After I got through this star-studded but vacuous 150 minute sci-fi monster, I found myself on a quest of my own, to find out why this has gotten such critical acclaim from seemingly everybody but moi. I felt something was just wrong with me and I couldn’t keep reviewing until I did some investigating to know if I’m going off the deep end. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes these days never give A+ grades to big-budget sci-fi spectacles, and this one was sprinkled with them. I found out how influential the 55-year-old novel and its series was on the genre today, especially seeing it inspired a fair bit of Star Wars. I then decided to watch the 1984 Dune adaptation, hearing it was a waste of potential, to see if maybe it was still seen as a story with so much creativity and wit that a more polished retelling has been dreamt for ages. I then thought back on my mood, because I’ve been giving a lot of negative grades recently. But I just had to come to the conclusion the new Dune is really not my kind of movie.
For those unfamiliar with its history like I was, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, which spawned a series that made it to six and then two additional ones plus a separate Dune series after the author’s death by his son Brian Herbert, was a cultural reset back in the day. None other than Episode IV: A New Hope was inspired by its desert landscape, planets with different factions and habitable levels, the deadly sand worms, and the technology used to allow humans to survive in ravaged environments. This world is in the year 10191, and this desert wasteland of a planet known as Arrakis which never has any rain and practically no life whatsoever was at one point supposed to be reconfigured and given outside resources. It’s near enough to the ocean planet, Caladan. What stopped it is this desert is the home to and the only known place of Spice, a substance both hard and dangerous to mine in the far reaches, a so-called spice which allows the folding of space and heightened abilities. Those in the most power refuse to let the well-being of the people of Arrakis get in the way of this commodity.
Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) who has stewardship over Arrakis, and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) a woman in a tight sisterhood who told her to bear a daughter who would have a son with a prophecized ability that would save the world, and she had Paul for a son instead. Paul has been trained for battle his whole life, and the fights are almost as realistic as possible because even though you don’t get stabbed, you’re shown what would’ve happened if the blades were real. Paul also potentially has The Voice, an ability Jessica also lightly has, allowing you to control your enemies and give them commands they must obey. But the most pressing matter is Paul and his family are sent to Arrakis when their people are attacked, and they think because of a vision Paul said he had that ended up coming true, he might be the chosen one after all. And they’re sent to the planet where the days are too dangerously hot to survive in so you have to wear a suit that deliberately keeps you cool, and recycles water to drink from your sweat and tears and even urine. Not that you end up expelling much of that in this climate. And in the midst of all this, an unknown enemy is threatening to push everyone into the desert with the mountaintall sandworms, visions are hinting at a girl Paul’s age who might save him or kill him, and this is far from a tale where everyone survives.
Are you curious about the grade I’d give the original Dune after I saw it solely for my confusion to my negative reaction? My grade is a B. How dare I, right? That is a total of six grades higher than this critically acclaimed remake. Now, no one is arguing this 2021 retelling is not visually immersive. I always believed the characters were on a planet either with too much rain or no rain at all. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack couldn’t have been better or more fitting for a sci-fi drama in the never-ending desert. The sets, special effects and soundtrack are all miles better than the original film. But I couldn’t get over how much of a buzzkill this film was, especially after comparing it to the first. Let me put it this way. The 1984 film with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul had bad CGI even for the 80s and was oftentimes flat-out ridiculous in plot and logic…but it was a 130-minute film of campiness that was fun to both laugh and cheer at. This remake is a 150-minute take on the first 80 minutes of the original, with everyone always uptight and too exhausted by the war to crack a smile or engage in discussion.
The glory of science fiction is it takes what we know about our world and invents a world with the realities of science turned on its head, bringing us in alternate universes or contemporary circumstances, like Back to the Future, where what we know is real is not anymore, allowing us to have a blast learning how different people react and live in these alternate realities and wondering what possibilities we could do and revolutionize the world we truly live in with. The suits humans on Arrakis wear and the tubes in their noses to prevent dehydration even further are truly fascinating. The blue eyes of the Fremen are deliciously ironic. But the movie seems to be relying too much on the expectation this is the movie people have been waiting for for years, a take on the book that inspired Star Wars only this time with uncruddy special effects. This creates the illusion everyone who sees it will be invested in it enough to embrace the fact it’s really taking its time. Taking your time is actually something I usually applaud in storytelling when you want something layered. But taking your time unenthusiastically? That’s a whole other thing.
Chalamet is a good actor, and I get the impression this isn’t his fault, but I hated his dry and anemic performance. A friend of his ends up sacrificing himself so he and his group can escape, and even if there’s not much water in your body allowing you to cry, he isn’t even properly shaken up. He’s an emotionless dud. When escaping, he walks, WALKS, over to the hidden escape. Not running, worried he’ll suffer the same fate as his friend, and not shaking, trying to come to grips with what just happened. Kyle MacLachlan’s version of the character was not the most bouncy either, but he at least made the character a bit humorous in his dedicated manners and I cared whether or not he would survive. A lot of the movie is like this too, with characters not willing to have any fun whenever they have a chance to cool off and not showing the emotional flashes that come when on death’s door. It is especially important not to do this when most of your movie is set in the desert, a landscape that is always gorgeous but easily tiresome the more time you spend there.
Watching the original actually made me dislike this film more because not only did it showcase how much this movie wasn’t much of its own thing (I get it, based on the same novel, but a lot of lines were conspicuously kept the exact same and if there was, say, a remake of The Hunger Games, I’d expect different lines and different deliveries than the original series) but it was able to prove to me this whole story doesn’t need to be told in two parts. If this Dune was a carbon copy of the original but with the improved special effects and music, I think I would’ve given it a B+.
Director Denis Villeneuve did impress me in 2016 with Arrival. It started as kind of slow during the beginning, especially with confusing flashbacks and an inability to read the alien language as the characters could, but by the end I gave it an A for how it made me seriously think of what position I would be in, the best course of action, and I was biting my nails when Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner’s characters were losing control of the peaceful cease-fire. And I know he’s directed a lot of other films seen as masterpieces I am looking forward to one day watching.
This update to Dune, however, has good fight scenes, whenever they decide to show up, undeniably better sets than the last time this story was tried out in theatres, and a sensational score, but none of that can make up for a sense of smugness and naivety that makes it think it can get away with being as long as it is without characters more interesting for the newbies, and I fear even those who are aware of this story will be checking their watches before the halfway point. My original score was a C-, but the final D grade comes from the fact I’ll be glad to never watch this again and there are movies with the C- grade I would much rather rewatch. I am, however, hoping the announced sequel is released in the coming years as planned and enough people show the love and support for Dune that I am unable to. People who get through this deserve to have the big story brought to a conclusion.
If you like this, I’d try Rango, an animated film also set in the desert with the conflict of a major water shortage, and if you don’t like this, I’d try the 1984 version because it might fill in the sense of disappointment over having everything build up to a cliffhanger.