Review by John Dugan
The highly anticipated Dune (Denis Villevenue, 2021) follows the young Paul Atreides (Timotheé Chalamet) as his clan, House Atreides, inherits the planet of Arrakis. This desert planet contains an invaluable substance known as “Spice”, which allows for interstellar travel. On paper, as a sci-fi epic being set on a desert planet with a supernaturally gifted protagonist, this may simply seem like a newer, shinier version of Star Wars (George Lucas). However the darker tone, grittier storytelling, and sheer scale gives it a feeling closer to The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson), while still allowing for Dune to have a sense of identity all it’s own.
On a technical level, Dune is a masterpiece. The sound design, one of the most prominent and strongest points of the films, is constantly prevalent and well executed. The cinematography is stunning and dynamic, without a dull moment to be found. The editing as well perfectly blends all these elements together, and the special effects, arguably one of the most important aspects of a sci-fi/fantasy film, are just as strong as the rest.
The acting throughout the film is very strong, particularly by Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica. Much of the film’s emotional weight rides on her performance, and her character’s ability to disguise emotion. The private moments we get with her show her to be fiercely caring, but also deeply fearful and admirably clever all at once. Ferguson was definitely the performance to pay attention to.
The biggest issue I had with Dune was the pacing. Like walking through an actual desert,
there were long stretches of time without action. A lack of action is easily forgivable if there are other events to keep the viewer entertained, but so much of the film’s run time is taken up by Paul Atreides’ dreams of Chani (Zendaya), as well as other visions. This is likely due in part to the fact that it is based on a novel, but all these factors cause the story beats felt strange and forced, with large bouts of action popping up suddenly with little to no build up.
On top of this, I felt myself constantly thinking the film was nearly over, when another bout of action would occur and I would realize there was still an incredibly long way to go before the films end.
As well, the sheer amount of times Chani as a character is shown in visions before she
actually appears is annoyingly high. While it’s clearly important for the viewer to understand she will be a significant character further on, in this film alone this set up causes her actual appearance and actions to feel very underwhelming. Besides a voice over at the beginning, taking her out of the film completely would have almost no impact on Dune besides shortening the two hour run time. This is not a discredit to Zendaya as an actress, but rather to whoever so desperately wanted Zendaya on the movie’s poster without audiences claiming she was only in the film for 20 minutes.
There is also something to be said for the “white savior” narrative the story seemed to be building towards, if not explicitly stating. As someone who has never read the books, I cannot comment fully on the extent of its prevalence, but much of the film seems dedicated to setting up Paul as a literal saviour to the citizens of Arrakis. Given that all the natives of Arrakis we are shown are cast as black actors, these casting choices coupled with the overarching story being set up for future films left an uncomfortable impression.
Ultimately, Dune is worth the watch if you are prepared for the long haul. It’s a definite must to see it in theatres, as the sound design is very integral to the film overall, and the visuals are best appreciated on the big screen. While there are most definitely problematic aspects, it’s a cinema experience worth having.