The good, the bad, and the spice (Dune 2021 Review)

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Warner Bros. Pictures

(Photo Credit: MGN Online)

I give Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune a thumbs up, 9/10 and a “please go watch it.” First off, this article has spoilers, so if you want to go see this movie before reading, go do that now. We can nerd out about it together after you finish watching!

First off, I should admit my total bias: I am a huge Dune fan, largely familiar with the source material and everything Dune. With that said, I watched with someone who was completely unfamiliar with Dune. They gave some valuable insight that I did not have while watching.

The thing that stood out to me the most when I watched Dune was the emphasis on sound design, music and imagery. This Dune, unlike David Lynch’s Dune (1984), goes above and beyond when attempting to replicate scenery and imagery in the novel. Frank Herbert, the author of the original 1965 novel, was famous for his world-building. While this movie does not build the world fully to the level that the novel does, I am not sure that any movie is capable of such a task; they simply do not have the time. This movie does an amazing job at building the world of Dune up in an extremely short amount of time.

Let me address the elephant in the room that I have heard, both in the theater and in reviews, this movie has two parts at the very least. The original Dune novel is huge, and dividing the book in half has helped give time to build the story, which is critical for a new viewer trying to enter a sci-fi world on par with the scale of Star Wars or Star Trek. For some, this may be upsetting, but I think this is for the best. Dune deserves to be more than a single movie. Truthfully, if this franchise gains legs, it has enough source material that it could be transformed into a nine or ten movie long series to parallel the giant that is Star Wars. I believe once the second part is done, these movies will be played consecutively, and they will only be able to improve the world-building for new audiences.

From a design standpoint, this movie does an excellent job at conceptualizing the diverse range of imagery from the original Dune. Everything from the sound, to the music, to the design of vehicles, clothes and tools all emphasize and build settings in the viewer’s mind. Giedi Prime (The Harkonenn’s HomeWorld) makes your skin crawl with its cold dark half machine half organic lifeforms. Caladan reminds me of the Scottish Highlands, right down to bagpipes. Salusa Secundus is intimidating and oppressive. The sight of Akkaris makes my mouth dry and my eyes burn. There is one divergence from the source material I particularly enjoyed, Villeneuve uses music in particular to show differences between species. In the novel cultural, differences are distinguished between the factions (in reference to cultures on earth), but the use of music takes this a step farther, helping the viewers distinguish who they see on screen and where they are.

Every actor in this movie was well cast with only a few minor gripes on my part. Zendaya’s Chani has a huge role to play, but really only for the second half of the story. She either needed to be used more or emphasized less in the marketing of the film. Jason Momoa is Duncan Idaho. He is perfectly adequate for the role in this movie, but if this movie sprouts into a franchise he arguably has one of the biggest roles, and I am not entirely convinced he has the range required for his character. What I saw of him looked great, but what we were given is a very small taste of a dynamic character. The final and only glaringly obvious selection for me is Dave Bautista as Rabban Harkonen (Beast). On paper, he is perfect for the role, but unfortunately, his previous roles as other bald aliens made me constantly wait for him to make a joke that never came. I am sure they were aware of this when filming and as a result, his character feels overacted which is almost amazing seeing as how the character only has two identifiable traits, anger and stupidity. All three were cast for this movie to draw star attention. They brought in a lot of people that they might have otherwise passed over for Dune and for that I see their purpose, but there are definitely actors that could have been better suited for the long-haul scale that this movie can lead to.

Next, this movie should have been rated R. Dune is extremely violent, and the violence is not for fluff or gory entertainment. It serves to show the brutality of Akkaris and the Harkonens. I am not a lover of gore and violence, but if the Barron or beast is going to behead someone you need to see it or at least not have it be hidden for the sake of making it PG-13. Barron is one of the biggest villains in the entire book and this would have made it extremely clear how purely calculating and brutal he is. I know this movie is PG-13 for the same reason it has big-name actors, for the cash flow.

Speaking of villains, I have mixed feelings about the use of villains in this movie. The Barron in the book is a cold, brutal, self-serving, calculating mind, with a hulking oppressively large body. In the movie, you get a taste of this, but I can also reduce his movie representation to “creepy, fat, muttering, goth guy.” With that said I do like keeping the emperor more mysterious and perhaps more importantly, faceless. Spending the time getting to know him would be almost as pointless as properly showing Chani at the end of the movie – there are just simply more important things the movie could have spent time on for the first half.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get to the things I love about this movie. I love how the still suits look, paying respect to Lynch’s Dune, and are able to get much closer to building the advanced water reclamation suits described by Frank Herbert. They do not look so strange that they are distracting to the viewer but still are clearly alien with a clear purpose. The other costume sets also complement the species, The Atradies are dressed the most familiar to our sensibilities, and in turn, the villains are dressed in the most alien garments available.

There are two scenes that I absolutely adore in this movie, for two completely different reasons. The first one was the palm tree scene. For new viewers, this introduces a lot of Dune ideas that are very difficult to convey. The extreme importance of water on Arrakis, the lack of ‘traditional’ native plant life, the measuring of water in people, and finally the extreme religious furor of the Fremen and their often self-defeating aspirations. All of this is packed into a scene under five minutes long.

My favorite scene was Dr. Liet Kyne’s death. I was unsure about the changes they made to her character, and I wish she had been developed more, but the replication of her death scene was extremely impactful. I appreciated how they created not only an awesome scene but an extremely meaningful one. Her being swallowed alive would have landed harder with more character development, but with that said she did a lot without having it.

With everything that was discussed in mind, I really loved this movie. It made one of my favorite fictional worlds come to life with the respect that it deserves, and made it accessible to people who otherwise would never have enjoyed it. When the second part comes out it will be even better, and I am already itching for the director’s cut. I really hope it makes up for the character development I missed, likely due to rating and run time.