‘Dune’ continues the franchise’s legacy of pitfalls and shortcomings
Director Denis Villeneuve’s sandworm-sized task of adapting the 1965 novel to the big screen is clouded by decades of past, failed attempts
By Josh Hadley
The newly realized adaptation of a decades-old space epic is an experience of frustration. “Dune” is chock-full of issues, but at the same time filled with fantastic aspects. To understand how this 2021 release made its way to the big screen, a history lesson riddled with bungled versions is crucial.
The 1965 Frank Herbert novel “Dune” received numerous big-screen attempts throughout the 1970s. Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky got kind of close in 1975, but no studio would give up the required budget for what they saw as a supposed kid’s film (a common sentiment before the “Star Wars” franchise when thinking of science fiction as a film genre). Ironically, Jodorowsky was asking for a smaller budget at the time than what “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” would require just two years later, and we all know how that little film turned out.
With Jodorowsky’s “Dune” adaptation stalling, it would not be until 1984 when auteur David Lynch would team with Dino De Laurentiis that “Dune” would finally hit the screen. This film was both a masterpiece and a disaster simultaneously.
It was a vision of wonders with amazing production design and stunning visuals. The 1984 movie regrettably came up short in every other department. The story structure is confusing—nothing is explained while at the same time everything is overexplained. The acting is either stiff and wooden or over the top. The massive page count of the novel is condensed far too much that if you had not read the novel you are totally lost, a pitfall plaguing the most recent adaptation.
Critics and movie-goers did not take kindly to the 1984 movie (although I happen to love it). The problems with the film were a combination of questionable decisions and production issues so Lynch is not entirely to blame, despite what modern criticism would lead the film community to believe.
For a long time, the spice-laden franchise was considered “unfilmable” and the David Lynch movie seemed to be the point that informed this rule. The sheer fact that there is so much in the novel it is almost impossible to push it all out in a two- or three-hour runtime.
Filmmaker John Harrison and The Scifi Channel attempted to solve this problem by cutting the story into a six-hour miniseries in 2000. This solved the issues surrounding not having enough time to get all of the needed information to the audience but also drug the movie out to being almost unbearable to sit through. The 2000 mini-series is very accurate to the novel but is frankly dull, dull and dull. It features people standing in a room talking, then going to another room and talking and then more people go to another room and talk. For six hours. Additionally, the “made-for-TV” budget handcuffed the project and this can be seen in the less than stellar visuals.
Over two decades later, director Denis Villeneuve has recently released a new version of the space epic.
I say version because this is not a movie though; this is half of a movie. Villeneuve likely learned from past mistakes and understood he simply could not make the story work as a three-hour film but also that he could not make a six-hour movie either. So he chopped the book in half.
Unfortunately, Villeneuve wrestles with the same issues as both of the previous versions did just in different doses. The 2021 version is impenetrable if you have not read the novel. The film tosses character names around willy-nilly and acts as if the audience should already know who they are and why they are important. This dilemma also plagues world-building explanations as it sets concepts within the universe with zero information or explanation—an erroneous callback to the 1984 film.
The other issue the 2021 “Dune” has in common with the past adaptations is it is painfully slow. This film is at least an hour too long. There are so many stretches of just nothing happening that you have to wonder if Villeneuve is attempting to make moviegoers go insane.
The filmmaker had a similar problem in his film “Blade Runner 2049,” where long shots of ships flying for two straight minutes or characters staring longingly into the distance clawed away at the audience’s sanity.
Speaking of characters, this 2021 film has none. There are character types. The people in this world all act like hollow shells merely going through the motions of being human. Everything with the actors is so underplayed it makes them dreadfully bland—which fits for stars Zendaya and Jason Momoa as neither of them could act if their lives depended on it. The film muddily allows characters to jump on and off-screen with little to no explanation. For example, Josh Brolin just stops being in the movie at one point despite being a presumed main character. Dave Bautista also just shows up, screams and then vanishes. The entire movie is like this. Consistency is lost.
The problem with characters’ confusing screentime speaks to an overarching problem with consistency in the 155-minute film. This is likely caused by Villeneuve’s decision to cut the story in half. The original novel has no real midpoint, so no break feels natural. This 2021 release just ends without a feeling that its stopping point makes sense to end where it does.
Despite all of this, the film is breathtakingly gorgeous to look at. Each planet in the universe has a distinct visual style that makes the audience want more of each separate world. The battles are immersive and beautifully shot—as are the vast landscapes.
Unfortunately, everything else is drab and dry.
Where to see “Dune”
Josh Hadley is an analog warrior writing for the varied likes of Fangoria, Rue Morgue, Horrorhound, The Dark Side, Hustler, Delirium, Cashiers du Cinemart and many others. He’s a veteran of low-budget television and film. Flying through the night with a VCR and the perspective of a Luddite, Hadley zigs while others zag and takes you along for the ride.