Premise: Feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, about the son of a noble family entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is a highly respected work of science fiction that’s influenced storytellers for decades. The novel tells the story of Paul Atreidis, a young man who has visions of his destiny while his present is rife with conflict and danger as his House arrives at the nearly inhospitable planet Arakkis so they can assume control over the planet’s Spice (a hallucinogenic substance needed for interstellar travel) production for the Empire.
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation is stunningly gorgeous and heavily front loaded with exposition and world building. While this is usually to the detriment of a film, it’s commendable that Dune can deliver such dense lore and mythology to the film medium without collapsing under its own heavy subject matter. As this is Villeneuve’s passion project, it tells its story amidst a dense backdrop of imperial rule, warring houses, harsh worlds, and inhospitable environments with reverence for the material and care to the visuals. But it’s in the central story of Paul Atreidis, the young son of Duke Leto Atreidis, next in line to lead House Atreidis, where the film falters considerably.
There’s a wealth of complexity to Paul’s journey and inner conflict in theory. He’s a person being pulled in several different directions, faced with doubt about what his future may hold. His father expects him to lead House Atreidis, while his mother suspects he may be the Kwisatz Haderach or Chosen One of the Bene Gesserit who may be capable of immense power including the ability to traverse time and space. Meanwhile, Paul has dreams of living a life among the Fremen, the indigenous people of Arakkis who subsist on the Spice. It’s a rich tapestry that should be mined for drama within Paul. Unfortunately, since the film is so focused on establishing the mythology, Paul’s arc falls by the wayside.
The film merely seems to pay lip service to Paul’s inner conflict. He gets one (admittedly strong) scene with his father where Duke Leto acknowledges his son’s reticence to follow in his footsteps. There’s a little more on the Bene Gesserit side, with Paul’s mother guiding him toward a certain destiny. Even still, there’s one somewhat sloppy scene where Lady Jessica tells Paul directly that some people in the Bene Gesserit believe he may be the Kwisatz Haderach. Aside from those moments, Paul’s conflict and visions of Arakkis simply don’t feel substantial enough.
Paul’s journey becomes secondary to the political machinations and brewing conflict between House Atreidis and House Harkkonen and, by extension, the Empire itself. This is interesting and compelling in its own right and it does lead to the film’s most spectacular visual effects moments. However, it also robs the film of the emotional journey of Paul Atreidis and the myth building of the character therein. Given that the film features a young actor of such dramatic caliber as Chalamet, it’s simply a shame to see him not given free reign to explore the character’s inner conflict in his performance. The lack of depth to the characterization is even more frustrating given the stupendous characterization given to Ryan Gosling’s K character in Blade Runner 2049.
In truth, Dune simply feels too plot-driven to focus on characterization. While this does make the spectacle of the story particularly jaw-dropping in execution, it ultimately makes Dune feel slightly lifeless. It becomes meandering in parts as the audience searches for some kind of emotional resonance in the story only to likely come up short. And while Dune does have a slightly shorter runtime to Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (a difference of about 15 minutes, all told), its plot is not nearly as brisk as 2049. While 2049 gave us awe-inspiring visuals to compliment K’s story, Dune seems too reliant on its visuals to carry a considerably weaker character arc.
Dune‘s shortfall in this regard is due in large part to it being Part One of a two-part adaptation. Even though it is absolutely the right choice to split Dune into two parts, Villeneuve goes about it in the wrong manner. An obvious comparison can be made to Andy Muschietti’s adaptations of Stephen King’s It. With It (2017), Muschietti told half of the story in the novel, yet it was its own self-contained narrative. While admittedly Dune‘s source material does not necessarily have the same advantage of a narrative structure conducive to an adaptation such as It, the comparison still stands because Villeneuve’s Dune is simply not a complete story.
There are no character arcs that feel conclusive enough at the end of the film to pull us into a second chapter down the road. Instead, the film leaves us with the mere promise of the continuation of the story in a future installment that, in light of the industry upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is not necessarily guaranteed. Even without the pandemic, however, Dune would still be leave you frustrated and unfulfilled, despite the stunning visuals and well established lore and world-building.
Dune opens in theaters and on HBOMax October 22nd.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.
Leave a Reply