DUNE (2021) Review

Audacious sci-fi scale, but a vapid adaptation. Dune is a stunning sci-fi/action visual spectacle that delivers rich imagery and epic fight choreography; but falls short in translating the thoughtful, complex themes and mythology of the source material, which get buried in heavy handed exposition or are entirely cut. Dune (part one) is the first part of the of an epic sci-fi tale about Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto of house Atreides and Lady Jessica, a sister of the Bene Gesserit who are sent by the Padisha Emperor from their home world Caladan to govern the Planet Arrakis after the Departure of House Harkonnen. If you haven’t read the book and this sentence sounds overly expositional and convoluted to you this is how you’re going to feel throughout 80% of the films dialogues. However, I’m sure you’re not going to see Dune for the dialogue and it has plenty to offer aside from that.

Director Denis Villeneuve wanted to make this a “Star Wars for adults” and with that he succeeded. Dune boasts impressive visuals and epic conflict but in a more mature manner than the Star Wars films. Instead of using colorful light sabers people are stabbing each other with actual knives. Still not much blood is seen, thanks to the film’s PG 13 rating, but that seems to be unavoidable in today’s industry. The Designs are kept very close to the book, especially the Ornithopters which actually have flapping wings unlike in previous adaptation by David Lynch. Some of it may be because of the improved technology after nearly 40 years but I believe the production designers were definitely trying to stay faithful to the source material. All in all the depictions of technology, lifeforms and other things will satisfy fans of the book, although the production design was a bit too monochromatic for my personal taste. The visual direction is similar to other works by Villeneuve: simple and effective. The camera itself is not here to show off. That’s what the Sandworms, spaceships and battles are for. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is dark and moody, which fits the more adult tone this film is going for.

Continuing with its mission to be an adult Star Wars, it’s also more complex editing wise with mystic visions by the protagonist Paul sprinkled throughout the film by Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator editor Joe Walker. The visual effects shots are done in similar manner to the rest of the camerawork. They are impressive but only there to move the story along and not at all show-offy. The hand to hand combat sequences, of which there are quite a few, most of which look very practical are impressive as well. One can clearly see the effort the actors put into making them appear so effortless. That also includes the main cast, no stunt doubles here! There is one early fight or rather training scene between Chalamet (Paul Atreides) and Brolin (Gurney Halleck) where their skills are put on full display.

Now the actors of which this film has many and many famous ones also did very well, even despite the fact that most of their job consists of spouting exposition and fighting. Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica being the clear standout and stealing every scene she’s in. Timothée Chalamet has his edgy teenager moment, which in this case fits the character who is still coming to terms with his new place in the complicated conflicts and power structures of Dune but doesn’t really have any other stand out moments. Zendaya, the other perhaps controversial star of this film, also doesn’t stand out much, neither in a negative nor positive way. Her character only really appears in the film towards the end so there’s not really enough to see for a final verdict.

Now on to the not so good aspects of the film. Although the conflict in Dune is still very complex and probably closer to Game of Thrones than Star Wars it’s still very simplified if not dumbed down compared to the complex political intrigues and power plays of the novel to fit the limited runtime of the film format. The complex world of the Dune universe also has to be explained to viewer somehow, which here is mostly done through expositional dialogue. The exposition is well integrated to the story as Paul, the protagonist is also learning about most of these things but it can become a bit overbearing as said before. This can leave viewers who are not familiar with the source material overwhelmed and confused about the particularities of the story and story world. Nevertheless the film should still be enjoyable as an epic sci fi tale about family, power and mysticism, even if it takes some time to understand surrounding lore. Hopefully this film will also motivate a new generation of Dune fans to dive into the world that Frank Herbert created in his books.

Written by German correspondent Leon Zitz.
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