‘Dune’ Instills Awe, But Its Story Feels Frustratingly Distant

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in ‘Dune.’ Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune has had a troubled history with getting adapted, even if it’s a beloved classic.

Between Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt (which is expertly documented in Jodorowsky’s Dune) and David Lynch’s adaptation, it’s a film that seems to not do well on the big screen. In 2016, Legendary Pictures acquired the rights to the novel, and it seemed we could have a better adaptation than the one we’ve gotten prior.

Enter Denis Villeneuve.

It was Villeneuve’s dream to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel, which he’d loved since he’d read it as a child, but for a while, he didn’t feel quite ready to tackle the project. Before helming Dune, the director decided to put out his first sci-fi film, the spectacular Arrival, and then to make Blade Runner 2049. Most of Villeneuve’s films are shy of being masterpieces, but by the time he was prepared to adapt Dune, it seemed as if his accumulated experiences would do wonders for his version of the story.

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Director Denis Villeneuve (L) and star Javier Bardem on the set of Dune. Photograph by Chiabella James, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

It’s a shame, then, that this movie feels so much at arm’s length—so distant from those who might yearn to be close to it.

The 1965 novel tells the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and the House of Atreides, who soon take over control over the planet Arrakis. The thing of note for Arrakis is that while its harsh desert conditions make it hard for nearly everyone—except the Freman, the people who are indigenous to the planet—the planet produces “the spice.” This spice is one of the most lucrative things to harvest. It’s what gives the House of Harkonnen all their money. The spice also acts like a drug: It makes those who consume it live longer and allows them to travel faster than light. As a newcomer to this source material, though, I’m still trying to figure out what’s so truly special about the spice, outside of what the movie tells us.

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Be prepared as well for sporadic info dumps in this film, including much exposition on its characters’ rivalries and the politics surrounding them. (Imagine watching the Star Wars series for the first time, but beginning with its three prequels and finding yourself bombarded with politics when you expected lightsaber fights with pretty colors.)

All of this is not to say that once I did start to click with Dune a little more I didn’t enjoy myself. The problem, though, is that the film is dense enough to build anticipation for a finale, but leaves you with the creeping feeling that one might never be coming.

Perhaps it’s the potential promise of a part two that conjures this feeling. As is the case with most films split into two parts, Dune feels as if it’s constantly setting the table for something else. And while that may work wonderfully once the second part is released, until then, this film exists chiefly to instill awe, to confuse us, and to leave us wanting more.

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Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes in Dune

Seeing Dune in IMAX reminded me of why I go to the theaters: to see a brilliant cast on the biggest screen, with sound that shakes the seats and rattles your bones. Hans Zimmer’s score has a levitating quality that wholly teleports you to Dune‘s universe. Greig Fraser’s cinematography builds on Villeneuve’s oeuvre, which masterfully wields shallow depth-of-field close-ups. And the fight choreography in Dune somehow manages to make the film feel bigger than it already is. Even at a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, I was never bored (though it does feel like more happens in any 30-minute stretch of this film than most films’ entire runtime).

Still, it’s hard to imagine Dune commanding attention if one were to watch it on TV at home. Villeneuve’s film works on so many levels, but it never quite feels part of a cohesive whole. Perhaps on repeat viewings—or at least after I’ve seen part two—I’ll find myself closer to the material. Fans of the novel and saga will likely love this artfully rendered adaptation, but those coming into its universe blind may come away disappointed.

Dune screened today at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF runs September 9–18, 2021. For more information and showtimes, visit the festival’s website.


Fans of Frank Herbert’s novel will likely love Denis Villeneuve’s artfully rendered adaptation, but those coming into the universe of Dune blind may come away disappointed.

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'Dune' Instills Awe, But Its Story Feels Frustratingly Distant