Frank Herbert’s fantastical space fable has often been considered to be a source material unfit for a cinematic adaptation. David Lynch took a bash at it back in 1984, unfortunately, the final product buckled under the weight of its hefty content matter. Dune is a vast, sprawling text, one brimming with intergalactic politics and cosmic worldbuilding. Cramming all that content into a two or three hour narrative is bound to cause a bit of strain.
Fast forward a few decades, and we now have sci-fi extraordinaire Denis Villeneuve’s attempt at Herbert’s celestial romp. What’s perhaps most important to note about Villeneuve’s version relates to the logistical approach he’s applied to the story. Instead of jamming every plot point and backstory into a singular narrative, the story has been broken up into two parts. Framed as Dune: Part One during its opening credits, the 137 minutes of screen time dedicates itself to setting up Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and Lady Jessica’s (Rebecca Ferguson) journey as they venture into the Arrakis desert following the devastation inflicted upon their House of Atreides. Dividing the narrative into two distinct films is a decision that does come with a couple of pre-established setbacks, yet fortunate for all, Villeneuve’s masterful filmmaking capabilities make’s this world-setting introductory chapter an enthralling and gorgeous piece of cinema that’s a delight to witness.
There are times in which Dune (2021) feels as though it’s on the cusp of buckling under its own weight, only for it to rebalance itself each time it starts to destabilise. Perhaps one one its saviours in this respect is the visual scope of the story. Villeneuve has created a cinematic space that feels preposterously gargantuan in size. Vast landscapes, dazzling space fleets, enchanting alien cultures and impossible kingdoms flood the screen. The continuous revelation of new worlds, terrains and technology thread right the way through; constantly keeping audiences in a state of awe. Rarely is there a moment in which something glaring and unique glides into view. The expansive scale creates a similar experience to Villeneuve’s accomplishments in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), in which Villeneuve successfully built (or rebuilt) a world so colossal and all encompassing, it was far too easy for viewers to get lost within his neverending maze of exotic constructions. As we glide amidst fantastic architectures and populations, we become consumed within them; a blissful passenger content with exploring strange new worlds. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune is very much a film that uses modern filmmaking tools to its advantage, constructing expansive fictional realms that would make even the likes of James Cameron blush.
Having the visuals match the scale of the subject matter helps to keep audiences on side. Nevertheless, it’s not a sure-fire formula for success. Dune is a big, baggy science fiction tale that’s going to need more than snazzy vistas and gorgeous set designs. It’s an example of world building at its most ambitious. A story built upon an assortment of off-world cultures and political disputes. To put it bluntly, it makes for a busy story that’s likely to overwhelm or bore a fair few people. Much like the book, there are plenty of times throughout this movie in which it feels as though you’re watching an intergalactic retelling of George R.R. Martin’s a Song of Fire and Ice series. There’s a lot of exposition and backstory to get through in order to get the narrative moving forward. Villeneuve managed to keep the story from ever grinding to a halt by having dumps threaded throughout the film’s use of video books, as well as alongside the unfolding action. He doesn’t pause the action to explain, opting instead to communicate the story’s context as various events unfold. Similarly to how Christopher Nolan delivered plot details in Inception (2010), Villeneuve does a good job of not treating audiences like idiots; refusing to hammer exposition into our heads on a constant basis. He delivers the story under the pretence that everyone is all on more or less the same page. For the most part, this works. While there are moments in which the context of the story may get a little foggy, the general shape and confidence of the storytelling provides enough information clarify the general shape of what is actually happening.
Perhaps the one area in which Dune does falter somewhat is in its decision to slice the story in two. As already mentioned, there is a logistical reason to tell this story through multiple instalments – giving the plot enough time to unfold at a healthy place, establish a fictional world packed full of backstory, introduce us to the story’s key players – nevertheless, this decision does have a few drawbacks that are extremely difficult to outrun. Such shortcomings don’t come into play until the final act of the film, which doesn’t really feel like a final act at all. It’s more like the middle of act two, which technically, it is. This makes for a jarring and surprisingly non-epic finale to a film that’s just spent the past two and a half hours establishing itself as a larger-than-life spectacle. Shifting the scale in this manner feels jarring and a little lackluster. The transition from screen time to end credits feels unexpected in much the same way that many trilogies or multipart stories do when each of its non-climactic chapters close shop. It may not ruin the movie, though it does take something away from it.
Mapping the narrative out over two features has a slight impact on several of the film’s characters too. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the character of Chani (Zenday). The film goes to great lengths to depict her as a key player, utilising her for both the opening and closing of the movie, as well as having her feature in numerous dream/hallucination sequences. She frames and punctuates a last portion of this movie, yet despite this, her physical presence is surprisingly thin. She’s essentially geared up as a protagonist to a film that doesn’t exist at this moment in time. While Chani’s presence will most certainly be felt in Villeneuve’s 2023 follow up, here she exists in the backdrop. Similarly, the film’s antagonists – Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista) – are lacking a presence also. You could argue that having them lingering in the background, puppeteering the atrocities playing out, adds a layer of menace to their personas. It’s not until the third act, in which the closing conflict shifts to a much more domestic and seemingly unrelated matter, that their absence begins to be felt. Much like Chani, Baron and Beast function as a payoff that never comes to pass in this film. This goes hand-in-hand with being part one of a two part story, and it’s not a flaw. It just means this movie’s going to feel somewhat incomplete for a couple of years. Thank goodness Warner Bros have greenlit the sequel, as it would have been much too frustrating had all this ended with the closing credits of this movie.
On the whole. Dune is an exceptional piece of work that at times feels as though its pushing the art of visual storytelling to its absolute limit. It’s a movie that will dazzle and delight moviegoers with its offering of grand new realms capable of transporting you to another time and place. While its decision to operate over two chapters does make it feel somewhat unfinished, it’s a decision that makes a story considered to be un-filmable work within the cinematic medium. A blockbuster triumph that further establishes Dennis Villeneuve as an auteur similar to the likes of Nolan and Cameron.