The Dune series is everything sci-fi should be. Unlike the shallow but entertaining cliché that is the original Star Wars trilogy, or the works of everyone’s favourite sea captain/horn-dog L Ron Hubbard, Frank Herbert’s books have a depth that most literary fiction struggles to reach. Also, putting it under the sci-fi banner might be a misnomer given how much it focuses on the inter-personal and political, but hey, it has aliens and cool technology, and I really wanted to make that Hubbard joke, so here we are.
Translating such a rich world onto the big screen is a tough ask, especially one that stringently expounds on the parasitic nature of capitalism, and successfully plays with tropes movie-goers love like ‘the chosen one’. Even David Lynch, who successfully melded sci-fi, soap opera, and murder-mystery in Twin Peaks, couldn’t hack the complexity of Herbert’s work. For years the series seemed destined to remain a purely literary delight. But then we hit the century of the reboots nobody asked for (another Batman, seriously?), and Denis Villeneuve took on the task of adapting Dune to film. Thankfully, he does a damn good job of it.
First and foremost, Dune 2021 is a cinematographer’s wet dream. It’s the sort of film that needs to be seen on a screen the size of a small nation, or at least after micro-dosing mushrooms. Whether or not you enjoy the acting, the plot, or the sound of someone shuffling uncomfortably in their seat as the movie hits the two-hour mark and butts fall asleep en masse, you’ll be wowed by the aesthetics.
The casting is solid, especially Timothée Chalamet. After his performance in The King, Dune 2021 confirms he’s the only choice to play broody teens on the verge of grasping their destiny. Rebecca Ferguson is top-notch too, encapsulating the contradictions and complexity of Lady Jessica. The fight scenes are also expertly choreographed, keeping excitement up in a film that in moments drifts into the overly artsy.
Because the plot is so rich there’s some necessary exposition. If you’ve read the books, these moments are a bit like that Leo DiCaprio pointing at something meme. If you’re going in blind, it can get confusing as poor sound-mixing means some scenes are rendered almost impossible to hear, even with cinematic surround-sound. That, and the over-indulgence of slo-mo shots set to atmospheric music, are the main issues with the film.
Regardless, you’re always certain what’s happening and who to root for, which is all that really matters. After all, this is a film, not a novel, and despite anomalies like The Man from Earth and My Dinner with Andre, visual storytelling is what the medium is all about. The film ends about two-thirds of the way through the first book, which means sequels. But it’s definitely more Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit; time is needed to tell the story properly. And that’s part of why Dune 2021 is a great watch: despite high expectations, knowing exactly what happens, and having an inherent dislike of films that are over two-hours long, I was desperate to see more. There’s no higher praise than that.
Sandeep is a writer based in London. He recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2021. He loves all kinds of beer, from cheap lagers to stouts so dark they would fight for Sauron.