Dune has long been regarded as a book that is impossible to adapt to film. David Lynch’s attempt in 1984 seemed to further prove this statement. Denis Villeneuve’s take on the lauded book was supposed to be the one, however. The French Canadian filmmaker has excelled at making science fiction films in the past, after all.
Before the movie’s release, Villeneuve stated his film should be seen on the biggest screen possible. He compared watching Dune on HBO Max to “driving a speedboat in a bathtub” and has been critical of the film being simultaneously released in theaters and on a streaming service. (In Villeneuve’s defense, he has also made it clear that Warner Bros has been supportive in marketing the film.)
An argument can be made for artistic integrity and the theater experience. Villeneuve has crafted stunning films and it would make sense he would want the cinematography to be fully appreciated on the big screen. And he is absolutely right about Dune. It needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, because aside from its amazing visuals, there is no reason to watch it.
The world Frank Herbert built in his sprawling sci-fi epic is on display for the eye to see, but is otherwise only touched upon. What Dune does with House Atreides and House Harkonnen sums up the movie well. There are a number of characters with awesome names, but none of them have any depth. We get Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is supposed to be the Chosen One (I think), but is that a good or bad thing? What drives him and keeps him up at night? Why should I care about him?
The same can be said of everyone in Dune. Duke Leo Atreides (Oscar Isaac) seems like a nice enough guy who has everyone’s best interest at heart but also seems to be driven by power and money. Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) is a repugnant villain whose motivations are clear (greed), but who is otherwise one-dimensional.
It would seem that Villeneuve knew where the movie was lacking. It is doubtful there will be a film this year that is more visually impressive than Dune. Seeing it on the small screen does take away from much of the film’s charm. But it also points out the lack of story. The special effects are little more than very impressive and expensive smoke and mirrors.
There is little dialogue in Dune. This would not be a problem if any insight was given to the characters. Instead, there are long moments of silence broken by a wordy monologue that explains little or Paul asking, “You good?” when his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) puts on some armor.
(The lack of sand dancing was also a huge letdown.)
There is no tension to the political intrigue, no sense of satisfaction when Leto gets the last bite. It is a series of loosely connected things that are happening. It would seem the books have more nuance than was capable of being put on film. There are a number of relationships in Dune that never go beyond the surface level.
Compare this to the Marvel Cinematic Universe which is working with decades of lore. There are things that only a fan of Marvel comics fan can truly appreciate, but this does not shut the door from someone who has never picked up an issue of Avengers in their life. The barrier of entry is intentionally left low for all to enjoy.
Denis Villeneuve seems to have decided to go with style over substance in an attempt to please the Dune fan base while attracting those unfamiliar with the books. Most would agree this is the best adaptation of the book and there is no denying it looks spectacular. But unless you already liked the franchise, there is no point in seeing this.
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