By Bradley Lane
The scope of Denis Villeneuve’s newest blockbuster Dune is massive. Both in the literal scale of the elements of the world and in the ambitiousness of Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling science-fiction epic. What makes Dune most interesting however, is that the otherworldly large-ness of the film is both its greatest strength and its most deep seeded flaw. In its pursuit to awe audiences with its massive spectacle, it loses sight of the characters that inhabit the richly detailed larger-than-life world. What’s worse though is that for all its scale and spectacle, because of the nature of the adaptation Villeneuve chose to pursue, I find most audiences will be disappointed by the abruptness of Dune’s cliffhanger ending.
Dune, as a piece of literature, has a reputation for being difficult to parse with the lavish amount of detail author Frank Herbert chooses to embed within his story filled with alien sounding proper nouns and thousands of years of alternate human history to work through. However, a key strength of the 2021 film adaptation is that it is remarkably easy, with the requisite amount of audience engagement, to make sense of the setting, politics and character dynamics of the world. Essentially the plot boils down to an heir of a powerful family empire being trained into power, as his family is assigned a dangerous new planet to rule over by a higher galactic power.
The cast of 2021’s Dune is stacked with talent. The large ensemble is uniformly great, despite some characters lacking necessary screen time and depth within their material. Standouts include Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Harkonnen and my personal favorite performance of the film, Babs Olusanmoku as Jamis. What works against these generational talents is that despite a fittingly massive two-and-a-half-hour runtime there is just so much ground to cover in the worldbuilding process that we get so little time with most of these characters they tend to lose narrative weight as the plot progresses.
I do not want to be misunderstood; by no means is Dune a poorly made film. I think it is about as good as this style of adaptation could be done. The problem arises from the issue of how to adapt the expansive source material. I thought afterward something like an HBO mini-series would be a better fit, to develop the characters and world over time, but that goes against the extremely cinematic way in which this film is meant to be consumed thanks to its explosive sound design and enormous scale. It’s a true catch-22 in that no matter what medium was selected for the work something would be lost in the process.
Thankfully, I do think that thanks to a freshly announced sequel in the works, Dune will retroactively get better as the world building and character development of its first part is able to be paid off in subsequent films. Dune is a flawed movie, but it is absolutely worth seeing on the largest screen you can find in theaters now, or on HBO Max. 3.5/5 stars