Thursday, October 21, 2021

Initial Impressions of Dune (2021)


I've been excited for the new Denis Villeneuve adaptation of Dune ever since I first heard about it a few years ago. If anyone could do right by one of my favorite novels, I figured it was the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. I knew I would be seeing it. What my prescient vision didn't see, however, is what sort of world I would be seeing it in.

But the promise of Dune drew me to a local IMAX theater to behold it on the big screen with big sound, pandemic or not. I wore a mask (of course), silently lamenting the lack of mask discipline of many of my fellow movie-goers while sitting as far from them as possible. I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer...

So ... what did I think? As my prophecy could have foretold, I need to think about it some more to give a full review. But here are some initial non-spoiler-y thoughts.

  • A film has finally found exactly the right kind of weird to adapt Dune. Others (Lynch, Jodorowsky, the SciFi Channel, etc.) have tired, and not died, exactly, but have failed in this respect. But the costumes, scenery, score, words used without explanation, etc. created exactly the weirdness needed to estrange the audience into a world tens of thousands of years in the future.
  • Villeneuve and the huge team of people who made this a reality deserve a lot of credit for adapting a book that many (including me) thought was impossible to successfully adapt. I've never been so glad to be wrong.
  • The cast is brilliant. I didn't come into this with any real preconceptions of Timothée Chalemet, but I thought he was great (and almost believable as a teenager, unlike the actors who played Paul in previous adaptations). I've loved Rebecca Ferguson since I saw her in Doctor Sleep, and she's awesome as Jessica (my favorite character in the novel), even though we'll get a fuller sense of her character in (hopefully!) the next movie. Oscar Isaac and his beard were a simultaneously deep and understated Duke Leto. Josh Brolin made for a slightly grumpier Gurney Halleck than I picture him, but maybe that's okay. On the other hand, I enjoyed Javier Bardem's Stilgar as a bit funnier than I previously pictured that character. Jason Momoa made a great swashbuckling Duncan Idaho (and I hope he enjoys playing that role...). Sharon Duncan Brewster did a great job portraying the conflicted nature of Dr. Liet Kynes. Dave Bautista as Rabban and all the other Harkonnens were amazing, especially Stellan Skarsgard as the Baron. I loved how, well, twisted David Dastmalchian's "twisted Mentat" Piter Devries was, and Stephen McKinley Henderson portrayed a slightly friendlier Thufir Hawat than he is in the book. I maybe would have liked a bit more of Chang Chen's Dr. Yueh, but oh well. We also don't see much of Chani (Zendaya), but we'll see more of her in part two. I have to give props to Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (I would love several movies about the Bene Gesserit... and who knows? If this becomes a franchise, I may get my wish).
  • Frank Herbert rarely spends much time describing the technology of his world, opting instead for machinations of the characters (though inner monologues in italics!), so it's fun to see how filmmakers imagine things in a visual medium. Look for the ornithopters!
  • Likewise, fleshing out some of the details of the various factions in Dune was something to behold. I've already mentioned the Bene Gesserit, but the Sardaukar were also really cool. I love the interpretation of the Voice. And yes, we have worm sign...
  • I love the score: weird, other worldly, moving, and (I admit) occasionally jarring but always in service of the film. I've been listening to it for a few weeks already, and it was an experience to finally hear it with the film.
  • That said, choices have to be made in any adaptation. I have a few nitpicky things I would have liked to have seen as a fan of the book, but all of that quickly slips beneath the sands of my awe for this artistic accomplishment.
  • On the other hand, there were a few additions to the source material that I thought were brilliant, including at least one delightfully unnerving creation mostly likely of Tleilaxu origin.
  • I first read the novel 30 years ago and have read the whole series several times (and, as much as I don't like to admit it sometimes to other Dune fans, several of the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson books as well). Suffice to say, I know the story pretty well, but it was still a delight to see how it all played out (and it kept me guessing to figure out exactly where it would end, since it had been well known for some time the this was just the first part of the novel). I do wonder how easily viewers unfamiliar with the book could follow it (a huge problem with Lynch's film). My sense is that they could follow the main arc of the story just fine, but I guess I don't know.
  • Any film adaptation is only going to dip a toe into the depths of a novel it's based on, and the novel itself merely dips a toe into the vast universe that Frank Herbert created. I've read a few people saying that this Dune film could do for Herbert what Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies did for appreciation of Tolkien's Middle Earth. Normally this sort of thing feels like hubris or wishful thinking on the part of greedy studio executives, but I think this could actually happen if this film finds an audience beyond me and my fellow Dune nerds. If the relatively large crowd for a late night Thursday show at my theater is any indication, this is quite likely.
  • I will be watching Dune again on HBO Max at home. After all, I have to run an experiment to weigh the pros and cons of home vs. theater experiences. My initial thought: it was worth it in IMAX, although I'm still wary about movie theaters during a pandemic and totally understand if others don't want to risk it. But who am I kidding? I'm enough of a Dune nerd that you don't need prescience to see that I was always going to see this several times. Shai Hulud!


  1. Thanks for this, Ethan - it sounds great! I'm still working through the audiobook version right now. I read it around 20 years ago and it's amazing how much of the story is still with me, and the audiobook, acted out by several voice actors rather than read by a single voice, adds nice depth and complexity to the characters. I'll admit that I haven't seen ANY of the previous film versions, but I'm curious now - and will contemplate a theatre visit if case numbers ever finally drop in my area.

    1. You're welcome! It is definitely the kind of story that can stick with you. The new film will feel really familiar to you. I'd check out the previous films if you want. The David Lynch version is super weird, but not super faithful to the book. The SciFi version follows the plot closely, but is a bit bland. Our case numbers have dropped significantly in the last couple weeks and we finally hit 50% vaccinated, which is why I went to see it in IMAX. I probably won't make a habit out of it (it's still a bit scary, especially with so many unmasked people in the theater), but on the other hand I should probably see a few movies now before whatever fresh hell awaits us in the winter happens. Take care!