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. (from IMDB)
Please Note: This main review was written as a result of my initial unfavorable experience in the theater watching Dune. Please see the end of the review for a more positive review of my second viewing, with more comments in the special features section below it.
The long-awaited new adaptation of the popular Frank Herbert sci-fi book series, Dune, has finally arrived, after the pandemic delayed its release almost a full year. This isn’t the first time Dune has been adapted for the screen. A previous 1984 film has a cult following, while a couple TV movies were produced in 2000 and 2003. However, this time, visionary director Denis Villeneuve helms this new, ambitious sci-fi epic that aims to bring the story to life in a way never done before. The end result is a visually stunning and gorgeous film that feels like it’s lacking the heart and passion to really make an impact.
As a full disclaimer, so you know where I’m coming from as a reviewer here, I have never read the books or watched any of the previous visual adaptations, so I went into viewing this movie with a fresh slate. I had been looking forward to this film – especially because of the high profile cast, the immense buzz surrounding the movie, and its initial positive reviews. I was surprised to find myself feeling kind of lost while watching the story unfold. I didn’t really grasp what many of the characters’ motivations were, and I found it tough to keep track of which group of people was which, and why they were doing what they were doing. In the midst of all of this is popular young actor Timothée Chalamet, who plays Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke (played by Oscar Isaac), and who is discovering there’s something special about himself that he doesn’t quite understand yet. His mother, Lady Jessica Atreides, played by the lovely Rebecca Ferguson, is some kind of mystic, who has special abilities and wants to cultivate the abilities that her son also seems to possess. However, while Paul is trying to figure out what the weird, prophetic dreams he’s having really mean, and where his place is among his people, the viewer is learning about several different groups of people, and who they are or what they represent. You have a creepy (and gross) villain called the Baron, talk of an Emperor that we never see, a race of people apparently indigenous to a new planet, and Paul’s clan which is relocating to this planet. The main problem is, many of the people look or dress the same, and I feel like we’ve been dumped into this new world without clear explanation as to what exactly is going on. It seemed like everyone is fighting over spice and mining it (*shrug*) and it just doesn’t seem like something necessarily worth fighting over and dying for.
Maybe it would help if I had previous knowledge of the books and the story, and maybe I just need to see it again now that I have a basic knowledge of the story, but I was surprised by how much I didn’t find the story, world, or characters all that interesting or engaging. The score from composer Hans Zimmer is loud, booming, and kind of celestial, but its intense volume seemed to overpower the dialog and mood of any given scene. I thought director Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 sci-fi drama Arrival was pretty brilliant, but he tends to bring some of the ambiguity of that story into this one, which could probably benefit from a more straight-forward story delivery. And with a 2-hour-and-35-minute runtime, the movie tends to drag in places when it shouldn’t, and then rush by too fast during moments that need more time to develop. It creates this uneven push-and-pull with the story that makes the movie feel almost twice as long than it really is.
The saddest part to me is that it seemed like the most interesting and engaging characters to watch in the film had the least amount of screen time. To make matters worse, they don’t survive this first half of the story, which makes me wonder what in the world we have to look forward to in Dune: Part 2. Where most movies like this would leave me excited for the story to continue, I was actually relieved when the movie ended and have no real interest in a Part 2 (although I almost inevitably will see it anyway). Again, let me reiterate that I wanted to like this movie, and I even expected to, but I found much of it exhausting and uninteresting, which ultimately left me disappointed.
When I watched 2019’s Little Women for review purposes last year, I was left very unimpressed with Timothée Chalamet. I found his character to be one of the weakest things about that movie. But I also found myself entirely irritated by Florence Pugh’s character in that film, and just like I had given Florence a second chance in this year’s Black Widow, I was ready and willing to give Chalamet a second chance in Dune. However, while I ended up loving Pugh’s performance in Black Widow, I only merely liked Chalamet in Dune. (Incidentally, this movie didn’t help change my feelings about Zendaya either.) He was good, but he didn’t do much to elevate the proceedings enough for it to not still feel pretty dull. He’s such an integral part of the story, too, that I can’t imagine how he’ll be able to carry Dune: Part 2, whenever that should release.
The content for Dune is mostly related to violence. There is just a little bit of profanity, with one “S” word, 1 “h*ll,” 1 “h*llhole,” 2 “d*mn,” 1 “My G-d,” 1 “a” word, and 1 “G-d in heaven!” as an exclamation. There’s also a weird scene where we first see the Baron and he’s totally nude, but any explicit nudity is hidden underneath steam (still we kind of get brief partial views of his butt. The character is played by Stellan Skarsgård in a gigantic fat suit, so it technically isn’t real nudity anyway, just FYI). However, there is a scene where Oscar Isaac’s Duke is reclined in a chair totally naked, with a view of the side of his bare butt and any frontal nudity being blocked by the corner of a table. It’s a short sequence, but it’s very prominent. Otherwise, some pretty violent content is shown, with the worst being a man getting beheaded and we briefly see someone holding his decapitated head by the hair before he tosses it aside. The scene is framed so we don’t see past the head’s chin, so no gory detail is shown, but it is still quite intense. Some dreamlike sequences show a character with their hand dripping with blood, and another vision shows a room littered with bloody, dead bodies. Another vision shows piles of corpses on fire, and we also get another brief but obscured view of people being executed with their heads being cut off. Another sequence shows a man fighting off a room of soldiers with swords, and a character is stabbed and impaled by the blade. Overall, some of the action is very intense, so you may want to keep that in mind.
Maybe it’s a movie best enjoyed by those with knowledge of the story, and maybe it’s one that will get better with repeat viewings, but on my initial viewing, I was left feeling on the outside, not quite privy to the details of the Dune universe. Again, it’s a visually stunning film, but visuals certainly aren’t everything. Others seem to be loving the movie, but as for this reviewer, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
January 11, 2022 update: When Warner Bros. sent us the 4K UHD disc to review, I gave the movie a fair second shot. This time, it landed considerably more favorably for me. The special features helped clear up the plot for me, and I felt like I could actually follow the story much better. For more of my thoughts on my second viewing (which bumped up my star rating for me), please see below in the Special Features review section.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 10/24/21)
4K UHD Special Features Review
Dune is out now in 4K, Blu-Ray, DVD and through digital retailers. The Blu-Ray special features, and iTunes digital copy, include the following:
Dune in 4K UHD – OK, let me start off by saying that my above theatrical experience with the movie seems to be in the minority. Most people I talked to really liked it, while only a couple found it boring or, as one friend said, he couldn’t wait to get out of theater. I was eager to give the space epic another shot in my home theater setting in the ultimate, 4K format. But before I did my rewatch, I watched ALL of the bonus features. These features are so detailed and dense that it just goes to show how complicated this story really is. (The many foreign terms that sound like a jumbled mess when spoken sometimes is often what lost me.) You practically need to watch the “Filmbooks” ahead of the movie to understand it. The “Filmbooks” in the Special Features answer pretty much every question I had about the story, which makes me feel like they knew the storytelling of the film had some issues. Anyway, for my second viewing, which I watched in the comfort of my own home with my wife, Amy, who hadn’t seen it yet… I liked it! She suggested, early on, putting on the subtitles (something I’m usually against since they can be distracting) so we could understand what they’re saying in moments where it was tougher to hear, and it really aided us in knowing who was who and what names they were throwing out that sometimes otherwise sounded like gibberish. It’s unfortunate that those unfamiliar with the book (like I) would have to resort to things like subtitles to be able to understand the plot, but it really helped the movie a lot. The sound was overbearing in the theater, but the dialog came through a lot clearer at home. I had missed SO MUCH of the low, whispered dialog, and I’m glad I was able to catch it this time. And again, the cinematography is just gorgeous in this movie. The 4K UHD presentation only flaunts this even more. It’s a beautiful-looking movie. With the story coming through stronger for me, everything just landed better. As a result, I’m actually interested in Dune: Part Two and will probably be revisiting this chapter again soon. (And I’ve bumped up my star rating at the top of the page, accordingly.)
OK, on to the special features…
Inside DUNE (12:24) is split into three parts with a Play All option. In The Training Room (5:07), we see behind-the-scenes of Paul and Gurney’s fight training sequence and hear from both Chalamet and Brolin about the experience (the sequence of which, apparently, was also Chalamet’s first three days of filming). The Spice Harvester (3:12) is about the Spice Harvester set and scene, the large sandworm and shooting the sequence as cinematically as possible. Finally, The Sardaukar Battle (4:04) is about Jason Momoa’s training for his big fight where he has to take on 19 guys at once (1 “a” word).
The Royal Houses (8:13) details the different families / Houses and their key players and actors. This is a great “Dune 101” course for figuring out who is who. (1 “h*ll,” 1 “My G-d”)
Building the Ancient Future (6:26) – Director Denis Villeneuve tried to have real locations and sets as much as possible because he felt it’d really affect the reality of the scenes and acting. He’s certainly not wrong, because the detail he put into these scenes visually was not lost in the final product.
My Desert, My Dune (4:51) – Denis wanted the design to be inspired by nature. He took the production to Budapest to build the city sets. And they did as much on location desert shooting as possible.
Constructing the Ornithopters (5:38) is about the cool bug-like helicopters the characters fly in. They actually started building the ship back in 2018, and we hear them talk about how the original book describes the vehicles and how they tried their best to capture the original vision. Denis wanted them to look and feel as real as possible. (I think only the ship’s wings were CGI; the rest was a life-size model!)
Designing the Sandworm (5:41) is about approaching the design of the sandworm like it could exist as a real creature and with reverence like it’s some kind of “god” (like it is to the Fremen people in the film).
Beware the Baron (5:01) is all about Stellan Skarsgård’s performance as the Baron and how they used real prosthetics to layer a huge fat suit on him to make him look real (instead of using CG to enhance the size of the character). It’s really cool to see how they made it all come together! (1 “Oh my G-d”)
Wardrobe from Another World (2:53) – Here they talk about using medieval references for some costumes, and even bugs, to inspire some of the suits and clothing designs (like the Fremen).
A New Soundscape (11:12) – This was one of my favorite sequences. As a fan of composer Hans Zimmer’s work, I always love hearing him talk about his craft. For Dune, which was also his favorite book, he created new sounds and instruments just for the purpose of this film. He wanted the instruments to not sound familiar. The sound designers also talk about creating the sound for the movie while filming was still going on, which is unusual for this kind of filmmaking process. They also talk about designing the sound for The Voice, and the sound of the sand.
Possible Futures (3:18) is part trailer, and part a tease for what may be coming in Dune: Part II, but it really doesn’t tell much beyond recapping the events of this movie.
Filmbooks (10:27) – There are five chapters to the “Filmbooks” and are a must-watch for anyone feeling a little lost with the story. It serves as kind of cheat notes (anyone remember CliffsNotes?) that explain the Houses and different characters in more detail. For me at least, it helped clear things up. House Atreides (2:08) talks about Paul and his father and explains why they had to go to the desert planet. House Harkonnen (1:52) explains the Baron’s people and their evil ways. The Bene Gesserit (2:23) explains the mystical women and their special power, and how Paul may be the first male Bene Gesserit. The Fremen (2:13) is about the group of desert people who practically worship the sandworm. Finally, The Spice Melange (1:52) is about the importance of the planet’s spice resource. The people actually need it for space travel and health benefits. And it’s magical for the Bene Gesserit.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 1/10/22)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: When we first see the Baron, he’s totally nude, but any explicit nudity is hidden underneath steam (still we get brief partial views of his butt; We see the Duke reclined in a chair totally naked, with a view of the side of his bare butt, but any frontal nudity being blocked by the corner of a table; A man comments to a woman with whom he has had a child with that he should have married them.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 “S” word, 1 “h*ll,” 1 “h*llhole,” 2 “d*mn,” 1 “My G-d,” 1 “a” word, 1 “G-d in heaven!”
Alcohol/Drugs: The fictional spice in the story is said to have a hallucinogenic effect.
Blood/Gore: A vision shows a hand with a lot of blood dripping from it, as well as a charred hand missing some fingers. We also see a blade that is dripping blood; A vision shows a room full of dead bodies with some blood on them, under them, and on the ground and walls; We see a vision of two people fighting with blades and one of them dying with some blood on the ground and covering the hand of another person; We see piles of burning dead bodies in a vision (in two different scenes); Some characters have cuts on their faces; We see the blackened faces of people in a room who died from breathing in a toxin; A man finds a woman dying with a blade sticking out of her chest. She then touches his shoulder and leaves a bloody handprint there. He is then struck in the back with a dart, and there’s a little blood around the wound; At a camp of soldiers, we see many man (slaves?) hanging upside down with their arms outstretched, looking like their blood may be dripping into the pools of rain water below; A man gets beheaded and we briefly see someone holding his decapitated head by the hair before he tosses it aside. The scene is framed so we don’t see past the head’s chin, so no gory detail is shown, but it is still quite intense; We also get another brief but obscured view of people being executed with their heads being cut off; After a fight, we see blood on a real blade; We see a little blood on Stilgar’s wrist (which he’d cut ceremoniously; Paul has some blood under his nose and on his upper lip.
Violence: We see many scenes of battles – mostly with knives and swords – either in reality or in visions of the future; One such vision shows piles of burning bodies; A man fights off a room full of men with swords (with lots of stabbing and fighting); Paul is forced to put his hand inside a box that will cause him pain. A woman threatens to kill him with a needle to his neck if he takes his hand out. He then forces himself to endure the pain until the woman says he can stop (he then removes his hand and it looks perfectly fine); A buglike probe burns through a wall and hovers in front of a person’s face. He then catches it and destroys it; We see some flying vehicles get destroyed; A building is attacked and many people are slaughtered; We see a vision of two people fighting with blades and one of them dying; An actual knife fight results in a person being stabbed and dying; A huge, menacing sandworm swallows some people; Some people flee a gigantic sandworm; A person commits suicide by biting down on a poison capsule that spills toxins into the air, killing everyone nearby; An army rushes into battle, presumably to their death; And other action/sci-fi violence.