Denis Villeneuve released “Dune” (2021) into a dizzying sandstorm of expectations. The star-studded cast promised recognizable, idolized personalities, such as Timotheé Chalamet and Zendaya. Author Frank Herbert established the franchise decades ago and posthumously left Villeneuve a dedicated, literary fanbase. Commentators, and the director himself, urged audiences to see the film in theaters, lest its cinematic artistry go unappreciated.
Unfortunately, that sandstorm of anticipation pummels “Dune,” leaving a worn-down and underwhelming blockbuster in its wake.
Set in 10191 AD, Dune follows Paul Atreides (Timotheé Chalamet), the only son of Duke Leto (Oscar Issac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). The family rules Caladan — an ocean planet — until the Emperor reassigns them to Arrakis, a harsh desert planet. On Arrakis, “spice,” a highly coveted drug-like substance that enhances human capabilities and powers interstellar space travel, is harvested. Political turmoil ensues, and Paul finds himself thrust into a bloody war.
Villeneuve successfully translates the otherworldliness of Caladan, Arrakis and general galactic society through a consistent aesthetic vision. Close-up shots of vibrating sands and wide shots of the arid landscape, an ocean of dunes, envelop viewers in the vast loneliness Paul feels, dropped into unfamiliar, dangerous terrain. Bursts of burnt oranges, yellows and browns make one feel the oppressive nature of a cruel heat, a heat that necessitates mechanically by recycling one’s tears and sweat to stay alive.
But while “Dune” excels in the picturesque, it makes sacrifices in the narrative.
The story is a complicated one, requiring extensive world-building and explanations for intricate plot points. Unfortunately, unstable screenwriting is one of the film's biggest disappointments. While audiences are supposed to be made to feel the gravity of the complex crisis threatening the Atreides trio, gaps in effective dialogue ruin delicate, high-stakes moments.
When Paul and Lady Jessica narrowly escape Harkonnen henchmen by diving headlong into a dangerous sandstorm, they are thrown around in their “ornithopter,” an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings, for a nail-biting few minutes. Making it out alive, Paul turns to Lady Jessica with a casual, “You good?” Numerous other lapses in dialogue occur throughout the film. Though nitpicky, these moments jarringly contrast the serious tone Villeneuve attempts to adopt.
Additionally, despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, audiences are given little time to engage with or make sympathetic connections to consequential characters like Chani (Zendaya), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) or Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa). Though Zendaya was prominently featured in nearly every bit of marketing material for the film, she only appears for the last fifteen minutes. Zendaya speaks roughly thirty lines, mostly as an omnipotent, mysterious voice fit for Paul’s prophetic visions and dreams. One feels no attachment or brotherly bond to Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho as one might in the novels because Brolin and Momoa deliver standard, melodramatic warnings of danger to Paul, and then they are whisked off to some military or diplomatic business. Had the film’s allotted time been used more effectively, this discrepancy might have been wrangled back in, but it ultimately fails to pace itself.
If the second part of “Dune” is produced, as Villeneuve intends, many of the first installment’s overarching issues may be resolved. The film’s success at the box office and on HBOMax hints at a future where Chalament’s Paul Atreides lives on. The prospect is certainly exciting, giving audiences another chance to burrow themselves into the universe of a science fiction masterpiece. However, “Dune’s” reliance on a continuation speaks to the underwhelming qualities of its present narrative stage, no matter how beautifully it is packaged.