When asked by a friend to summarize with just one word my reactions to the newest Dune screen incarnation, I replied “Finally!”, because that’s how I felt once the movie was over: finally, Frank Herbert’s work has been translated on the big screen with as much accuracy in respect of the original material as the change in mediums allows.
It’s not perfect, granted, mostly because we were prevented from appreciating the whole story due to a deplorable lack of faith from the industry which led to the filming of just one half of the story before committing to the project in its entirety, but I appreciated and enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s vision in a way I was unable to with the previous attempts.
And before launching into the review proper, I feel the need to address the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the comparison with the 1984 movie directed by David Lynch (I prefer to forget the existence of the 2000 TV mini-series for a number of reasons I will not list here). I rewatched Lynch’s Dune a couple of weeks before the new movie’s theatrical release, and while I still maintain that it is visually amazing, I could see more clearly its shortcomings, which have less to do with the changes in viewers’ tastes and styles of cinematography than with the director’s “imprint”.
The 1984 movie feels excessively burdened by the huge amount of inner musings employed to convey Herbert’s complex world-building, and it suffers from unequal pacing since it follows more or less faithfully the original material in its first half, only to rush far too quickly in the second. Moreover, some of the acting – particularly where the Harkonnens are concerned – is way over the top, as if screenwriter and director feared that the audience would be unable to understand they were the “bad guys”: the choice to have them constantly laugh maniacally and to add a good portion of blood and gore to their scenes had the effect – at least from my point of view – of turning them into caricatures rather than figures to be feared. I’m not completely onboard with the way the character of Paul Atreides was written and performed, as well, but I don’t want to indulge in a prolonged nitpicking session…
As far as visuals go, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune looks more… pared down to essentials, for lack of a better definition: buildings and ships lean toward stark geometric forms, costumes tend more to the utilitarian than the flashy and the overall photography shows a preference for darker, primal shades – the greys, blues and blacks of Caladan and the earth and sand tones of Arrakis. This choice had the effect, for me, to enhance my concentration on the characters and my immersion in the images and the story which, no matter how familiar I am with it, remains a compelling one: after all, that’s what we look for in works of the imagination – for an absorbing tale, one that can take us away from everyday reality for a while.
Equally pared-down, but still able to convey the necessary information, is the world-building: I tried to put myself in the shoes of a viewer not familiar with Herbert’s work and found that the story is quite understandable even without the huge voiceover info-dumps of its predecessor: I know for a fact that SFF audiences possess the kind of mental agility that allows them to connect the dots without need for external help, and it looks as if Villeneuve relies on this very assumption as he presents this future background without offering footnotes, or just hinting at them in a few brief snippets of dialogue.
And last but not least, I appreciated how the character of Paul Atreides was portrayed: not the carefree young man who finds himself invested with the promise of godhood and in the end totally embraces it, but rather a teenager quite unsure of his role in life who discovers he’s been maneuvered toward a path not of his own choosing, which in the end will cause first a profound breach with the mother who shaped him so and then will leave him somewhat distrustful of the future role he’s called to play. This is the way I always envisioned Paul in the book, and I hope that Part 2 of the movie – if it will be filmed – will focus more on this aspect of his personality rather than on the “hero’s journey” side of his narrative arc, which to me is far less relevant than the existential turmoil that’s part of his psychological makeup.
It’s difficult to review what is essentially half a story, and I have to admit that at the end of the 2 and a half hours of screen time I felt the incompleteness of it all – even though the movie ends in such a way as to organically support the infamous “to be continued” – but rather than be disappointed for the lack of closure, I prefer to remain optimistic that the public will acknowledge the validity of this first installment and reward it with the success necessary to allow its completion.