A Book Reader’s Dune 2021 Movie Review

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At this point on the podcast, I have spoken for well over 10-hours about Dune. I have recorded another 3-hours that were cut. Not only is Dune the most frequent subject discussed on this podcast to date, these are also our most popular episodes. I don’t know if that means that someone out there is curious what I thought of this film, but on the off chance they are I shall record my thoughts here.

The Good

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is the best I could have possibly asked for. Villeneuve gets Dune in a way that Lynch and Jodorowsky profoundly did not. Dune plays with themes of religion, enlightenment, and higher consciousness in a way that few other cinematic Sci-Fi franchises have. The challenge for artists looking to adapt Herbert’s work lies in depicting these intangible, unquantifiable facets of reality in a way that an audience can understand and relate to.

Ironically, the best way to convey these heady, philosophical themes is with a generous sprinkling of humanity. The casting of Dune is impeccable. The actors breathed such life into the characters that I actually prefer many of their interpretations to the book’s.

Javier Bardem’s aloof and dispassionate portrayal of Stilgar, one of the book’s more high strung characters, borders on comedic at times. Despite that, it never loses the essence of what his character is. He is a Fremen leader, and as such, he wants nothing to do with the politics of the empire. Stilgar believes that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. It’s a very simple world view. Bardem’s more relaxed portrayal gives the character a desperately needed 2nd dimension.

For the brief time she’s on screen, Zendaya’s Chani has a refreshing dry humor. In the books, Chani shows her Fremen side mostly through a violent temper. Zendaya giving Chani a more sarcastic, devil-may-care personality completely fits the character, and goes beyond what the books give us. I also love that Villeneuve gave Paul’s visions of Chani an ominous tone. Chani is both the best thing that ever happens to Paul, and also a symbol of his commitment to the path of Jihad. When we meet Chani and see that she’s a normal, funny girl, we’re put off balance. How could she be at the heart of all this?

I want to be clear, though, that Villeneuve is not attempting some marvel-style jokey joke reimagining of the dry (ba-dum-tiss) world of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Where possible, a surprising amount of the books dialog has been preserved. Granted, it isn’t much, but also the book’s dialog is terrible bordering on cringe. The effort that was made to include as much as they did showed a commitment to keeping Frank Herbert’s vision.

If anything, I think that too much of Frank Herbert’s writing has been left in. I love Dune, but part 1 of the book is kind of a mess. It’s repetitive, it’s full of twists and turns and plot threads that go no where. I agree with much of what Villeneuve decided to cut.

  • The multiple warnings of a traitor
  • The dinner party
  • The men don’t trust Jessica subplot
  • Feyd Rautha
I’d be fine if we don’t do this.

All of these are things that serve to slow the book down. The weakest parts are the Frank Herbert scenes that are left in.

  • Shadout Mapes…in general
  • The line “They tried to take the life of my son!” which no actor has been able to deliver in a way that doesn’t sound awkward, and if Oscar Isaac can’t do it, then I’m going to say that the problem is the line and in future attempts it should be “They tried to kill my son!” You know, like a person would say..

Before I get into a few minor criticisms and concerns I have of the film itself, I just want to give a brief nod to the cinematography, effects, and sound design. This movie looks amazing. I’ve talked on the podcast before about the challenges of conveying something like The Voice in a film. So many things in Dune are designed to be perceptible only to those who train themselves to peak sensitivity. It’s challenging to convey that to an audience, but the film uses a combination of disorienting camera work, cuts, visual effects, and audio to give a sense of hypnotic disorientation.

The Less Good

I have this problems with a lot of movies where Hans Zimmer does the score. There are numerous times where the characters speak quickly, quietly, and/or slur their words while one of Hans Zimmer’s swells is going. I’m not sure what it is about a Hans Zimmer score that requires it to be mixed 3x as loud as the dialog, but a lot of important dialog was swallowed up in his signature swells.

This is a criticism of both the book and the film, but the pacing is strange. The film reaches what feels like a pretty clear emotional climax at what turns out to be the end of the 2nd act. The third act of the film feels like the first act of another film and ends on more of a “find out what happens next week” than a proper conclusion. From the perspective of someone trying to adapt this book, I don’t know how it could have been done better. That’s just kind of how the story of Dune flows. I’m on board for it, but I’m not sure if general audiences will be.

Because of the weird pacing the movie feels kind of like it needs an intermission. It felt much longer than it’s 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. The film comes to a dead stop and needs to start building momentum again from scratch, and just when it’s getting rolling again it’s over. This is done amidst a lot of exposition. The exposition is much better integrated into the story and dialog than it was in other adaptations, but we have a lot of Nate’s favorite cliche:

“How are you Gurney Halleck? You old warrior-poet, how long have you been my mentor now?”

It’s not quite that bad, but Paul often does call lifelong friends by their full name.

I worry that the length, the pacing, and the information dumping will alienate general audiences. This is not a criticism of Villeneuve, it is a statement on the adaptability of Dune as a whole. I don’t think it could be done better, but is it good enough to get the obligatory part 2? I hope.

Final Verdict

If it wasn’t obvious, as an adaptation of one of my favorite books, I loved the movie.

A+.

10 arbitrary stars out of 10 arbitrary stars.

I don’t know that I would recommend it to everybody, though…

I would recommend it to:

  • People who read the book
  • People who know what Dune’s about, and are interested, but don’t want to read an 800-page book
  • Fans of hard sci-fi
  • Cinema buffs

I would not recommend it to:

  • People who don’t like Sci-Fi
  • People who don’t like long movies
  • People who know what Dune is about and were on the fence.

For better or worse, this is Dune. Dune has problems. It has always lingered on the weirder end of the mainstream sci-fi spectrum. It’s not the kind of story that typically gets this large of a budget. To do it right, though, a large budget is needed.

With all that said, I’m here for it. I hope the general audiences are here for it as well. I will be first in line to see Part 2.

Ben

I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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