Dune (2021): First Impressions

dune2021Well, I’ve not long come back from watching Dune at the cinema- yes my first trip to the cinema since watching 1917 back in January 2020, a pandemic ago that seems so long ago now (hard to believe that in another world, I would have seen Dune a year ago already, and we’d be hearing reports of Part Two gearing up by now).

So what did I think? I really liked it, very much so. But I didn’t love it. Maybe my affair with Villeneuve’s Dune will be one of those gradual courtships, a friendship that deepens into full-blown love, but this certainly wasn’t an experience like watching his BR2049 back in 2017. Watching that film was like falling head over heels in love instantly, a passion that hasn’t diminished any since. I adore that film. Dune was different. It was amazing and impressive and it seemed to do most everything right, but there was something that just kept me at arms length from it.

Maybe its familiarity with the book, objectively noting creative decisions whilst watching the film, and maybe it was familiarity with David Lynch’s 1984 film, objectively noting moments with the same dialogue or doing the same scene in a different way or omitting something Lynch did, or doing something Lynch didn’t (or technologically couldn’t). Sometimes it was difficult to seperate it as a new adaptation of the book rather than a remake of the Lynch film, some of it was so close. Oddly, I could feel myself really enjoying the film more when it was showing stuff not in the Lynch film, like Paul and Jessica’s escape from the abandoned terraforming station, that sequence galvanised my attention or freed me from all the mental comparisons in the back of my head. It was a complex, oddly unique experience watching this film, its carrying all sorts of baggage that isn’t fair or deserved.  At least BR2049 was just in the shadow of a thirty-five year old movie (albeit it managed to also be a sequel to Blade Runner‘s source novel -arguably more faithfully than the 1982 film was). 

So what did I think? Is it ridiculous of me to suggest – no, seriously- that it wasn’t long enough? That maybe criticism of Villeneuve’s slow burn of BR2049 resulted in him too mindful of audience patience and resulted in him consciously keeping Dune moving at a steady pace that perhaps lost some character beats? I can imagine readers at this point rolling their eyes in horror. Yes, maybe I’m being ridiculous to suggest I’d have preferred three hours of Dune over the two hours and thirty-five minutes we got. Would the extra twenty-five minutes have added anything? Maybe not. But I would have enjoyed more of Thufir Hawat and perhaps explanation of why we have Mentats and not iPads or AI supercomputers, or why we have shields and knives and not guns and blasters etc., some of the subtlety of world-building that makes the Dune novel so enticing and wonderful. Maybe I’m missing the Emperor and all those machinations that are clearly being left for Part Two. Lynch’s film struggled with exposition dumps in its first twenty minutes but in hindsight, the 1984 film’s opening scene with the Navigator interrogating the Emperor was a brilliant move and something I missed here. 

Really, that’s my only real fault with the film; that it wasn’t long enough (maybe I’m just greedy). The cast are largely excellent, bringing all the characters to life, and the imagery is just, well, pretty phenomenal, the yardstick for what any future sci-fi epic will be measured against for decades, surely. I’m not entirely convinced Zimmer was the right choice for composer, the film sounded like so many others whereas Johann Johannsson would have made it sound like nothing else we’d ever heard, but Fate has resulted in that being stolen from us (but surely there’s an alternative to Zimmer in this world?). The visual effects were as extraordinary as might be expected: given the time and budget these film wizards can conjure anything onscreen, it seems. Dune is absolutely a really impressive film and everything I’d hoped for. Its a film largely -painfully- without an ending but that’s just part of the deal of getting a part one and a part two and Dune finally -hopefully- being considered as one, five-hour long epic in a few years time. I wouldn’t put it past the producers to give us an extended cut before Part Two lands in cinemas in, what will it be, 2024? If only Villeneuve could have shot the two back-to-back in the manner Peter Jackson shot his Lord of the Rings

Well of course all this is the elephant in the back of the room – will we get a Part Two? Critical response seems largely positive, fans of the book seem to like it, and audiences seem to be going to the cinema to watch it, so it looks promising. But who knows? I’m not at all certain that as a single entity, Part One really works. It lacks closure. Intellectually I think they closed the film at the best place they could, given Villeneuve wasn’t going to repeat Lynch’s folly of trying to encompass the entirety of Dune in a single film, but emotionally when the credits rolled it felt rather anti-climatic. Even though I knew it was coming, it still hurt the film. The Part One moniker is really important, because this Dune is only half a  film, really, half the experience, and the best stuff is really yet to come. Maybe that’s the root of my coolness toward the film- its not the whole film.

I dearly hope we get to see it, because if Villeneuve gets to make Part Two and he nails it, well folks we’ve possibly got the definitive sci-fi epic we all dreamed of when reading Herbert’s novel. If we’ve still got physical disc formats and 4K UHD when Part Two joins Part One on my shelf, all the better, because boy, that double-bill will be a frequent and hugely enjoyable pleasure that I can only imagine right now. Yeah, I can dream about it, but as Duncan says in the film, “Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake” and boy, I want to be awake watching a five-hour Dune someday.


7 thoughts on “Dune (2021): First Impressions

  1. Insightful review! I know what you mean about it not completely pulling you in. It didn’t move me as much as Blade Runner 2049, but that movie took me two viewings to really fall deeply for it. I did really enjoy Dune, but felt little attachment to the characters. Some of them simply weren’t given enough screen time. I wanted more running time, too, so I’m hopeful for a Director’s Cut.

    It was doing well at the International Box Office, but releasing it on HBO Max at the same time as theatres in the US was a big mistake, I think. That’s put a big dent in the US box office. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have waited a few weeks. Ah well. I only hope we get a second movie. Glad you enjoyed it!

    1. That HBO Max thing is bizarre isn’t it, but getting back home from the cinema I must confess I rather wished I was in the US and could have sat down with a beer for an instant rewatch if only to make my peace with the film (with Dune I’m where you were with BR2049). The news today that Part Two has been officially announced is such a relief, that the HBO Max thing didn’t ruin the chance of a proper conclusion after all the hard work setting it up. I’m sure Part One will be reappraised when Part Two exists to complete the story, I know I feel more relaxed about it now that we won’t be left hanging with those final shots forever…

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    I expect you’re dreading a long, long reply here!
    But no, I felt exactly the same. It was very good but seemed to lack… eccentricity? Inspiration? Vitality? But I loved the occasional little details like the Sardaukar imam, and they completely nailed Ornithopters!

    The first hour dragged slightly – the dourness and colourlessness kept me from getting involved. The music was constant wall-to-wall noise (so so true about JJ, his music would have been perfect here).

    I’ll watch it again in the cinema, and at IMAX prices that’s saying something. But it’s a hard sell recommending this unhesitatingly to anyone.

    Having said that, my wife (who has no prior Dune experience) absolutely loved it from start to finish.

    1. Thank goodness, I thought it was just me! Since watching the film, I’ve caught up with the reviews and so many say its perfect or monumental etc and I was starting to wonder if I’d seen the same film. Yes, its very good, but its hardly perfect. The biggest issue is the ending, and the film is stuck with that for a few more years yet (but Part Two has officially been greenlit today so it won’t be forever). Other than that, yes, it just felt a little ‘off’. I’ve been wondering today if its actually a fault of the book and that the film is not uniquely responsible- the sheer scope, the number of characters, it rather distances us from Paul, funnily enough. In Arrival, we are wholly concerned with Louise’s point of view, and in BR2049, that of Officer K… but Dune has such a big story to tell we are spread pretty thin. Possibly its the traditional weakness of the Epic, but in Ben Hur (the film I always compare to Dune, funnily enough) we always identify with Charlton Heston, as Judah Ben-Hur carries us through the narrative. The seismic events don’t overshadow the personal story.

      In Dune, do we ever really ‘know’ Paul or are we ever able to wholly empathise with him?Dune is the first film that has made me think twice about Villeneuve’s ability as a storyteller but I suppose Dune is the sci-fi equivalent of Moby Dick so maybe I should cut him some slack…

      I also think Zimmer’s music (or sound design, I’m not sure which it was) is a weakness, but that’s possibly my personal thing about powerful music being a character of a film too; you know, themes, leitmotifs etc. We don’t even get a Harkonnen theme roaring over the attack etc, or if we did I missed it. Films are missing something these days, the way they treat music.

      Anyway, my reply is turning into a long essay like the ones you usually send me, lol. So I’ll cut it short now. Just glad someone agrees with me though that Dune isn’t really quite the homerun its cracked up be. It is bloody good, though!

      1. Matthew McKinnon

        Footnotes: there were a lot of strange omissions too – it was never explained why spice is so important (unless I missed it).

        The whole thing about the prescience it endows and its essential role in FTL travel and how that’s the cornerstone of galactic civilisation isn’t clear. That might have illuminated all the different power struggles a bit.

        And good clear bits of dialogue from the book were altered, seemingly because they’d been used in the Lynch film.

        I don’t think the HBO Max thing is necessarily deducted from potential box office take. I’m pretty sure they factor in how many times it’s watched on there and calculate the percentage of the revenues from subscriptions can be ascribed to each film: so if a million people watch Dune they’ll add that to the film’s theoretical earnings. And honestly, if it had been down to box office alone, we wouldn’t have got a Part II in today’s virus-riddled climate.

        Uh oh, it’s the essay you were dreading, isn’t it?

      2. One thing I have realised is that Lynch’s Dune was quite clever in introducing the Emperor and his machinations so early, its something I think Villeneuve’s suffers by, in comparison. I can understand the reasoning of holding him back, but that being the case I think they should have had more of the Baron, made him a bigger (sic) part of the narrative, a bigger foil of the Duke. The art-of book shows something of a deleted scene in which the Baron has left behind a wooden chest full of fingers cut from victims, for the Atreides to be horrified by. Things like that should have been kept in, likewise the suspicions of a traitor in their midst and Thufir thinking it was Jessica. For such a long film spreading the story over two films, they left an awful lot out.

  3. Pingback: The 2021 List: October – the ghost of 82

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