‘Dune’ movie review: Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic a dazzling spectacle, but only half the story

One of the 20th century’s most iconic works of science fiction has been brought to the screen in vivid detail in Dune, which opens in Czech cinemas from October 21, and releases on HBO Max in the United States the following day. But don’t let the streaming option dissuade you from seeing this one in cinemas: Dune looks and sounds absolutely incredible, and demands to be seen on the big screen if at all possible.

There’s only one problem here: Dune gives us only half of the story from Frank Herbert‘s novel, and doesn’t end in particularly satisfying fashion; the central character arcs are left unresolved, and some major players only introduced at the very end. That might be fine if Dune 2 ever gets made, but viewers will have to wait a few years to get resolution to this story, if we get it at all.

The screenplay for 2021’s Dune, credited to director Denis Villeneuve along with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, also hues unusually closely to David Lynch‘s much-derided 1984 adaptation, which also focused on the first half of the novel before haphazardly bringing things to a conclusion in its final 30 minutes. Many scenes invite direct comparison, and while this movie is technically better in most respects, there’s a campy space opera charm in Lynch’s Dune missing from this more serious-minded adaptation.

Villeneuve’s Dune stars Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac) and Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson), whose family has just been handed control of precious spice-rich planet Arrakis by scheming (and, in this movie, unseen) Emperor Shaddam IV.

Only problem: the native Fremen people of Arrakis aren’t too happy with the empire’s spice harvesting operations, and stage frequent attacks. And the previous operators of Arrakis, the Harkonnen family represented by a Jabba-like head Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) and beastly nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista), aren’t happy to have their operations taken from them, and are scheming themselves to get it back.

Early scenes on the Atreides homeworld of Caladan feature iconic scenes that almost seem lifted from the Lynch movie, including Paul’s hand-in-the-box test by Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Ramnpling), and a training duel with Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin). The glitchy Tron-like effects work for the shields in the duel sequence calls for comparison to the earlier film, which was certainly more memorable.

Dune also features Jason Momoa as space hero Duncan Idaho, a terrific Stephen McKinley Henderson as human-computer mentat Thufir Hawat, and David Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries, a mentat working for House Harkonnen.

But just as Dune gets to introducing its final major characters, Fremen warriors Chani (Zendaya) and Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the movie is over. There is a big action sequence towards the end to send us off on a high note, but whats should be the meat of the movie – Paul’s struggle with his destiny, and his mother’s own influence over his fate – is left underdeveloped. Still, both Chalamet and Ferguson are excellent in the central roles, and leave us with hope for their continued journey.

Cutting epic novels in half for cinematic presentation has become the default in recent years, with the final chapters of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight all receiving similar treatment. The typical effect is that at least one of the movies feels incomplete, even if as a whole the work has been successfully brought to the screen. Dune is no different, and difficult to rate on its own, but as half a story it simply isn’t wholly satisfying.

Still, Dune looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, thanks to state-of-the-art visual effects that includes plenty of practical work, picture-perfect cinematography by Greig Fraser that incorporates a lot of real-world locations to create its alien planets (though production primarily took place at Budapest’s Origo Studios), immaculate costumes and production design, and a brooding score from Hans Zimmer that adds much-needed soul to Villeneuve’s otherwise sterile vision.

Frank Herbert‘s epic novel was previously a number of unrealized film projects, most famously by Alejandro Jodorowsky, before becoming an unjustly-derided 1984 film from Lynch and a faithful, nicely-produced (in the Czech Republic), but narratively flat 2000 miniseries.

Here, Villeneuve and his team of first-rate Hollywood artists seem to have effortlessly accomplished what eluded so many other filmmakers over the past five decades, a visionary adaptation of Dune that finally does Herbert’s novel justice. But they’re only halfway there.



Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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