21st Sep2021

‘Dune’ Review (2021)

by Chris Thomas

Stars: Stellen Skarsgaard, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Ferguson, Timothee Chalamet, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, David Dastmalchian, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling | Written by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth | Directed by Denis Villeneuve

As a preteen, Dune was probably the novel that meant more to me. It was my version of Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings or quite possibly 50 Shade of Grey. Something that sounds like the worst book in the world, but it was so popular, surely someone liked it.

Dune is a dark, weird story that has a scope that is almost unmatched in literature. The far future is a paranoid, unhappy and superstitious place where treachery and jealousy are de jour and being “good” puts a target on your back. Casual, evil brutality is the norm. Years after machines rebelled against humanity, and nearly wiped us out, machines are extremely limited. Luckily, on the planet Dune a substance called “spice” has been discovered that allows people to navigate impossibly large spaceships through light years of space. Travelling without moving as they say in the book. The spice is therefore the most valuable substance in the galaxy, and Dune the most strategic spot, and the tastiest cheese in the meanest trap. If you guess there is a large downside to taking this “spice” stuff, you’d be very right. Plans within plans, as the book says over and over. Dune is, the Arabian Peninsula, or Afghanistan today. It is an incredibly tough place, where religious zealots hide in the caves, while their Imperially appointed overlords try to take what they can and get out alive. Our film kicks off with an Imperial decree. After 80 years, the evil Harkonnen are to leave Dune, to be replaced by the Atriedes, the acceptable, loveable face of autocratic rule.

David Lynch had a go at making it in 1984, which sounds like a match made in heaven. Sadly, the studio seemly just wanted “Star Wars” which is quite baffling as they had taken an incredibly deep and layered story, hired one of the most interesting, but difficult to read directors in the business and then asked for a space western. There is a lot to like in Dune (1984) but you have to take the rough with the smooth and admit that the whole thing is an incoherent mess. It is perhaps easiest to explain where the 2021 version gets it so right, by explaining where 1984 gets it so wrong. 1984 kicks off by a narration, trying to bring the viewer up to speed on a load of weird, and confusing concepts and ideas. This fictional far future is extremely different to today, and trying to cram so much history, concepts and Gom Jabbars into an introduction is outright foolish. Even if you have read the book as many times as I have, it is confusing and frustrating.

Denis Villeneuve, the urbane, intelligent, director of Blade Runner 2049 has a narration, but it is very light touch, before he then breaks into “showing by doing” which means he manages to give the audience what they need to enjoy the story he is telling. The audience is not sitting a test at the end of the film, and therefore a huge chunk of the most confusing, convoluted (non) plot points is missed. Perhaps the worst scene in the 1984 version comes early, when the emperor meets a Guild Navigator. The emperor flatly just explains the plot to the Navigator, which is poor film making, badly done. The Navigator says the line “Many machines on IX, better than those of Richese.” To which the character of the emperor basically says “erm, sure”. Neither IX, nor Richese feature again in the story. So why give us this level of bloat and confusion. As much as I love David Lynch, it is either bad film making, or there were side plots that were left out, but this line left in.

2021 Dune is a lean, slick, masterful piece of modern, visual story telling. It is particularly fascinating to me, to be telling this story in 2021, in a post 9/11 world. Sadly I can’t elaborate on this point, without giving away massive spoilers. At some point after writing Dune, Frank Herbert somehow managed to lean all the way into the drug trip aspects of this incredible story and really go to some places that were too odd for me. However, in this first story, he has the perfect amount of character development, political machinations, evil, good, tragedy, world building and drugged up trippiness to tell one of the most vivid and remarkable stories I know. The 1984 version also tried its best to paint the ending as a happy one. Even though we are only halfway through the tale, we understand, what is to come is not a happy ending. It is anything but.

I loved the set designs, the weird lighting, the world building of the 1984, but that is great in 2021 too. Another high point for 1984 was how evil the Harkonnen were, brilliantly both camp and terrifying, but in 2021 we drop the camp for looking at the face of evil. Stellen Skarsgaard is again, unrecognisable, but brilliant as the Baron, and Dave Bautista is incredible as the mountain of hatred that is Raban. Javier Bardem is great as Stilgar, Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica, Timothee Chalamet as Paul, Jason Momoa as Duncan, but now I am just going through the cast, they are all fantastic. Including Oscar Isaac, our Duke Leto. I am happy that other people get to experience this story, that has meant so much to me for 25 or so years. Star Wars is nowhere near as interesting as this.

What can I say that is negative? Well, if you are a snowflake type (as I am) then the gender politics is “old fashioned”. If you get the choice, don’t see the 3D version, it adds nothing and the loss of colour through the silly glasses was a big loss.

Dune, circa 2021 did things to me in the cinema I haven’t felt since I was a kid. There was the magic of the cinema, like so much spice in my blood stream.

Dune is released in UK cinemas on October 21st 2021.
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P.S. Can we all agree, I am very funny and 2 retweets for me, constitutes “going viral”

2 Responses to “‘Dune’ Review (2021)”

  • Andreas Bockholt

    This is a well-founded, intelligent and thorough review I completely agree with! Excellent words found for an excellent film!

  • B.P. Valkenburg

    Dito….
    I’m afraid I will kill someone if they don’t make part 2