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Dune (2021) Review

9 min read
I've been moved.

Waiting for the sleeper to awaken.

What They Say:
Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence, only those who can conquer their own fear will survive.

The Review:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Honestly, scratch out the word review up top and replace it with thoughts. This film has quickly moved to a certain place for me.

With projects like this, I always feel like I need to give my bona fides for it. I had been given a copy of Children of Dune back as a twelve-year-old during a summer week at the beach where we’d go for the whole day. I burned through that book and worked my way backward to the first two of them and then wrapped up with the fourth (and personally my favorite) book. I ended up being so excited for the then-upcoming Dune film from David Lynch and it was my first exposure to how badly done a book-to-film adaptation can be. While I enjoyed the later TV adaptation that was done, I lamented the lack of a proper adaptation that was properly faithful while working the expected changes needed to move between mediums.

Watching this film with my mother and oldest daughter, who had finished the first half of the first book, was a wonderful experience even if none of us said a word during it because we were glued to the screen. Honestly, anything that I can come up with here is just a matter of quibbles and even then I feel bad for that because what was presented hit so well. I’ve talked and talked and written so much about Dune over the decades that I’m almost without words for it at this point. It is a straightforward film of basic politics where the Emperor is looking to eliminate the competition, namely Duke Leto and his Atreides family line, as they are a threat to his wealth and power. To do so, he’s assigned the family charge of Arrakis, a desert world where spice-mining is all that’s done there as the spice melange brings heightened awareness for the Bene Gesserit sisterhood as well as allowing for space travel between worlds thanks to the Navigators that consume it and have transformed their bodies because of it.

Arrakis has been under the control of the Harkonnen family for eight decades and the loss of it and all its wealth is going to have a massive impact on them. They’ve ruled the world with a cruel hand, beating down on the local populace, the Fremen, where they believe they number 50,000 or so. But the plan of the Emperor is that he is orchestrating with the Harkonnen, who have a long blood feud with the Atreides, to return to the world while the Duke is attempting to restart things after the sabotage of the exit. Supplying the Harkonnen with specialized troops will help in achieving that, and with the Harkonnens back in control by the end, the Emperor’s position is safe and the Harkonnens regain everything they lost and have earned more favor with the Emperor.

And all of this largely goes off without a hitch. We’re introduced to all these Atreides loyalists as they assume command of Arrakis and the films’ third act is all about the battle of control, which they lose in just about every way. It is, quite frankly, the opening chapter in a story that spans millennia. And while it’s not on screen, it’s about the cowardice of the son of the Duke, Paul Atreides, who is forced into a position where he has to be more than he wants. An early discussion with his father about being a leader involves Leto saying he wanted to be a pilot but he came into leadership in his own way, and that he expects Paul will do the same thing as well over time. For Paul, leadership doesn’t happen here but comes later, after the death of his father, the loss of his homeworld, and the loss of his new home on Arrakis. All that he has is his mother, a Bene Gesserit herself, named Jessica.

There are a lot of layers to this story, but one of the biggest pieces is pretty much the smallest of things as well, and not mentioned quite as clearly as it should have been I think. As is the case with many feuds that go on among “great houses” in literature and storytelling, there’s a single point where it all went wrong. And for Dune, it’s Jessica. She was supposed to give birth to a girl to the Duke that would in term be wed to a Harkonnen, thereby creating some peace between the two families. And it’s also part of the Bene Gesserit’s larger plan, which is genetic manipulation that’s been orchestrated for thousands of years to create a special being, a male that can see the place that the women of the order cannot when it comes to their powers. Paul is thought to potentially be this being, and is tested at the start here, but it’s whispered around the edges for this film before becoming a key piece of the second film.

Paul is essentially the leading character of the novel overall, but in terms of the film, it’s the Duke that takes more of a leading role. Which is fine, because Paul is a late-teen character that is being introduced to the wider galaxy, its politics, and survival. He is supposed to be led around by others that are teaching him and educating him, pushing him into figuring out his own positions, and eventually taking stands. Which we do see toward the end of the film as he begins to assume his position, especially after getting his father’s signet ring. This film is about putting him to the fire and seeing whether he truly survives it or not. Of course, since it ends as it does, I can understand people being frustrated by it that may not have been aware of how this adaptation is going.

There was so much that I loved about this work and spending the last few days reading reviews, critiques, and various comments about it, I still feel like I’m an outlier in it. Timothee Chalamet is perfect as Paul, who has to start out as a blank slate here that is being groomed for leadership and having to master control of himself. Josh Brolin as one of his teachers, Gurney Hallack, was the hardest for me to envision after Patrick Stewart in a previous version but as the fighting really began it clicked perfectly. Brolin was able to bring real anger and intensity to the way the Atreides feel about the Harkonnen and you really felt it when he screamed it at Paul. I absolutely loved the way Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson handled their relationship as Duke and concubine, one with a history that is so deep that it would cover a film in and of itself. But you would see the intense love and the way it has to be presented so restrained in public and it just hit me all the more.

The other character that I was concerned about similar to Gurney was that of Duncan Idaho, and for much the same reasons. That actually eased in the weeks ahead of release as we got some featurettes streamed about it where you saw Jason Momoa behind the scenes talking about what it was like working with these other actors, the dream of the project, and what was put into the character. For me, Duncan Idaho is the character that means the most and I find his time in this film to be the start of his tragic story. That, of course, is more about the novel storyline for him than anything else. But I absolutely adored what Momoa brought to the character. Richard Jordan had played him in the Lynch version and that type has stuck with me for a long time. But Momoa was able to bring something so delightful to the character, and to show a growth in his own skills with what he gained by being a part of this production, that it has me even more excited for his career in the years to come when he leans less on the action side. And while I know it will upset some, I really liked seeing him clean-shaven because he’s so incredibly expressive without it in a way that’s harder to do with the heavy beard he has. I love it in his See TV series, but a clean-shaven Duncan here delivers what may be Jason Momoa’s best performance to date.

In Summary:
I always hate saying, if you want to know more, you have to read the book. A film should convey things without requiring that, and that can be true for a lot of books in general. But there are some, especially in genres like this, where it’s just so dense and so much to bring out that a film just isn’t enough time. I do wish this had been possible as an extended TV series in order to do it, but at the same time a lot of the things that are implied or hinted at, or just left to the side, aren’t critical in the moment and can be brought in later with the back half. Dune, as a novel series, is something that made a huge impression on me at a young age and I learn more every time I reread it as age brings me more knowledge and understanding. The film is one that I suspect will do the same as I dig into more of the details and little bits as director Denis Villeneuve and the production put in so much here. From the lighting to the set design to costumes and more, everything is done just right.

This film was a moment of magic for me in watching it. I spent the last few years trying to get both my kids to read the first book before it came out. One of them read the first half and really enjoyed it, the other didn’t read it at all. And, in fact, lost my copy of the book. She ended up watching the film before me and then texted me that she was now obsessed with it and purchased a new hardcover edition for herself the next day to read. Having this bit of continuity in my family means a lot, and sharing it through a film like this with how it was done only makes it all the better. While I may have quibbles with a choice or two, a change in book to film, I really find myself with no criticism to be had here as this film is entering the territory of Star Wars and Wings of Honneamise for me where they’re less a movie and more something fundamental about my life.

If I can give one piece of advice, not just for this movie but others as well, it’s to try and do better with ones self to let the wonder come back into it. It’s easy to just consume and consume and then become jaded to it all. And to be less bound by thinking of how things are in your world, your sliver of the world, and applying that to a film that takes place thousands of years in a fictional future. Trying to apply sense to that is like a caveman trying to make sense of your mobile phone. Let the things you see be what they are, the relationships as they are, not tied to your conventional view of them. Let the world that is being created and detailed – so richly – be its own thing instead of “like this” or “like that.” I tried hard to not do much in the way of comparisons in this piece outside of a couple of actors, and even in regards to comparing to the book. This film is Dune, and its spice flows mighty fine.

Grade: A

Streamed By: HBO Max