Dennis Villeneuve’s 2021 rendition of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel came to town riding on more than its fair share of hype and baggage.
The source material, focusing on a distant future saga of intergalactic feuding nobility and prophecy, is known for being large, unwieldy and remarkable dense. The property has previously been translated to the visual medium by David Lynch (1984) and John Harrison (2000) to mixed and sometimes polarizing reviews. Avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky also attempted to bring the property to life in the 1970s, and the failure of that project spawned a documentary of its own.
Villeneuve’s Dune thus marks the fourth attempt at bringing this story to our screens and arguably has the most stakes riding on it. After all, with 165 million reportedly gone into the production and Villeneuve’s star director status attached to the project, this was meant to be anything but a throaway film the studios occasionally squeak out to appease the typically mature, male audience who is known to consume science fiction projects like this.
The end result? Dune is a visual remarkable film that leaves much of its story unspoken, and told more through the spectacle than the dialogue. It’s strangely minimalist – from the music, to the script to the set pieces. It’s ultimately a beautiful piece of cinema, that makes it all but impossible to look away as we move from one gorgeous piece to the next.
However, it’s also a failure.
First up: don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed almost every minute of Villeneuve’s big, glorious and oddly muted film. As a longtime fan of the novel (I’ve read it no fewer than 6-7 times of the year, and even managed to make it through the other five books of Herbert’s canon), I’m definitely within the target demographic meant for this movie – and that’s also perhaps the problem.
While Dune veterans such as myself, who owns the previous versions on DVD and regularly rewatches them, this movie was intimately familiar. I knew who the Sardaukar were and why everyone feared them. I appreciate the constant pans or close ups of the bull mounted on the wall overtop of Leto’s head and the significance for doing so. I understood how the spice melange made intergalactic travel possible, and why there were no computers. I understood the markings on the characters that identified them as mentats and what role they played in society. Ultimately, I knew all these things because I knew Dune.
I can’t say the same for everyone else.
As a demonstration of the fundamental problems with this movie, let me run through how the viewing experience went with my wife and myself.
Scene plays out. My wife has questions. I pause and explain. She asks more questions until satisfied. We resume. Scene plays out. More questions. Repeat.
In all, it took us close to five hours to get through the movie when we added in our running Q&A session and commentary. Not that it was unenjoyable – I found myself digging deeper into knowledge of the Dune universe than I realized I had. However, it also means that for who I suspect would be most of the casual viewers, Dune comes off as unapproachable, esoteric and puzzling.
For instance, my wife asked me what were the point of shields if everyone can still get killed by swords? Why did it spend all this time introducing the Shadout Mapes only to drop her in the next scene? Did they just forget about Gurney Hallack? What happened to Paul’s hand in the box? Why did it matter that Yueh betrayed them?
In this regard, I would have to agree with her concerns – several of Villeneuve’s choices in adapting this story are downright puzzling not just for the novices but even relatively hardcore Dune fans such as myself.
It was, after all, odd to set up Mapes in such a way that she should be given more screen time only to give her importance in less worldbuilding about Fremen culture than in either other version as well as the book. Normally one might expect the decision to add minor characters or little details would in some manner contribute to the story or atmosphere, but it did little here.
As for Yueh, we get to see him in maybe two scenes before the betrayal, and never get to know him. In this regard, both the Lynch and Harrison version strike me as superior – as they gave Yueh more screen time, pointed to his pain at losing his wife, and gave more meaning to his twist. He seemed more “real” of a character than the trope betrayer Villeneuve chose to implement.
And let’s be honest, the choice to pull away from the horrors of the Gom Jabbar scene only to focus on Paul’s face rather than his experiences felt like an amateur misake. After all, in cinema it’s about showing, not telling, and we were shown very little and told very much about what was actually going on in that scene.
I would also agree with questions about Gurney’s fate. Of course, those familiar with the story all know that he survives by escaping with pirates (the very same ones Leto tried to ingratiate himself with in the book, but not in the film). But one wonders, would it have been so hard to tease his possible demise to the audiences? Maybe have a broken baliset lying in the courtyard?
After all, the basic visual language of cinema often works with the rule of threes – introduce something, remind the audience it’s there, and then payoff. Dune largely does us with ones or twos – one shot of Gurney with a baliset, one scene talking about the symbolic power of trees, and so on.
Ultimately, it’s little things like this that leave me feeling torn about the film. So many details added, so many removed, and so many just not, well, used to their full extent. It’s the sensation that it was a rough draft, that not all the kinks were worked out in the writting process.
Couple this with the additions and liberties Villeneuve took with some characters. Duncan’s extended rescue and death scene mirrors the television version more than the Lynch or book versions of the story, and ultimately serves to give viewers more of Momoa who still felt tragically underused, but served little purpose. True, we got some more worldbuilding, showing how Fremen are clever fighters, but the scene caused more problems than it resolved.
Let’s break it down. When the sardaukar attack the outpose, the Fremen (who seem to be about equal in number) disappear and ambush them in the sand. However, the Fremen ultimately loose, Duncan is killed and Paul and Jessica are back on the run.
Ostensibly, this scene was here to have them gain access to stillsuts, but in every other version the stillsuits were simply left in the thopter for them to find, making the transition here unneccessary (and indeed, it ends with them right back in the thopter in the desert where they began).
I can’t help but feel it also undermines one of the main plot points of the book and where the story goes – that the Fremen are utter badasses.
Leto’s whole plan of reaching out to the Fremen and securing his much fetishized “desert power” was because he rightly believed any Fremen could kick the ass of any dozen sardaukar. The book and previous versions emphasize this – growing up on a harsh ass planet, makes harsh ass people.
e’re then given examples that prove this: of sardaukar patrols being annihilated by less than half their number in Fremen, and a joint sardaukar / Harkonnen raid on a sitch populated almost entirely by elders and children nearly fails.
Yet, here in Villeneuve’s movie, the Fremen mostly get chopped to pieces and it’s Duncan who holds his ground the best. This effectively raises the question – why would Leto seek to harbour them if the Fremen were only about 2/3 as effective as the sardaukar (based on what we see on screen)?
rue, there would still be value in allies, but again, a major plot point of not only Dune but its immediate sequels, is that the Fremen when cut loose would become an unstoppable, murderous horde.
With Fremen presented as not any better than Atreides house guards (though, to be fair, the book does mention that their discipline and martial prowess concerned the emperor himself), it deflates some of the awe of these people – after all, and again a major point, is that the Harkonnens underestimated them, seeing them as a few thirsty weaklings scrounging around in the sand.
In the end, and as I alluded to earlier, Villeneuve’s film comes across as a strange, yet dazzling hybrid. We have remarkable attention to some odd details from the book, deviance from others, curious motifs represented in the visual medium, but also the lack of others.
If someone had told me this was a work in progress, waiting for the final edits and scenes to be added, I feel that it would have sat better. But seeing as this is his vision, it sits as both grandiose and minute, full and incomplete.