When it was announced that a third version of “Dune” was in the works, it’s safe to say most moviegoers were skeptical to say the least, and while Denis Villeneuve’s take on “Dune” is still far from perfect, it’s probably the closest we’ve gotten to truly seeing Frank Herbert’s original vision fully realized for the big screen.
Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune” has widely been regarded as unfilmable. David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation received mixed reactions from critics and fans alike, and cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 14-hour-long version, which would’ve starred Salvador Dalí and Mick Jagger, ultimately never saw the light of day due to budgetary reasons.
“Dune” (2021) stars a brooding and sometimes annoying Timothée Chalamet as the iconic Paul Atreides, heir to the throne of House Atreides. Paul is set up to be the “chosen one” who must end a war over control of the desert planet Arrakis between the House Atreides and House Harkonnen to restore peace to the Imperium.
One of the many challenges of adapting “Dune” is finding a way to adequately explain the extraordinarily dense and convoluted lore of the story while keeping the plot engaging, all within the confines of a typical movie runtime. Villeneuve places enough trust in his audience to leave out most exposition and explanation, opting for more of a learn-as-you-go approach while leaving out the minute details on some of the more confusing elements.
A scene early on in the film demonstrates Villeneuve’s implicative approach, in which we see Paul pitted against war-hardened Commander Gurney (played by Josh Brolin). Paul and Gurney both activate their Holtzman shields (although this name is never stated in the film), with Paul hitting his hand three times quickly and once slowly, demonstrating how only slow-moving actions can pierce the shield.
This approach should have saved the film from becoming too slow and bogged down, but there are just so many elements to “Dune” that the first half of the film still feels painfully slow and almost boring at times.
Villeneuve doesn’t do himself many favors in terms of engaging the audience with visuals. While there are certainly some breathtaking shots, the color palette is so drab and dull that it’s almost monochrome. The film also suffers from Greig Fraser’s usual heavy use of an extremely shallow depth of field, which makes the background blurry, but Fraser's compositional prowess still creates some excellent visuals.
Toward the second half of the film, though, the gears really seem to start moving. The Harkonnen invasion near the halfway mark is an epic action set piece, with Hans Zimmer’s score and the top-tier visual effects helping to make this scene the best in the film.
The second half also gives us more time with the Fremen, the locals of Arrakis to whom Chani (played by Zendaya) and Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem) belong. The Freman are far more engaging than any other group or house that had been in the film so far, largely due to the star power of Bardem and Zendaya.
But before the film starts to get going, before we really get a good look at the Freman and their life on Arrakis, the film ends. That’s because Villeneuve made the controversial choice to split this sprawling story into two parts, with part two only having just been confirmed on Tuesday.
It’s the most disappointing element of the film, and while I do believe the story will be better serviced by the expanded two-part format, the first part ends right when the story seems to be getting started. It’s truly hard to gauge how good this adaptation is because we’ve really only seen the beginning.
On top of this, if you’re not a die-hard fan of any facet of the “Dune” franchise, Villeneuve doesn’t provide a lot of reasons to care about these characters, a symptom of his implicative approach. It will be interesting to see if audiences will come back for part two, or if “Dune” (2021) will just be another chapter in the story of failed “Dune” adaptations.
John Scott is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @JScott050901