Had this decade not just started, I might be inclined to say that this is the sci-fi film of the decade”

Dune 2021 movie poster

Review by Caelan Scott

While I haven’t consumed every little piece of content in the vast mythology of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel series, Dune, I would still consider myself a pretty big fan of the story. From the time I first watched the 1984 adaptation by David Lynch, to the time I first finished the behemoth of the first book on a camping trip during a water-starved heatwave in Southern Alberta, I have been a fan of Dune.

Not long after returning from that terrible trip, I heard of the new film adaptation being released. Initially, I was suspicious. More than once, Hollywood has butchered a beloved series in favour of mass appeal, and I felt that Dune would fall victim to the same corporate mutilating. But when I heard that Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director, would be directing this film, my worries were put to rest, and I knew the film would be in safe hands.

What began from this was a long period of anticipation and giddy excitement to see this new version of one of my favourite series. I even got my girlfriend to see it with me on opening night.

With all that said, Denis Villeneuve’s take on the legendary sci-fi classic Dune is one of my favorite films to come out this year and the best take on Dune. Ever. Although I will admit that I am biased toward Villeneuve’s style because I loved Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), and how he handles long, drawn-out stories in a visually magnificent way that has me absolutely entranced. Dune is very much in the same vein. It is a slow, methodical film that is unafraid to linger on certain images and set pieces. Yet it still contains some dramatic action scenes to thrill and engage you as you watch it.

Dune follows the story of the somewhat generic Paul Atreides and his family as they gain control of a lucrative planet known as Arrakis, or more colloquially, Dune. The planet is the source of a hallucinogenic compound known as spice, which allows space vessels to travel across the vast distances of the void, making Arrakis the most important world in the known universe.

But the Atredeis’ transition to and establishment in Arrakis are fraught with political intrigues and betrayal, and Paul and his family gets caught up with it. Underlying this are elements like the planet’s natives, known as the Fremen, and the prophecy that Paul might be the messiah who will deliver the oppressed Fremen to freedom and glory.

As an adaptation, I felt it did a pretty decent job of converting a dense novel like Dune into a two-and-a-half-hour story. The film covers only the first half of its source material, with the second half coming in 2023. So you should only expect half the full story here.

There are parts, I felt, that could have been better explained to the audience. At the same time, I can see why some nitty-gritty lore elements were sacrificed over others. But there’s always the case where a casual viewer might be confused about why certain things are the way they are, or how they are relevant to the story.

On the way back from the theatre, I had to go on a long explanation for my girlfriend about what mentats are and why the Dune universe doesn’t use computers. Days after the film ended, I saw Instagram stories of people wondering why they used weapons as impractical as swords over laser guns, a crucial aspect that the film didn’t explain. (FYI: Lasers react badly with shields, causing massive explosions.)

Regardless, perhaps my favourite part of the film was how artistically delicious it was. Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s work is impeccable, and every shot feels so well thought out and gorgeous. People looking for Dune wallpapers for their desktops will have a field day with this film.

Pairing with that is the soundtrack by the legendary Hans Zimmer, bestowing unto Arrakis that desert feel with Arabic-inspired vocals and instruments, bringing the world to life through sound. Costumes and sets were also excellent, bridging the gap between practicality, identity and just looking plain weird and interesting.

The supporting cast did remarkably in their roles, either making the characters interesting and engaging or just terrifying to behold on screen. My favorite cast members were Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaacs), the stern yet kind leader of the house, and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who displays with such painstaking magnificence the full range of emotions of the character, especially anguish.

Other side characters were also fun to watch. Stellan Skarsgård did well in bringing the creepy and conniving Baron Harkonnen to life. Jason Momoa very much plays himself in this film, but at the same time, he is a welcome break from the very stern and emotionally dour characters in the rest of the film, so I like it. Gurney Hallek, Thufir Hawat, and Dr. Yue were very much downgraded compared to the book, and I fail to see why this was the case. I feel a bit more could have been explored in their characters and personalities.

Compared to the supporting cast, I have very little to say about the protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). I can only describe Paul as being very (and I hate to use this word) emo. He doesn’t have much of a personality outside of mopey and dour in all but one scene. Paul is also one of the most generic sci-fi protagonists, and this is no fault of the actor: it is just how the character was written. Heck, I never even found him all that compelling in the book. There just isn’t a lot of spice to him.

The story itself is pretty long and drawn out, and it is hard to know when it will end. More than once, I was caught thinking, “is it over?” before finding out that there were still another 20 minutes to go. But when the film does end, it does so in a relatively satisfying way, at least for part one of a greater story.

There are areas where I feel it could have gone a little bit more in-depth, embracing that political intrigue element of the story while still being palatable for modern audiences. The film can also be slow at times, so those that want a fast-paced riveting sci-fi flick will be disappointed when watching this film.

Overall, Dune is one of my favourite films of the year, and I am hungry for part two. The good news is that it has been given the green light. So all we have to do is wait another agonizing two years before we get out climax for the first part of the Dune saga.

I think that years down the line, these movies will become very important to me as being the quintessential live-action adaptation of Dune. It was like watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time, an electric and riveting experience where I was at the edge of my seat, tapping my feet like I am a giddy seven-year-old seeing Star Wars for the first time.

Had this decade not just started, I might be inclined to say that this is the sci-fi film of the decade.

Dune (1921)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve