As I prefer to do with most movies, I went into Dune (2021) with a blank slate. I didn’t know anything about the book or David Lynch’s 1984 attempt. In fact, I hadn’t even seen the trailer. All I knew about Dune was that a) it was a science fiction movie, and b) Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya were in the cast, and those two facts alone were enough to pique my interest.
Based on the 1965 Frank Herbert novel of the same name, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a film that will likely make loyal fans very happy, but might unintentionally alienate new viewers due to the story’s unconventional pacing for a first installment.
At its root, there’s much to love about this movie, especially the curiosity that it manages to conjure within the viewer. Dune is a slow burn, as it is necessary to orient the viewer in this intricate fictional world while retaining an engaging plot. Leisurely world-building is balanced with edge-of-your-seat action to keep more impatient filmgoers entertained, all of which is accompanied by a bombastic score from the renowned Hans Zimmer of The Lion King (1994), The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), and Interstellar (2014) fame. Additionally, select moments when the editors choose to eliminate all musical scoring in favor of ambient noise (such as in a crucial fight at the end of the movie) add a chilling tonal touch.
Dune meticulously introduces its audience to a rich world of warring kingdoms and boldly undertakes the daunting task of explaining the Fremen people, the spice, the sand worms, and the prophetic significance of Paul’s dreams over the course of 2 hours and 35 minutes. Making exposition engaging is no easy task, but Villeneuve manages to keep the audience entertained by giving the viewer just enough information so that they can follow the story, but never enough to discourage their curiosity over the intricacies of this new world. This method is employed especially well while tackling the clouded mystery encircling the Bene Gesserit, a secretive group of women who possess manipulative superhuman powers and seek to bring about a prophesied Messiah through highly intentional genetic breeding. Though the ending of Dune still leaves the audience unclear on the murky methods and motives of the Bene Gesserit, an HBO series dedicated to delving deeper into the Bene Gesserit’s peculiar mythology is reportedly in the works, which will hopefully help satisfy lingering questions. In the meantime, newcomers will leave the film instantly wanting to read the book to learn more.
Dune’s star-studded cast of familiar faces such as Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, and Oscar Isaac helps orient newcomers into such an unfamiliar world. Dune’s cast puts on a stellar performance. There are two emotionally charged scenes in particular between Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), which showcase the acting chops of Chalamet and Ferguson. Whether expressing physical or emotional pain, the rawness of Chalamet’s portrayal of Paul Atreides leaves onlookers feeling everything he does. His capacity for establishing intimacy between himself and the audience through the silver screen is nothing short of commendable. Ferguson’s acting, on the other hand, is excellent because of its deceptively apathetic presentation, with her cold and reserved exterior conveying a vast amount of withheld depth. Her stoic performance should not be wrongly labeled as one dimensional—rather, her subtle mannerisms contribute to a multi-layered performance. Even though a certain actor (cough, cough… Zendaya) feels painfully underutilized in this movie relative to her prominence in the promotional materials (à la Margot Robbie in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood), the cast as a whole is strong enough to fill her glaring absence fairly seamlessly, and the movie’s ending alludes to her potentially fulfilling a more prominent role in the upcoming sequel.
However, despite the immense potential for enjoyment, many newcomers could find fault with this film for one key reason.
As the movie poster’s tagline “It Begins” and the “Part One” on the title card suggests, director Denis Villeneuve has plans to make another movie covering the second half of the book. Now, the concept of splitting a book (especially one of such sizable length) into two film adaptations is nothing new. After all, we have seen Mockingjay, Breaking Dawn, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows receive similar treatment in recent years. However, because they are adapted from only the beginnings of their respective books, the “Part One”s tend to feel slower and more focused on preparing the viewer for the second installment rather than bringing about a feeling of satisfaction when their own credits roll. The advantage of films like Breaking Dawn Part One (2011) is having large, established loyal followings willing to withstand a slightly more relaxed plot for one movie because of their faith in the series. Mockingjay: Part One (2014) can ride the coattails of the riveting thrills of The Hunger Games (2012) and Catching Fire (2014), as can The Deathly Hallows: Part One (2010) support itself on the firm foundation of all of the first six Harry Potter movies.
However, unlike its aforementioned peers, Dune is not the second-to-last film of a major, multi-million dollar franchise; it is the very first installment of a new movie franchise. While the book series certainly does have a cult following within the die-hard science fiction community, it’s not as mainstream as its series-style counterparts. Additionally, even if the love of this pre-established fan-base could hold a candle to these other series, it would still not be enough to propel the movie series forward alone: Winning the hearts of brand new viewers is an essential piece of the puzzle. Prior Dune fans will not mind the slow and meticulous pace of a first film in the franchise because a) they know what the buildup is leading towards, and b) they will delight in all of the care that is being taken to pay faithful homage to the original work. New viewers may not be so lenient. Dune, despite its many strengths, might expect a little too much from its viewers who have not read the book. If the movie is not at least partially catered to winning new audiences over, then many may be inclined to not tune in for the sequel, which would be a colossal shame—the world that the first film has worked so hard to establish for the sequels to come is truly spectacular.
Villenueve is undoubtedly taking a huge risk in packing the first installment to a new film series with so much detail. Asking audiences to readily absorb all of the intricacies of the complex setting and plot is fine—as long as there is eventual significant payoff for their heavy mental lifting over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. This is not to say that cutting the book into two movies was necessarily the wrong choice—it seems necessary to spend time building context around this complex, intriguing world. However, perhaps finding a more suitable stopping point for this first film was a missed opportunity. Dune could have better ensured that both newcomers and loyal fans alike were left feeling satisfied and ecstatic for the sequel if Paul Atreides was not still struggling through the infant stages of his journey to discover his role in the mysterious world around him by the end of the two and a half hour mark.
Dune is a phenomenal film in terms of its atmosphere, acting, and score but might lean just a little bit too much on the patience of its pre-existing fan base rather than trying to hook new audience members. Even though Dune demands a lot of its viewers, future audiences should still answer its call so as not to miss out on this exciting new foray into an artfully-constructed world of science fiction.