“Dune” is good. It’s great. It also stumbles at the first hurdle of adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. No matter how artistically impressive they’ve been, no adaptation of “Dune” has managed to follow through on the convictions of its source.
At least “Dune” conveys the plot in a straightforward and compelling manner. That already sets it above the cut-to-shreds 1984 movie and the overly somber 2000 miniseries. The Emperor rules the known universe, but space travel is reliant on Spice. Spice is found on one planet: the desert world Arrakis. House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis for centuries, abusing the indigenous Fremen while growing in wealth and power enough to challenge the Emperor. Meanwhile, House Atreides has grown in power through leadership and alliance. The solution is simple. House Atreides is put in charge of Arrakis, setting up a war between the two powerful houses that should weaken both.
We follow the royal family of House Atreides through this: the idealistic Duke Leto, his consort Lady Jessica, and their son Paul. Here, Rebecca Ferguson carries the film as Jessica. Oscar Isaac and Timothee Chalamet are solid as Leto and Paul, but for such important characters can feel too broadly defined.
“Dune” is very deliberately paced without ever feeling slow or boring. It’s constantly interesting, full of exciting ideas and imagery that conveys cultures we’re only getting to peek into for a brief time.
It often looks like what David Lean might have filmed had he ever directed a sci-fi movie. That’s appropriate, given how the writings of T.E. Lawrence – the historical subject of Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” – influenced the novel. The movie is visually brilliant, hearkening back to the mythic and philosophical scope of 70s science-fiction.
All that said, this is part one of “Dune”. It adapts the first half of the novel, with the second part just given the green light for production. It feels like it. It has the attitude of a prologue. Even though there’s plenty of meat to the story and many things change from beginning to end, it can still feel like the shortest 2 hour and 35 minute movie you’ve ever seen. It ends right as it gets going. It’s a very worthwhile experience. It’s also an inherently incomplete one.
I won’t spoil where it ends, but it concludes on a character moment, instead of the two more epic moments that precede or follow it. I like that idea, but director Denis Villeneuve maintains a certain amount of distance from his characters, and doesn’t fully enough weave the themes of “Dune” through them. This saps power from their portrayal. Ending on a character moment means less when Villeneuve has built his film around world-building and plot, with his characters sometimes coming across more like chess pieces.
I suspect that part one of “Dune” will feel like a more complete experience after the second movie comes out and concludes the adaptation. What we’re really watching is the first act and beginning of the second act of an epic. We have the first half of a five hour-plus movie, which makes the experience both astounding and incomplete.
Amidst its art-house foundation of visions, philosophy, quiet emoting, and the beginnings of a conversation about colonialism, “Dune” loses some of its strong visual fluidity to its action scenes. It feels surprising to write that “Dune” has too much action, since it really doesn’t have much at all.
The problem isn’t the quality of the action – it’s both captivating and unique. The problem is that the action elements force “Dune” toward an episodic quality. We spend plenty of time with our core cast, but we don’t get a fluid sense of their experiences in these biggest moments of “Dune”. This is when we’re most distant from them, and when they become the most inaccessible. These moments are reserved for the action set pieces rather than character experiences. We’re already at a distance from these characters, which is fine, but we’re then held back from them even more when we most want to be close to them. We want to have a better sense of how they’re living these upheavals.
I don’t need to see the fight scene happen on one side of the door if the point of it is the emotional experience of the people on the other side of that door who can’t see it. We get the set piece in detail when we should be alongside our main characters, who are fearful, sad, and angry because they don’t know what’s happening in that set piece, whether someone they care for will live or die.
A good fight scene is like a good dialogue scene – something about a character’s understanding should change from beginning to end. This is when Villeneuve leaves the characters whose understanding is changing. He brings the details of these scenes while forgetting the point of them is supposed to be their impact. These details are phenomenal, but that doesn’t change the fact that their impact is left on the cutting room floor.
I do enjoy “Dune”. It is routinely captivating, if episodic. Part of me wonders if there’s a three-and-a-half hour director’s cut that maintains a better rhythm and fluidity. I am looking forward to the second part. “Dune” is a great movie that adapts many details of the novel. I also think it’s missing the entire point of the novel. No adaptation of “Dune” has held to its convictions that the story is a subversion of the hero’s journey, showing the danger of a charismatic leader. Every adaptation has instead turned its back on that idea in favor of presenting the very hero’s journey the novel argued against and sought to dismantle.
No matter how much detail you incorporate into your adaptation, if it skips the entire point of the novel, it’s not a good adaptation. It can still be a good movie about other things, a staggeringly beautiful experience about other things, and “Dune” is both. Yet these choices inherently gut the film of the bulk of its power and meaning. What we’re left with is something that deserves to be talked about among the best films of the year, but also a movie that is only a fragment of what it could have been.
You can watch “Dune” on HBO Max.
If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.