Dune (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Based on: Frank Herbert‘s novel
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clémentine
Seen on: 18.9.2021

Content Note: fatmisia, colonialism, racism

Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is the son and heir of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac) and Bene Gesserit Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). By decree of the Emperor, the Atreides clan just received stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, home to the valuable spice that keeps interstellar travel going. That means relieving the Harkonnens, led by their Baron (Stellan Skarsgård), of their post there – and the resulting wealth. If the Harkonnens hadn’t already been the Atreides’ mortal enemies, they would be now. Just before the Atreides family is moving to Arrakis, the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit (Charlotte Rampling) comes to test Paul, seeing great potential in him, whose fate seems to be intertwined not only with Arrakis, but the entire universe.

Dune is pretty much the epitome of an epic hero’s journey – with all the advantages and disadvantages of that. It’s a faithful adaptation with only few modernizations in the story and characters – and that, too, comes with its own problems. I guess, how much you like this film will strongly depend on how much you like the source material and how much you like the colors grey, brown and beige.

The film poster showing a moon, science fiction machinery, sand and a sandworm as a background. In the foreground, Leto (Oscar Isaac), Paul (Timothée Chalamet), Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Chani (Zendaya), Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Gurney (Josh Brolin) as floating heads in different sizes.

I’m late to Dune. I only recently started reading the novel (and didn’t manage to finish it before seeing the film, though I did read most of what the film covers) and I never saw any of the older adaptations. And I will admit right off the bat that I get why it was a big thing in the 60s, but damn, this did not age well at all.

Villeneuve does try to give the film a bit of a modern touch. There are quite a few people of color here (though no Arabic people – in the broadest sense – as would have been fitting for a story and film that obviously “borrow” heavily from Northern African countries and their styles. Kynes is turned into a woman (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster), immediately raising the number of female characters who get to have a say in stuff by a third. But these casting decisions are purely cosmetic and don’t go very far (we don’t even get to see female soldiers anywhere, be it Atreides, Fremen or otherwise). And even if the gender-“balance” would have extended to background characters, too, it wouldn’t have changed a thing about a narrative that is all about masculinity and becoming a “man” (and in the pretty classic hegemonic sense, though Leto is a nice change as he is a competent father). And it would have changed nothing about the fact that at its heart, this is a colonial story about reshaping the world as you see fit.

Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in the desert.

Even apart from those core problems, the film is littered with problems, most of them courtesy of the source material: the fatmisic trope that is the Baron Harkonnen, softened a little from the book, but also made worse by being played by a thin actor in a fatsuit. The nerves-of-steel (despite a couple of emotional moments) Jessica from the book who unapologetically follows her own political agenda is a constantly scared and crying mess in the film with little left of her prowess. And Paul has even less personality in the movie than in the book.

But if you know the book, most of my criticism is nothing new and you’ll probably go see it to see Villeneuve’s vision of it. And that vision is sleek, crisp and modern – and colors are obviously forbidden for it. (Puzzledpeaces mentioned that she would have liked the film with a production design by Tarsem Singh, and I am absolutely with her.) Not even Caladan gets color. It becomes pretty boring after a while, despite the many pretty people that populate those drab backgrounds.

The cast is excellent (though I will admit that Oscar Isaac took a lot of light with him when his part was finished), the sandworms look really awesome, the pacing is alright. I did not love the soundtrack (partly because I’m still reeling from the choir in The Green Knight, partly because the film just got too damn loud a couple of times), but I have to congratulate the film on creating a coherent vision of a book that is often all over the place. It’s just not a vision that appealed a whole lot to me.

Paul (Timothée Chalamet) holding up a knife in a salute.

Summarizing: will appeal to fans of the book. For others, the jury is out.

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