This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2021 2021 New York Film Festival.
The Pitch: Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune gets its second big-screen treatment. The first was a notorious misfire directed by David Lynch, who famously disowned the final film; the newer version is from Denis Villeneuve, who has experience with sci-fi both emotionally intimate (Arrival) and storied in its nerdy history (Blade Runner 2049).
Though the politics and world-building of the Dune world can seem obtuse — the names alone present a challenge for the less sci-fi-inclined — its story will also have a familiar ring for anyone who’s absorbed a few of the many works the novel influenced.
In other words, yes, it’s a chosen-one narrative: Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a young man of noble birth, accompanies his parents (Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson) to the desert planet Arrakis, where they plan to take control of the planet’s valuable spice-mining operation and bring stability to the region. Instead, they’re thrust into a trap, and Paul is forced to seek out the Fremen, the planet’s oppressed natives — who have been appearing in Paul’s possibly-prophetic dreams.
The Spice Will Flow: Dune has one of those sci-fi plots where relatively simple turns happen in complicated and exposition-laden ways; a lot of the movie consists of sorta-good guys touring various facilities or getting ready to go places, as Paul broods about the possibility that he may be some kind of grander savior.
The fun does come from the weirdo world-building; the vocabulary, the production design, the transportation to a new world thousands of years in the future. That was the case in Lynch’s misbegotten but compelling take, and this version certainly has more forward momentum than that. Villeneuve is a talented image-maker, and finds surprising variety and texture in a generally dusty, barren color palette. This is the rare big-budget special-effects movie that feels both expensive and immersive. It needs to, because as drama or even as a stylish exercise, it’s a little underwhelming.
Among the Stars: Chalamet is a talented actor who can do drama or comedy — but there isn’t much of either in this movie, and he’s left projecting both a moody blankness and the sense that he may not be a leading man for the ages, at least not in genre material. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin have fun playing two battle-hardened mentor figures to Paul — the one who smiles and the one who grimaces, respectively — but they don’t actually share much screen time with him.
It falls to Chalamet’s frequent scene partner Rebecca Ferguson to anchor the more emotional side of the movie, and she does what she can; she’s the character who most feels like a dimensionalized human being. Oddly, the film’s muted humanity isn’t in service of greater metaphorical attention — even though it’s about a powerful group creating chaos in a far-away land through imperialist meddling.
The movie is too vividly realized to be boring, but it spends a lot of time scrambling out of the gap between pulpy fun and serious allegory. It’s also hobbled by the fact that it’s very much, as the opening credits say, Part 1; no real resolution is offered by the end of its 155 minutes. It’s just half a movie.
Size Does Matter: Villeneuve has been outspoken about his feeling that his movie should be seen theatrically, on the biggest and best screens possible. He’s not wrong; the filmmakers have obviously labored (and the studios have obviously written hefty checks) to bring Herbert’s detailed world to life in convincing, often spectacular detail, and sci-fi fans who feel comfortable going out to the movies mid-pandemic will certainly reap spectacular visual rewards.
At the same time, it’s not unthinkable to watch Dune at home, because — with only half the story told, an abrupt stopping point, and all of that world-building and exposition — it does play a bit like a massive-budget miniseries; like some HBO show that less dedicated viewers might well let languish in the queue after a couple of episodes. This format-blurring doesn’t feel opportunistic or even intentional; just evidence of how difficult it is to wrestle this sprawling material into a workable feature.
The Verdict: It’s hard to discourage any sci-fi fans from seeing Dune, preferably in a well-appointed movie theater. It’s also hard to imagine any non-fans truly loving it.
Where’s It Playing? Dune opens theatrically and stream on HBO Max on October 22nd.