Let me just come right out and say it: If Dune had not gotten approved for a sequel and just remained as a single, giant half-told story, that would have been a major case of blue balls.
It’s me, your Below Average Blogger who hasn’t posted in about a month and is belatedly talking about Dune.
But that’s okay. My Below Average Blog, my Below Average rules.
If you don’t want to read any more about Dune because you haven’t seen it yet, all you need to know is that it is very much made for Dune fans. It’s also made for fans of sci-fi films that focus on atmosphere, i.e. Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That’s not to say it isn’t a fairly nifty experience for newcomers, but this is clearly the Dune movie that fans of Frank Herbert’s novel have been waiting for for decades.
(Even though the movie came out, like, a month ago, and god, I am so sorry for covering it so late, I shouldn’t apologize, but I can’t help feeling guilty, work has been piling up and now the holidays are here, but I still feel so ashamed for not keeping up with my blogging, guilt is my ever-present companion in life.)
I summarized the first Dune novel pretty concisely (i.e. not concisely at all) in my post about the book a few months ago. So I’m not going to waste anybody’s time in summarizing the plot here. However, you should know that the movie only covers half of what’s in the book. It covers the events from the beginning to right after Paul has his duel with Jamis.
And then it just ends.
This is by far the movie’s biggest flaw. If you were following the sinister plots of the Harkonnens and hoping to uncover the mystery of Paul’s burgeoning powers, then the manner in which this movie ends will leave you reeling. It doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger a la The Empire Strikes Back, so much as it feels like someone cut The Empire Strikes Back in half and said that the movie ends right when Luke has that vision in the tree-cave thing.
It’s strange because the movie covers so much. It has to. World-building, galactic political maneuverings, and genetic manipulation take time to properly explain to an audience. But even though the movie is jam-packed with this kind of exposition, the way it ends leaves the whole thing feeling unfinished.
The second flaw of the movie in my Below Average opinion is how little time is spent developing characters. (Yikes, doesn’t that sound like a dime-store critic’s opinion?) So much of the movie is spent showing the world, which is great, because the world of Dune is so mesmerizing, but it comes at the cost of character development.
For example, Gurney Halleck is this gruff soldier type who stands alongside Duke Leto during the move to Arrakis, but you actually don’t know much about him beyond that. In point of fact, he disappears halfway through the movie and is not seen again; you don’t even miss him when he’s gone.
‘But wait!’ the angry Dune fan might shout at me. ‘Gurney’s a side character. He’s not meant to be developed.’
All right, angry fan. What about Jessica, Paul’s mother? She’s a pretty pivotal character. Would you say you know her motivations?
Of course, if you’ve read the books, you know that Jessica is an ambitious woman who hopes to see her son become the Kwisatz Haderach. She does a lot of things most would consider unseemly in order to achieve this goal.
The movie follows this same plotline, but your understanding of what she gains from it is dramatically lessened.
And Jessica and Gurney are not the only ones who get shafted when it comes to development. Thufir Hawat, who played a prominent role in the book, is largely absent from proceedings. Dr. Yueh, a key player in the fall of House Atreides, only pops in a couple of times before this betrayal. And Rabban’s job in the film, apparently, is to just walk around menacingly without actually doing or saying much.
All of this character development is sacrificed at the altar of sci-fi world-building, and while I do miss it, I’m not actually too torn up about it. Why?
Because the world of Dune is just that fucking cool.
The intricacies of Landsraad politics, the dark training of the Sardaukar, the spice harvesting on Arrakis, the mental powers of the Bene Gesserit, these are all things that interweave to make Dune’s universe a fascinating place. And say what you will about the lack of time spent on character motivations, the clear investment in creating a riveting atmosphere is well worth it.
From the visual designs of hard-to-imagine objects from the books to the musical accompaniments to mostly silent scenes, everything in Dune harmonizes to make you feel like this place exists. It’s not just some fantasy story created in someone’s overactive mind. It’s a real place somewhere out in the unknown reaches of our universe.
And what makes the whole thing even more staggering is the fact that Dune is one of the forefathers of the sci-fi genre. Frank Herbert created concepts that might seem like par for the course these days, but you have to remember that he wrote Dune in 1965. So even though we lucky audience members are seeing Dune realized in all of its glory, we’re reaping the benefits of Herbert’s creativity.
The first half of this post might make it seem like I abhorred Dune, but I actually loved it. It’s one of those movies that makes you forget you’re watching a movie. All too often, now that I’m an adult, whenever I watch a movie, I am laser-focused on the fact that this is a narrative product that someone is trying to sell me. It has become rarer and rarer that I can truly sink back and forget that fact while sitting in a theater.
Dune immersed me more fully into its world than a sandworm immerses its prey into its mouth.
The ending left me hanging so badly because I wanted to stay immersed for a while longer.
I worry a bit that non-Dune fans will be left scratching their heads in puzzlement after the credits start rolling, wondering what on earth they just saw and if they even want to return for a sequel. But I went to go see it with two of my D&D buddies, one a die-hard Dune fan, the other a complete newcomer to the series. Both of them adored it, so I have hope.
I rate Dune a mind-blowing-sci-fi-experience-that-feels-more-immersive-and-astounding-than-a-half-finished-story-ought-to-feel-and-it’s-all-worth-it-in-the-end.
2 thoughts on “Sand, Spice, and Half a Movie: Dune Review”
I saw Dune as soon as it was released and I utterly loved it. My expectations for this film were way too high and yet it still managed to live up to all of them. I think Denis Villeneuve did a spectacular job of capturing the essence of both the story and the universe and delivering an incredible experience.
As for non-Dune fans, I dragged the rest of the family with me — including the kids — and was prepared to be answering a lot of questions. But it turned out that all of them had no trouble in following what was happening. I’m not sure they enjoyed it as much as I did but all will be seeing the sequel if (when!) it’s released.
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I agree completely that this new adaptation (of the first half of the first book) is, technically, excellent. And your criticism that it falls short where it comes to character development is absolutely spot on.
However, there are a couple of things you’ve said here that I think we may have to agree to disagree on…
I’m a fan of the Dune series (certainly up to God Emperor of Dune, though after that I think it succumbed to ‘hey-we-can-make-more-munny-from-this-itis’). I found this offering disappointing. It’s certainly streets ahead of David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation (it was daft to even try to cover the entire first book in one movie). But, to my mind, this version lacks heart. The Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, despite its low-budget effects, unfortunate casting choices* and spots of diabolically poor acting is still, to my mind, a superior interpretation.
And, in my opinion, it’s not just not ‘a fairly nifty experience for newcomers’, I think that this is where this latest version shines. It does a superb job of expounding the complexities of the Dune universe, one that seems to me to be ideally suited to those unfamiliar with the story. I suspect that is deliberate, so that they can (hopefully) draw in a big audience and continue to profit from the franchise. And I do hope that it succeeds!
I have read all of the Dune books that were written by Frank Herbert (although, I admit, decades ago; they’re on my bucket list to read again). I’m not so sure you’re right about Jessica’s ambition… or that she ever intended to be the bearer of the Kwisatz Haderach. My understanding is that she bore a son instead of a daughter because she loved Duke Leto and was as shocked as everyone else when Paul became something else – although, I admit, I could be wrong. As I said, it’s been a very long time since I read the books; this is the way the Sci-Fi Channel portrays it, and I’ve seen that so many times I may have simply succumbed to that interpretation.
* Gurney ‘alleck being the most obvious flaw; and it was such a shame that Jessica, Stilgar and Duncan Idaho were all played by different characters in ‘Children of Dune’).
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