For years, Frank Herbert’s Dune has been considered unfilmable. And having seen Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation, maybe the problem with all of the other Dune adaptations really is the source material itself. Dune: Part One, as the movie repeatedly calls itself, adapts roughly the first half of Herbert’s novel. And it shows. For most of its runtime, Dune feels less like a movie and more like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer for a different movie. And instead of reaching any kind of climax, the film just ends. Like it’s an episode of an ongoing serialized TV show, coming to a sudden cliffhanger to entice you to tune in the following week.
And maybe that’s the best way to adapt something like Dune—as an ongoing TV series in the vein of Game of Thrones or Apple TV’s Foundation. Dune could really benefit from the kind of expanded runtime a TV series can provide. Because even though the movie doesn’t try to adapt the entire story of the novel, it feels like there’s nowhere near enough time to explore everything the movie’s trying to explore. So, instead of getting to see things like why House Atreides is such a threat to the Empire, we’re just told these things in long exposition dumps. Leto (Oscar Isaac) is purportedly a charismatic public speaker, but we hardly see him give any speeches. Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa) is a brilliant warrior, but we hardly see him fight. Etc, etc, etc. With how strong Villeneuve’s visuals are, it’s a shame that he so often falls into the trap of telling instead of showing. Exposition told through visuals will always be more interesting than long swaths of exposition-heavy dialogue.
Dune also prioritizes its world-building over any real character arcs or narrative momentum to the point that it forgets to make its characters interesting. And without captivating characters who make you invested in their story, it’s hard to care about whatever the movie is supposed to be about. The biggest example of this problem is Timothee Chalamet’s Paul. Ostensibly the main character, you go the entire movie without understanding what’s driving Paul, what he wants. He seems to want to prove himself and/or to survive through all of the ordeals he goes through on Arrakis. But it never feels like he has any agency in the story. All of these big things keep happening to him, and around him, and he’s just kind of there. There’s even this whole Chosen One storyline draped onto his shoulders, but you’re never sure how much Paul believes in his specialness at any given moment. And without a compelling lead character, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a story. More like you’re experiencing a report of a story.
So, while there is a lot to like about Dune—its visuals are stunning, its action sequences are bombastic, Hans Zimmer’s score is perfect, and the performances are largely solid—the movie just didn’t work for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was boring, but it felt pretty cold and emotionless the whole time. And regardless of how interesting all of the politics and larger storylines were (and they were, admittedly, pretty interesting), I never found myself invested in the characters. Which made it pretty difficult for me to care much about the story at all. I’m sure many will adore Dune. But it wasn’t for me.
2.5 out of 5 wands.
PS: If you’re watching this because of how prominent Zendaya was in the marketing, don’t. She has less than ten minutes of screentime, and you’ll ultimately be disappointed. However, she’ll presumably play a larger part in the sequel. So, there’s that.