Dune (2021)

October 25, 2021

I’m annoyed at the number of people declaring this the best science fiction film of all time, because it’s not. Not even in my top ten, I don’t think. Mostly because it isn’t really science fiction – it’s epic fantasy that happens to take place is space. Like Star Wars. Paul is basically a Jedi, but that’s a discussion for another time.  

But it’s also just an okay film. It’s very, very pretty, and it gets the job done. But I didn’t feel a whole lot of anything about it when it was finished.

Here’s the problem with Dune, and I think it’s baked into the story:  we know what’s going to happen pretty much every step. The characters tell us what’s going to happen, almost continually. And then it happens, pretty much just like they said it would. House Atreides is taking possession of Arrakis. We’re told that this is a trap and they’re being set up to fail. And then they fail. We’re told, almost from the start, that Paul is probably the chosen one, and it’s confirmed almost continually that yes, he is the chosen one.  (I think one of the really endearing things about Luke in Star Wars is how often he fails. He screws up kind of a lot. But it’s the way he keeps trying and struggling that makes him a hero. We watch to see what he does next, because we’re not always sure what that’s going to be.)

Here, I’m never worried, I’m never surprised. And I can’t tell if it’s because I know the story too well or if it’s just that predictable. The characters are moving through pre-ordained motions with little apparent agency, and little emotional investment as a result.

This isn’t foreshadowing, it’s something else, and it sucks the tension right out. These productions then attempt to replace tension with awe:  long, lingering shots of landscape, of giant ships, alien sandworms, really luscious set pieces and imagery.

But if you’re a jaded skeptic of these kinds of stories like me, the awe might not work, and I’m left feeling, well, nothing. This film is emotionally empty. In exactly two moments, I felt an emotion start to take hold, and it was so startling it actually distracted me – wait, I’m feeling something? Two hours into the movie? Well, how about that.

The invasion and attack on the Atreides was really frustrating (okay, I guess that’s a third emotion I felt) because the outcome was a foregone conclusion and they set up a really shitty defense. Duke Leto wandering empty halls alone trying to figure out what’s wrong? Where are his personal guards? Don’t know, don’t care, evidently. The entire army leaving their back wide open? Shitty, shitty. No wonder they lost.

But that’s picking nits. We all know this has to happen for the rest of the story to unfold, and it does, exactly on schedule.

Another thing that’s driving me bonkers about the ecstatic gushing about the film all over social media is the declaration that this is somehow a better adaptation than the Lynch film, when probably 85% of the scenes in this movie can also be found in the Lynch film, some of them shot-for-shot and word-for-word. If you’re going to claim that this film is a good adaptation then you have admit the Lynch one is as well, at some level.

Really, though, this is only half the story, and I think I’ll need to wait to see what they do with the next one before I pass final judgment. Because dammit, yes, for all my lack of enthusiasm I’ll go see the next.

7 Responses to “Dune (2021)”

  1. wiredwizard Says:

    I saw it a couple nights ago. It surprised me by edging out Avatar as the second-most boring movie I’ve ever seen.

  2. Jaws Says:

    Maybe the source material itself just isn’t as good as fannish memories of it. Maybe the idea that “Desert cultures whose land is exploited by industrial cultures might get upset and revolt, with lots of opportunities for pretty special effects” isn’t enough, all by itself, to support a story that big. Maybe idiot plots are a bad idea.

    Wait, this is cinema. Never mind. Real critical analysis is just not done.

  3. David Hack Says:

    Hi Carrie
    So Dune…yeah….
    1. Give me Enya but all about sand, Sand Sand Sand. Music was another character I saw one critic say. A really annoying and overbearing one. Ugh.
    2. Benjamin Clementine (as Herald of the Change), bad luck going up against Max von Sydow (Your suit is fitted desert fashion stands out in particular.) I think a good performance damaged by direction to emote with expression rather than words. Flat.
    3. Seemed to have a fair amount of mumbling from everyone some times run over by the music as well.
    4. Dr. Yueh, seemed to emote revenge only, no felling of loss, and no fear of having sold his loyalty for nothing.
    5. Spice…how many times must we see that the spice gives Paul visions.
    6. Internal voice use, I don’t know how to complete this comment, but it did not work well most of the time.
    7. And lets make sure that everyone knows the Fremen use sign language.
    For part two I am predicting an over push on reluctant Messiah complex.
    Non readers will not get it, or may like it as culture commentary. I think unlikely to spur many to read the book.
    This was one of the rare times when I got to see the picture before your review came out, thanks and sorry to have agreed with your review.
    On the Astounding volume, the article after the duck story Fusion for Power is quite worthwhile, and a letter in the back, a thank you to Mr. Campbell from the World Con secretary detailing payment options and costs for the coming convention.
    Last, on the summer birding from the easy lifer young birder.
    Eastern King bird, gave my 100 yards or so of fence to weeds, weeds to fence back in June.
    Western Wood-Pewee let me find him by voice and watch for several minutes.
    A Belted Kingfisher at the end of September.
    And last weekend a White-crowned Sparrow.
    Thanks. Be Well.

  4. Jared Moloshok Says:

    Call me a simpleton, but I’ve never seen the appeal of Dune. Never read the book or saw any of the filmed versions, and nothing I’ve heard about it makes me want to seek it out.

    From what I’ve heard about this movie, it sounds like the most hardcore fans will be among the most satisfied, so yay for them. But nothing in the trailers has made me reconsider my indifference.

  5. Timothy A Schmidt Says:

    My first impression was that the music was oppressive. It was ok but just way too loud. Second, all Paul’s visions gave away way too much. The visuals, while impressive, let me down in places. The port city on Arakis was underwhelming although I did like the dragonfly helicopters.
    It was ok but just ok.

  6. Jennwynn Says:

    My brother, who hasn’t read the book said he would name his first son Duncan Idaho… he loved the world, the ornithopters, etc. I loved some of those things, too. But I read this before I saw the Lynch film and was already in love with the Fremen in the early 80s. It was just so … something. But the villains are too villainy and the good guys too good. The shades of gray I’ve grown to understand since I was 10 are missing. Like so many book interpretations, I was mostly just waiting to see how they handled certain things. I think there may be more tension if you don’t know the whole story. Waiting for that thing that happens with Duncan took up most of the movie for me. It was missing so much of the cool culture things–for example, Jessica doesn’t blood her crysnife, so when Stilgar and the rest do, you’re like, what?!? And how did they leave out the whole spacing guild?!? But, yes, the ornithopters were cool and the big ship coming out of the water for some reason (WHY?) looked rad…

  7. bsdonovan Says:

    The pace was also wrong for a movie. The ups and downs (which you rightly said were lacking) didn’t build to a denouement that made sense. The characters were broadly brushed because they didn’t get the time on screen for us to know them.

    For it to be successful it needs to be longer and well written for binge watching.

    So why did the miniseries fail so badly? Poor writing I suppose.

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