Denis Villeneuve’s jaw-dropping adaptation lets the spice flow while being unavoidably flawed.
By Meg Shields · Published on September 12th, 2021
This review of Dune is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.
Set in the far-flung future, Dune begins with a political maneuver. The emperor of the known galaxy has forced a shift of power between two warring houses, granting control of the desert planet Arrakis to the duty-bound Atreides clan. Located at the far edge of the imperium, the near-inhospitable planet is the only known supply of the precious natural resource known as “spice.” This psychoactive drug allows — among more mysterious side-effects — for interstellar travel.
Compelled by imperial decree and the noble conviction that they will instill peace where the malicious House Harkonnen visited cruelty, the Atreides arrive on Arrakis keenly aware that something beyond the hostility of the desert means them harm. As the full extent of the trap reveals itself, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), the young Atreides heir, awakes to his great and terrible purpose generations in the making.
To those familiar with Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel, and the tumultuous history of its troubled adaptations, the very existence of Denis Villeneuve‘s Dune is nothing short of miraculous. Sure, it’s only half a film (more on that later), but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate this new chapter in the property’s long and traditionally disastrous legacy on the big screen.
The confounding oddity of the movie’s existence begins to come into clearer focus when you take a step back and survey Villeneuve’s career. With an appropriately prophetic thrust, it feels as though he has been building intentionally to this over the last decade. Is it so baffling that a man interested in unadaptable literature (Arrival), sacred sci-fi (Blade Runner 2049), and geo-politically tinged cycles of violence (Incendies, Sicario) would set his sights on Dune?
Throughout his career, Villeneuve has, not unlike young Paul Atreides, surrounded himself with a posse of incalculable talent. Dune is perhaps the ultimate testament to its director’s uncanny knack for giving technical masters the elbow room to flex. Greig Fraser’s expansive cinematography does the requisite scale and grandeur of Arakkis justice. Cavernous seats of power and stately halls are endowed with the gravitational depth of black holes, endowing political machinations with an appropriate sense of smallness in the shadow of a Bigger Plan.
Patrice Vermette’s production design, Tom Brown’s art direction, and Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s costume design are all deserving of praise. However you feel about Villeneuve’s visual penchant for austerity and brutalism, Dune’s world-building boasts a commanding sense of confidence that can’t help but be contagious. The world of Dune feels enormous and engulfing, a fitting visual perspective for a movie with such a wide-angled narrative scope and unapologetic ambition.
One of the aspects that makes Herbert’s text so tricky to translate to the big screen is the immensity of its cast, with the added difficulty that many characters communicate in imperceptible flickers of body language and inferred group-think. Jina Jay and Francine Maisler’s casting direction does a laudable degree of heavy lifting, placing well-known performers in archetypal boxes.
Jason Momoa is the swashbuckling, ever-lovable Duncan Idaho, Charlotte Rampling is an imposing, religious figurehead. Oscar Isaac is the effortlessly charming, loyalty-commanding Atreides patriarch. Rebecca Ferguson and Chalamet are unambiguous standouts, endowing potentially cold characters with a depth and vulnerability that squeezes humanism out of a script with little time for such frivolities.
As an unavoidable casualty of the movie’s stacked ensemble and narrative density, certain performances diminish into set-dressing. This is especially true of Chen Chang as Dr. Yueh (whose diminished screen time will surprise long-time Dune acolytes) and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat. Stellan Skarsgård’s invocation of the fleshy Harkonnen figurehead is unique but unavoidably engrossing. The Dionysian pederast of Herbert’s novel has been replaced with a bloated Colonel Kurtz; it works and it’s a shame there isn’t more of it.
Unpacking Dune‘s narrative strengths and weaknesses requires addressing the sandworm in the room. Namely, the fact that this is not a complete film. And its stopping point eschews anything resembling narrative satisfaction in an effort to force the second part into existence. Whether Villeneuve’s reckless gamble will ultimately pay off remains to be seen. But it bears repeating: this is not a self-contained film, thematically or narratively. Without both pieces of the puzzle, it is impossible to say if Villeneuve’s decision to bisect Dune in exchange for a longer runtime was worth it.
On the one hand, despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, this movie flies by. Villeneuve is not languishing by any means, as testified by both the deserved and regrettable fat he has elected to trim. One especially troubling consequence of this abrupt “to be continued” is that it leaves the story’s most contentious and critical thematic through-line dangling uncontested in the wind.
Dune’s white savior narrative appears here wrinkle-free. Without giving too much away for the uninitiated, that is dishonest to the primary thematic pulse of Herbert’s series. Leaving such an apparently irksome messianic storyline incomplete feels especially troubling given the narrative alterations Villeneuve makes to re-figure the local population of Arrakis into an explicit metaphor for settler-colonialism. On the whole, it is extremely difficult to assess the success of half of a movie, which is what we have on our hands.
Despite occasionally buckling under the weight of its unwieldy source material, Dune is honestly adapted and inarguably the most coherent big-screen adaptation of this story. Villeneuve’s conviction in his source material is plainly evident in every frame and very little appears on-screen that does not exist in Herbert’s text. This isn’t to say that the cutting room floor isn’t absolutely littered with jettisoned weight, nor that all of this weight deserved to be tossed in the first place. Dune is very much a Villeneuve film through and through: economical, distant, and brimming with cooly-presented spectacle.
Ultimately, Dune remains, as ever, a story that is going to captivate some and alienate most. This is not a failure on Villeneuve’s part so much as something unshakably coded into this buckwild story’s genetics. And while a film not being for everyone is by no means a bad thing, it does bode ominously for the as of yet un-greenlit second half. Those unfamiliar with the book who possess within them an affinity for this genre-space will invariably be hooked. Whether or not that will be enough to secure the second half of this story is another matter.
Until then, I remain grateful that Villeneuve has forced the hand of Warner Bros. to realize one of the few truly unabashedly big-scoped sci-fi epics in recent memory. For all its faults, weaknesses, and missed opportunities, Dune is unapologetically weirder, more interesting, and more ambitious than any of its big-budgeted peers. And for that, I whole-hardheadedly hope that the requisite spice flows to enable part two.
Related Topics: Denis Villeneuve, Dune, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).
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Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is Bombastic, Spectacle-Rich, and Incomplete