mediums are too different. Villeneuve and his compatriots place Herbert’s novel on a pedestal too high to reach, treating the source material as if it were a religion. He over-inflates his Dune to the point where he does not allow a single hint of emotion to seep into the story.
I can criticize this screenplay for so very long, for it is so very disappointing. However, I’ll shift my attentions now to addressing the fallout. Beginning with the performances, most of them are basically functional and nothing more. Timothée Chalamet is an apt Paul Atreides, possessing sufficient boyish charm to make you temporarily forget that his character practically does nothing in the movie. After all, this movie only adapts half the Dune novel. It is impossible to fully judge performances until the second part is released someday, but as far as critiquing this standalone movie goes, it’s fair to say Paul Atreides is not very interesting. Rebecca Ferguson has the next-longest amount of screentime but again, she makes for a capable Lady Jessica. Her complex ties to the Bene Gesserit shadow government have been worn down to gibberish - they may have well completely excised that plotline for all the good it does this film. The teachings passed down from Jessica to Paul are a further annoyance. In the novel, Paul’s future sight establishes the tragedy of Atreides’ character from a very early point, so that even as we track his progress on the standard hero’s journey, we can understand that he is following a different destiny than Theseus or Gilgamesh. The ending to the story of most heroes ends in grief, but the calamity at the end of Paul’s is of a unique kind. Villeneuve tries to incorporate these visions in a cinematic manner but fails. Even though I had read the novel, I could barely understand what idea the ‘visions’ were trying to communicate. Of course, they might have been more effective if they hadn’t been edited like TikTok clips, but that’s just a thought.
As far as other characters go, at times I almost wanted to pull at my hair and scream out loud. The reduced presence of Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) is actually criminal. Dr. Yueh, the imperial physician?! All his complexity, all his motivation turned into mere clichés?! Halleck, the famed bard, only speaking either in monotone or yelling into the air?! The less said about the supporting cast, the better. Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho and Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen both fare a bit better but can still be boiled down into one or two personality traits. They’re fun, but not memorable. Zendaya and Javier Bardem essentially have glorified cameos in this film; to even call them characters feels wrong. It would be like calling Doctor Strange a component of Thor: Ragnarok. Does he show up and have some lines? Yes, but it’s all just for the audience’s benefit; there’s no real meat to the role.
If I had to pick a single standout character, it would be Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto. This is a character who has particularly suffered from the lackluster screenplay, with his political savvy, natural charisma, and darker character traits completely eliminated from the film. Luckily, it’s not hard to at least grasp his leadership qualities, because Isaac plays him such a commanding aura. The Duke’s bond with his son is given particular weight by Isaac, as if he wants us to remember that in the end, it is Paul who defines Leto’s legacy, just as any son defines their own father’s. His every movement is carefully measured. Even if the movie does nothing around him, he charges the character with a variety of conflicting emotions. He is given just a single line in the movie to substitute for his original complex relationship with the Lady Jessica, but Isaac is able to make it count.
What else is there to go over? Hans Zimmer’s score is not very good. He relies on the same tricks other composers have used for the last five decades to score science-fiction film. He would have been better off sticking to his strengths and composing another explosive soundtrack, rather than failing to emulate Jonny Greenwood’s staccato sensibilities. It’s clearly meant to work hand-in-hand with the direction to give a distinct sense of unease and danger at all times, but it comes off as manipulative or even distracting, the same as Joe Walker’s editing. Again, the film is a visual marvel. Veteran costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan, longtime Villeneuve production designer Patrice Vermette, set decorators Richard Roberts and Zsuzsanna Sipos, and the aforementioned Greig Fraser on camera are the true MVPs of Dune. If it seems strange that I would rate this movie at 2.5/5 stars after walloping it throughout this review, understand that I’m giving it 4.5-stars for the production value and 0.5-stars for everything else.
In the end, is Dune worth watching? I would say solely as a reminder of what big-budget sci-fi spectacles should avoid doing, it is. Villeneuve stated that he crafted Dune with the idea of making it more audience-friendly than the box-office disaster Blade Runner 2049, and perhaps it has achieved that goal, if only be excising every thought-provoking element from the original story. I would even recommend not reading the novel before going to watch it. All this will do is increase your disappointment. Perhaps as a standalone film, and if it is seen back-to-back with its inevitable sequel, it will make for a better viewing experience. Alejandro Jodorowsky knew what he was talking about when he, while discussing his own failure to adapt the novel in the 1970s, said “I realized, ‘Dune,’ nobody can do it. It’s a legend.” The legend of Dune simply continues to elude the big screen.
Score: ★★½ / ★★★★★