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  • by Jeff Beck

Dune (2021): A Visually-Stunning Adaptation with a Flawed Foundation

Merely a few years after the publication of Frank Herbert's groundbreaking science-fiction novel "Dune" in 1965, filmmakers wanted to bring its incredible story to the big screen. The problem was, with the book being of such an epic and ambitious scope, a film adaptation would somehow have to bring all of that to the screen in a convincing manner: the multitude of characters, the fantastical planets, and its unique settings all presenting quite the challenge for even the most seasoned director.

One of the early attempts was by noted writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky ("El Topo," "The Holy Mountain"), whose adaptation (documented quite well in the marvelous film "Jodorowsky's Dune") no doubt would've been fascinating, but sadly it never happened. The first adaptation that did get made was by David Lynch in 1984, but thanks to lots of studio interference and a forced, shortened runtime, this version turned into a pretty big mess, ultimately rushing through the events of the epic novel. Luckily, writer/director John Harrison put together a miniseries adaptation for Syfy in 2000 that turned out quite well, relaying the enormous scope of the novel rather skillfully over the course of about four and a half hours.

The miniseries still stands as a great adaptation, but now, 20 years later, Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve has decided to take on the incredible task of being the next filmmaker to tackle Herbert's beloved tome. He's already shown that he has quite a lot of skill behind the camera with films like "Arrival" and "Blade Runner 2049," but is he visionary enough to bring such an ambitious and truly epic tale to life?

The story of "Dune" centers on two rival houses, Atreides and Harkonnen. As the film starts, the Emperor has declared that House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), will take control of the desert planet Arrakis (aka "Dune"), the only known source of "spice," which is considered the most important and valuable substance in the galaxy. The Duke's family, including his son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), move to the planet to take over the mining of the spice, but find it something of a mess after the Harkonnen departed.

We quickly discover that Paul is no ordinary young man, learning special skills from his Bene Gesserit mother and having dreams that are of special significance, leading to the possibility that he may be the answer to a long-foretold prophecy, which is compounded by another prophecy told by the natives of Arrakis ("Fremen"). Meanwhile, the Harkonnen, led by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), plot their revenge, eventually leading to a confrontation backed by a surprising co-conspirator.

It can easily be said that Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" is easily the best-looking adaptation of the novel yet. The 1984 version certainly had its charms, and the 2000 version looked great for the time, but in the subsequent years, filmmaking has come a long way, allowing Villeneuve to do so much more than was possible before. The production design, costumes, special effects, cinematography, Villeneuve's direction, on top of the score and sound, all blend together to bring these extraordinary worlds to life. The results are simply jaw-dropping to see, and are definitely fitting for the massive scope that any adaptation would require to make this unusual tale believable on the screen.

However, that's what makes this next part so utterly heartbreaking. While the visuals are certainly top-notch, and brilliantly brought to the screen, the adaptation of the material itself is sadly lacking. In a similar vein to how the 1984 version rushed through much of the story (obviously a forced necessity because of the runtime), Villeneuve's new version has some strange pacing issues that see the film dragging through parts that could be trimmed down, while rushing through important plot points and events. It's a testament that I found myself asking several times "If I hadn't read the book, and seen the other two adaptations several times, would I have any idea what's going on here?". It wouldn't be altogether surprising to find audience members sitting through this adaptation with a rather puzzled expression on their face.

As a further consequence, characters are not established very well. By the end of these two and a half hours, we don't really know much about Paul Atreides or what he's going through, nor do we know much about his mother, the Bene Gesserits, or their prophecy. And that's on top of barely even getting to see the antagonists of the story: The Harkonnen. The screenplay, by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Villeneuve, seems to be the film's over-arching problem. They don't take time for the important parts of the narrative or for fleshing-out the primary characters of the piece, leading to an adaptation that feels only partially complete (and not because it's only the first half of the novel).

It makes it rather disconcerting that part one turned out this way because the first half of the novel is far more interesting than the second, which primarily features activities in the desert, so while I'd still like to keep my hopes up that a second film will turn out well (if it ends up getting made, that is), it would seem that that would also have to include hoping that Villeneuve and his fellow screenwriters take their time to improve the character development and pacing.

Ultimately, Villeneuve's adaptation ends up being a disappointing mixed bag. Again, the film's visual components are astounding, many of which will no doubt be top contenders for many below-the-line categories at the upcoming Oscars. However, it's all held back by a flawed foundation, resulting in an adaptation that just doesn't tell Herbert's story very well. It could very well be that part two will be a big improvement, but unless the writers buckle down and fix the vital elements that were lacking here, it would seem destined to turn out the exact same way. 2.5/4 stars.

In theaters and streaming on HBO Max starting tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.


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