Dune: Wind in Your Sails or just Sand in Your Boots?
I am perplexed, truly. Dune was a strange, wild ride from start to finish, that made it clear there would be no hand-holding narratively. The movie was there, it was what it was, and the audience could take it or leave it. In a way, I do deeply respect that, but it also led to certain genuine grievances, and a lack of responsibility on the half of the writers to communicate a clear story. So I’ll be breaking this down into what I liked and what I didn’t while avoiding spoilers, purely from a perspective of analyzing the medium. I have seen people already jump the gun and begin analysis of potential social commentary or subtext as it relates to our society, and while that is their prerogative, I believe one should wait until the full story is available for scrutiny before deciding the messages it delivers, overtly and otherwise. So, this is purely a breakdown of the quality of the narrative and how it’s presented.
To begin with the positive, and perhaps the aspect that is entirely consistent, the movie is incredibly beautiful to look at. It feels like the entire crew not only went out of their way to build elaborate, jaw dropping sets, but everyone involved in the cinematography went out of their way to find amazing angles of every single scene. One might argue but that sounds basic, and yet it’s so often poorly done. However Dune consistently presents something gorgeous to look at, and multiple times displays prowess in conveying a situation purely through the positioning of characters, indicating who’s in power in a conversation by shooting one character above another, or where the shadows fall on someone’s face being used to indicate shifting alliances. It’s storytelling on a more subtle side, and I deeply appreciate it.
Along that same vein, the production value is absolutely unbelievable. Outstanding usage of CGI and practical effects make it a delight to behold, something science fiction creators have doubtless been dreaming of for decades. I can’t recall a moment where I was taken out of the movie by thinking “ah, that’s completely computer generated so it doesn’t feel like this is really happening.” Instead, the audience is routinely dazzled by elaborate set pieces that capture the imagination. So, all in all, this film is a visual success.
Narratively, there are several aspects that impressed me, although some must be attributed to the original books author, Frank Herbert. One of the key triumphs of dune is attention to details. It’s evident that the author and the screenwriters wanted more personal, hand to hand weapons to be involved in combat, to capture more tension and physicality than gunfights do, but unlike most sci-fi adventures that shoehorn them in for no real reason (I’m looking at you, Star Trek), Dune offers a completely believable reason why firearms or hand lasers aren’t viable for combat anymore, with the invention of personal shield generators that act as armor, preventing objects moving too fast from entering their radius, and also disperse laser bursts. So therefore, they resort to high tech bladed weapons, with the idea that a slower attack will penetrate personal shields, so they even have to learn a different way of fighting. This was borrowed from a real life concept, in that a lot of bullet proof vests actually won’t stop a thrust from a knife, because it’s designed to disperse force, not prevent penetration entirely. Thus, the author and moviemakers benefit from the more cinematic, dramatic combat style, while also making a point about conflict, how with it’s advancement and perpetuation comes a direct regression in the human spirit, taking us down a brutal, violent path. It doesn’t allow one to kill from afar, but rather come face to face with the person they’re murdering for someone else’s war.
Another high point to note is the acting from all involved. Another pitfall of science fiction can sometimes be when the people portraying characters are just spouting lines of random technical terms, without sounding like they understand or care about them, however Dune broke this trend with everyone seeming invested in their parts, and a general consistency in worldbuilding and terminology. No one sounded like they were making terms up when they discussed politics or technology. And lastly, the plot is overall effective and allows the audience to become invested in the characters we watch struggle to survive the shifting circumstances around the war between these two houses, and successfully allows us to view the powerful, aristocratic house Atriedes feel like an underdog in every situation, while still conveying their position of import in this space empire.
Conversely, this movie does have a fair number of flaws, but I’ll say now that I don’t believe they in any way are a reason not to see the film. It must be said that the pacing at times can be strange, with long, meditative segments where characters seem to be doing very little and meandering about (although it should be said that these are often adding a bit to the world, so they’re not always egregious.) These are then broken by short, extremely loud and dramatic action scenes that, while generally visually delightful as stated above, can also be slightly disorietnating at times. It must also be said that, despite the general grounded nature of the film and enjoyable science fiction elements and political maneuvering, there are a large number of things in the plot that aren’t fully explained. It sometimes can feel as though the characters get halfway through elaborating on a power or a plan or a political structure, and then something happens to interrupt it, since they don’t want to give too much away. This leads into what might be my ultimate criticism of Dune; despite everything I loved, there are times when it honestly felt like a trailer for the rest of the movies, or some sort of long introduction. Now, it must be admitted that part of this feeling could’ve arisen from the fact that when I went into the movie, I wasn’t aware it was only part one of a series of movies being planned, however I don’t think that fully explains the sensation. There are multiple lines where dialogue feels like a teaser for something big coming in the next film, rather than a set up for this one.
All in all, I do highly recommend you see this movie, although I can’t promise you’ll be entirely satisfied with where it leaves the story, and there are a few issues that make it feel like it’s just trying to build hype for the next one. That being said, it is worth admission just for the visuals and sci-fi elements alone, (not to mention Oscar Isaac). It is much better viewed on a big screen, but for safety reasons or personal comfort, it’s also streaming on HBO Max. Enjoy yourself, and remember, fear is the mind killer.