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NOC Review: ‘Dune’ is Decent

Sometimes there are movies that just come into your life, and live rent free in your brain days or weeks after you’ve seen them. That’s how you know you generally love them, and they make a profound impact on you. Either you replay or relive scenes that made you smile or blew you away. Furthermore, when you see them again, you still smile, or laugh, or get goosebumps. The Matrix in 1999. The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. The Dark Knight in 2008. The Avengers in 2012 and Endgame in 2019.

And for the past year, I greatly anticipated that Dune was going to be one of those movies for me. But then the strangest thing happened two days after seeing it. I didn’t really think about it much more. A day later, I ended up rewatching The Suicide Squad on HBO Max (because it’s leaving the service this week). And last night I ended up re-watching Shang-Chi to celebrate the Gold Open of it. And sadly, I thought about those two movies (which I’d seen a few times before) a lot more than Dune afterwards, which I originally thought was going to be a game changer. And upon realizing I wasn’t thinking about it, that was the moment I realized, it’s great, but I don’t love it.

Don’t get me wrong. In the heat of the moment, as I was seeing the film, I was definitely intrigued, and awe-inspired by the visuals, and the rich mythology. The performances are all great. The action is fun. And immediately after I did want to see the next installment (And I’ll get into all of that soon, I promise). So objectively speaking, it’s a great sweeping epic. And I liked it enough. But that’s it.

Perhaps it was the unfair weight of my own expectations that led to my more muted response. Or the fact that the first third is a bit slow and heavy on the mythology building (though it’s actually pretty well executed all things considered). Or maybe it’s just because, as director Denis Villeneuve himself put it, this first part is just an appetizer the same way Batman Begins was for The Dark Knight. But I expected to care more about this movie than I currently do right now, which is, in its own way, disappointing.

Let’s get to the great stuff about the movie. First thing’s first, you can feel Villeneuve’s passion in every scene. He’s a man who loves this book, and understands it way more than someone like me ever could. And all that comes across on screen in every gorgeous frame and the reverent tone he takes in every scene. He’s got an incredibly difficult job, given this is absolutely not an easy novel to adapt. Herbert’s world is so rich with culture and mythology, as well as allegory and theme, that it’s almost impossible to adapt this perfectly. And yet, Villeneuve’s command of the material is what makes this all work. His passionate execution makes something that could have been a boring exposition dump something greater! It’s because he cares for the material and knows what to abbreviate and what to focus on (and in the right context as well) that you, in turn, care about what you’re seeing on screen, regardless of whether it’s an action beat or not. The way Villeneuve pulls you into this world by demonstrating concepts like the Bene Gesserit’s powers and tests, or the spice-enhanced biology of the Fremen and their culture is positively captivating. And that in and of itself turns this from a project that could have been as mediocre as Lynch’s version into something truly greater.

The visuals are absolutely stunning. The production design for every inch of this world really is immersive and transcendent, which is what you need in an other-worldly film such as this. The score by Hans Zimmer is also tribal, wild, and completely out there (and quite loud), transporting you into the raw outback that embodies the culture of Arrakis. The wonderful performances of its stacked cast, especially those of Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Oscar Isaac, and Jason Mamoa, really allow you to care for these characters very dearly. They are complex, fierce, and (in Isaac’s case) very compassionate figures, even if some of them could be a little stiff/cold at times.

The action is really fun, when we get it. The fight scenes have pretty decent choreography. But what makes them pop are the presence of ideas like the individual body shields each character is equipped with. There’s a lot of excellent sequences involving the dangers of spice mining. And also the sandworm scenes are jaw-dropping (though temper your expectations regarding how many you’re getting). Furthermore the political storylines behind what people are doing, what their motivations are, what moves they make, and how their choices affect everything or nothing are incredibly fascinating. They also effectively contribute to translating the overall themes of Herbert’s novel to the screen seamlessly.

Given all of this, why, then, am I not thinking about this film night and day? Well to put it bluntly, it’s because after over 40 years of Star Wars movies and 20 years of Lord of the Rings films, and 10 years of Game of Thrones, this simply isn’t a new tale. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Desert planet? Check! Evil emperor? Check! Space ships? Check! Hand-selected individuals with mental abilities that help control politics? Check! Chosen one? Check! Yes, I realize Dune, as a story, pre-dates all the aforementioned franchises (except Tolkein’s LOTR novels). And yes, Villeneuve’s direction and visual style makes it feel a bit more fresh than the last trilogy of Star Wars films put together. But it all feels less special as a result of being desensitized to seeing the same exact story on screen a few times over.

And I also realize that Dune, unlike Star Wars, is an allegory about the dangers of messianic worship (though one could argue that putting your faith in an emotionally unstable boy with a high midichlorian count is also evidence to the dangers of selecting a “chosen one”). But we don’t get any of those points in this film, which is essentially mostly set up for something bigger down the line. So then, apart from the visuals, why should I care about any of this if I’ve seen it a hundred times before? Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not pooh-poohing Herbert’s story and complex mythos. It’s a fantastic, imaginative world with A LOT of details, and a good story. Nor am I writing off Villeneuve’s excellent direction of it. He brings it to life brilliantly. I’m simply expressing that for something of this magnitude, I expected a game changer, and instead I got a slower Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. Is it impressive? Sure. But not impressive enough for me.

And this may be the problem. I’m not a mega-fan. And it’s so hard to get non-fans into something with such a rich and complex mythology. And to his credit, Villeneuve succeeds in making me fully compelled in all of it for these two and a half hours. But at the end, he didn’t fully convert me. Which is the one thing I may need to ding Villeneuve about. A true testament to a successful adaptation is that it has the potential to turn the non-initiated into hardcore fans after the credits roll; people who will run out and read the book for the first time just because of the impact this film had on them. And yet, I’m not really compelled to do this. I’m 100% sure fans will embrace this gorgeous and reverent adaptation as the definitive version of their favorite book. And that is fantastic! But for me, an uninitiated potential fan, I’m not in a hurry to get baptized.

It doesn’t help matters as well that from a POC perspective, the film seems to be very comfortable treating characters played by minority actors like red shirts on Star Trek. Most of the casualties in the film are people of color. And the POCs that have larger roles are sort of given a) villainous or treasonous motivations, or b) are dispatched of quite easily within this film, or c) both. And it’s not until we really get to the end of this installment that we’re introduced to more POCs, of which we get very little time with. In a way it sort of upset me, given how brilliant the cast is, because they all end up just being casualties in service of keeping the Caucasian heroes of the film alive. And for a movie based on a novel that already gets controversy for falling into the White Savior trope, that’s a bad look. But such is Hollywood, and the exact reason sites like The Nerds of Color exists.

In general I suppose I am coming off hard on the movie. At the end of the day, it’s gorgeous, deep, mature, compelling, well-acted, and brilliantly directed. It really is a feat in filmmaking, and you honestly should only see spectacle of this caliber on the biggest screen possible. But at the end of the day, I just didn’t feel like it stayed with me. While the last two-thirds are epic and exciting, you may get a bit restless in the first act since a ton of exposition is thrown at you in a dense, and slower way. And based on my experience, if you’re not a dedicated fan, you may walk away smiling then moving on with your life afterwards without a second thought.

In other words, I came for a game-changer. And I walked away with a better-than-average door prize. But as they say in the film, this is just the beginning. And I am still ultimately looking forward to the next installment, given the promise of this one. But here’s hoping for something even better than “better-than-average” next time.

Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B
Overall Score (on a representation level): C-

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