Dune (2021): A Review

Like most sci-fi fans of my age, I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune series so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve read the prequels and sequels written by his son, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson many times over as well. I enjoyed the 1984 adaptation, despite David Lynch being David Lynch while directing it. And I found myself wishing the 1984 cast could have been given the script and support the 2000 cast was given for the SYFY miniseries.

So when it was announced a few years ago that a new Dune movie was given the green light, with Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson being involved in the project and Denis Villeneuve serving as director, I was pretty jazzed. So this afternoon I sat down and watched the highly anticipated film. Normally, I wait a full day to absorb a film before reviewing it. But after the final credits ended, I found myself feeling that there was something “off” about what I’d just viewed. Then it suddenly hit me what that something was and everything snapped into place. 

So without further ado, here is my review:

THE FILM

Visually, this was a stunning film. But, given his work on Blade Runner: 2049, a stunningly visual film was to be expected out of Villeneuve for Dune. He caught the moods and feel of each of the worlds in play: Arrakis, Caladan, Geidi Prime and Salusa Secundus perfectly. The ships in space and in flight in atmosphere were perfectly done.

THE STORY

For the most part, at least so far as this is only the first of a two-part film and part two hasn’t even begun shooting yet, Villeneuve follows the story line in Dune. The Emperor has ordered House Harkonnen off of Arrakis and turned the planet over to House Atredies, who takes ownership knowing it is a trap. Paul Atredies, son of Duke Leto Atriedies and the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica, is not only being groomed to take over as Duke when the time comes, but he is also caught in the long-term designs of his mother’s order as well.

Once on Arrakis, the Atreides deal with sabotage and treachery, including an ultimate betrayal by Dr. Wellington Yeuh, who basically hands over the Duke and the planet to the Harkonnens and their leader, Baron Harkonnen. Paul and his mother escape, aided in part by Yeuh, who is killed by the Baron as his reward for being a traitor, and Duncan Idaho. Idaho gives his life in order for Paul and Jessica to flee deeper into the desert, where they meet a band of Fremen, led by Stilgar, who take in the fugitives.

While the story in the book, the 1984 movie and the 2000 mini-series continues, here is where the 2021 film ends and we will have to wait until the second movie is filmed and readied for release – likely some time in 2023 since filming hasn’t even begun yet. But this film is not the faithful representation of the original material some would have you believe. There are some key elements missing or changed and they do stand out to anyone who has read Frank Herbert’s original work.

Missing from the screen is the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (played perfectly by Jose Ferrer in 1984). He’s mentioned, yes, but he makes no appearance in the film. Nor do you see that it is the Emperor’s hand behind putting the Atreides into a fatal trap. Feyd Rautha, one of Baron Harkonnen’s nephews, is also nowhere to be seen.

We are not told of Yeuh’s conditioning as a Suk doctor, making the likelihood of him being a traitor almost impossible, and the revelation of his treachery all that more shocking. Nor do we get the full story of his wife Wanna, also a Bene Gesserit, and how she is used to turn him. Also, in the books, it is the flawed Mentat Piter DeVries who kills Yueh. But in the film it is the Baron who kills him and we are denied a further look into the mind of the twisted DeVries.

There are a few other areas where the film either changes or discards key elements – small points yes – but they take away from the depth of Herbert’s original with their absence and detract from the film itself. But this isn’t where the “offness” occurs. Rather it is in the portrayals of the characters where the film falls short.

THE CHARACTERS

My primary complaint with Blade Runner: 2049 was that the characters fell just a little short of being 3D. Especially with Deckard’s portrayal. Character development seems to be Villenueve’s Achilles Heel and it is painfully obvious in this adaptation of Dune.

First, lets give credit where credit is due. Jason Momoa nailed Duncan Idaho. Clearly this was the one performance worthy of the original character written by Herbert. Josh Brolin also was solid as Gurney Halleck. Stellan Skarsgård was a perfect choice as the Baron and he does not disappoint. And Oscar Isaac was also good as Duke Leto. Although my lone complaint about Isaac is that he does not carry off the same regal sense of royalty that Jurgen Prochnow had in the same role in 1984. Dave Bautista as the Beast Rabban was a good choice. Playing a mindless brute is right in Bautista’s wheelhouse so how could he screw that up, right?

We don’t see enough of Javier Bardem as Stilgar or Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Mohiam, at least in my opinion, to render a judgment either way. We should see more of Stilgar in the second film and get a better sense of how he will do then. But I thought Everett McGill’s effort in 1984 was solid, and Bardem so far hasn’t got there yet.

Which brings us to a long list of characters not served well at all. 

I’m sorry, but I’m not buying Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides, nor am I liking this version of Paul that much for that matter. He’s coming off as a whiny brat, not as a young man suddenly thrust into the role of leader/messiah and taking on the mantle of that dual role in any believable fashion.

Rebecca Ferguson is good in action scenes, as she has been in the Mission Impossible films. But, as with Oscar Isaac, she lacks that regal sense of royalty on screen that Francesca Annis had in 1984. Her portrayal of Jessica is not coming off as what you would expect of a Bene Gesserit either. The Lady Jessica in the novel is a strong woman. This Lady Jessica looks like she’s about to fall to pieces every three seconds. 

Dr. Yeuh (Chang Chen), Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Piter DeVries (David Dasmalchian) are two dimensional ghosts on screen of their original characters in the novel. Much has been taken from them and given to other characters as to render all three men meaningless to the story. Other than being the flavor of the month, I’m not sure why Zendaya keeps getting casts in the roles she gets. She is not that good of an actress to begin with and, as with Mary Jane Parker in the recent Spider-Man films, I’m not buying her as Chani yet either.  

Which brings me to the one egregious casting choice, and the one the most epitomizes why this film seems “off” to me. In Herbert’s original novel, Dr. Liet Kynes, is the Imperial judge of the change, as well as a Fremen leader. Which means “HE” is a “HE”. The Fremen are led by men. 

Yet, in this film Kynes is played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. And there is no logical explanation as to why this key character was gender-swapped. It isn’t as if the book isn’t filled with strong female characters so that they needed to add one. Not to mention that Kynes’ death in this film is nothing like the one Herbert wrote in his masterpiece.

THE FINAL GRADE

Villeneuve’s failure to properly develop the characters in this film, as well as stay true they way Hebert originally wrote them, damages this film irreparably. What should have been a minimum of 9 out of 10 is reduced to a six out of 10 instead.

     

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