Movie Review – Dune (2021)

Dune, 2021.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun, and Benjamin Clémentine.


Feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, about the son of a noble family entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy.


Supposedly, in Dune, fear is the mind-killer. However, for the first time in his masterful portfolio, Denis Villeneuve almost feels afraid to venture into artsy territory or the unknown. Bluntly, Dune is his most straightforward and conventional work (which might please fans of the Frank Herbert novel Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth are adapting, seemingly staying far away from replicating anything about the critical and commercial bomb that was David Lynch’s envisioning). It’s still a visual stunner with an appropriately epic score, but it’s also shocking how little there is to care about on an emotional scale despite over an hour of well-crafted world-building and some unexpected significant character deaths (especially considering the title specifies that this is only Dune: Part One).

Of course, that exposition is necessary. There’s no questioning it, as viewers are immediately shown a variety of planets ranging from House Atreides’ oceanic Caladan to the desert planetoid Arrakis (which also goes under the titular nickname of Dune), and currently run by House Harkonnen. There are also groups referred to as the Fremen; generally, minorities left for dead surviving in the harsh conditions, which also happen to be populated with gigantic sandworms capable of devouring entire ships, let alone people. Arrakis remains contested over due to its abundance of melange (commonly referred to as “spice”), a drug that grants numerous abilities while also darkening the eyes blue of those that consume unhealthy doses. It’s also nearly impossible to stay away from in the thick of the desert, as spice visibly blows in the air like embers.


On Caladan, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, showing new acting chops as the quiet type unsure of if he wants to take over for his father one day as a political leader and battle general, admirably wondering if anything really changes under different and so-called improved leadership) trains with his mother Lady Jessica Atreides (an empowered Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood embracing the supernatural. Specifically, Jessica is in the process of teaching Paul an otherworldly voice power that functions as instant persuasion to do anything that’s commanded. Paul also undergoes more traditional preparation, such as swordsmanship sparring with Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck (a sequence that allows for the flashy touch of blue and red illuminations of the body, signaling protection or a fatal injury) and Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho (effortlessly the most charismatic of the bunch), who also doubles as a close friend.

Herald of the Change (Benjamin Clémentine) is also in the process of taking Arrakis away from House Harkonnen and gifting it to House Atreides, something that results in anger from one and skepticism from the other. Paul is also experiencing strange visions of death and a mysterious Fremen woman (Zendaya), growing increasingly concerned for those around him. Thankfully, Paul is also close to his father, Duke Leto Atreides (a thickly bearded and levelheaded ruling Oscar Isaac), notably during a tender conversation where dad professionally doesn’t seem too concerned if his son follows in his footsteps or not. He seems to think Paul will arrive at that position regardless, but they have pleasant respect.


Elsewhere, Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista, using his physical presence and body language to make the most of a character that’s severely underwritten, at least from this half of the story) plots with his grotesquely flabby and floating uncle Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård, unrecognizably covered in makeup effects and other CGI) on how to get rid of House Atreides while still honoring the wishes of the Emperor. From their ghostly white and icy look to the malevolent energy they radiate, they are more fascinating than the heroes on the surface. At one point, Dave Bautista has an entire dialogue with some indescribable substance as his uncle transforms back into the flesh; it’s not only the closest Denis Villeneuve gets to something imaginative beyond expensive explosions and chase sequences, but is the eye-raising weirdness that the entire experience should have aspired to be rather than glacially moving through over an hour of table-setting and intrigue.

Nevertheless, the money is put to good use, whether it be from sleek metallic armor to vast landscapes (there’s a breathtakingly tense wide shot of characters trying to outrun a sandworm) to the all-out war that breaks out during the third act (accompanied by slick acrobatic melee combat that is a splendor to behold). Dune also feels emotionally empty, as if the writers were so concerned with introducing the world and copious amounts of terminology in a consumer-friendly digestible way that they forgot to draw these characters. There’s only one death that came close to eliciting a reaction, but it was more due to the blaze-of-glory fight-until-the-end execution rather than anything resembling a satisfying arc. At the very least, Paul starts to be pushed in interesting storytelling directions and is forced to start using some of his powers before he is properly ready. Still, the ending reeks of inevitable white savior territory to be continued.


Again, it’s also dazzlingly constructed with several fight sequences, aerial maneuvers, innovative equipment, and marvelous sights that elevate whatever familiarity and outdated tropes there are to be found. The final hour of Dune also appears to be an exercise in filling in as much story as possible but with a narrative thrust sorely missing from everything preceding it. One could say Dune needs more spice. To its credit, it is immensely watchable and does feel like the first half of something much more epic that could go down as exceptional hero’s journey sci-fi.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★  / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]


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