A two-and-a-half-hour ode to Timothée Chalamet’s jawline, the 2021 Dune remake did nothing to ease the discomfort of the cramped seating in the Weitz Cinema, to say the least. But film reviews aren’t written by those who aim to “say the least.” So sit back and relax as I, your humble freshman film critic, valiantly tear into a movie that won six Oscars and has a 90% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I do not mean to insinuate that the Oscars got it wrong SIX TIMES, nor that the majority of whoever actually votes for things on Rotten Tomatoes is mistaken; rather, I merely hope to begin a conversation that leads them to a more correct conclusion.
Dune is an epic galactic tale that follows the young Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), heir to one of the major political houses in the Imperium, as he attempts to navigate a dangerous world of politics and sandworms that swallow ships. Set in the year 10,191, the House Atreides gains leadership of Arrakis, a desert planet rich with the valuable spice of life: melange. Also on this planet are the Fremen, a group of people who have adapted to live in the desert and use the spice for its psychedelic properties. The House Harkonnen, not thrilled with this change in governance, attacks the House Atreides with the assistance of the Emperor. Paul’s father is killed while Paul and his mother barely escape with their lives. Notably, Paul’s mother is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a group of “witches” who have been purposely working toward the birth of a “messiah” who can see the future and subsequently lead humanity to a prosperous future. This all snowballs into a cliffhanger of an ending as we await part two of this retelling.
The first red flag wasn’t, believe it or not, the initial quote that “dreams are messages from the deep.” No, I let that pompous cliché slide; this isn’t CinemaSins. Strike one was the opening narration that followed. I get it, you have a book that functions better as a doorstop than anything else, you’ve gotta make some headway on the plot and you haven’t a second to waste–oh wait, who am I kidding, you definitely do. With a runtime as long as CarlTalks during New Student Week, there should definitely be room to show, not tell; narration in this scenario is just sloppy. Dune did not put its best foot forward by starting with this fatal flaw. They should’ve embraced their chosen medium rather than resorting to ill-suited storytelling techniques. If I wanted a story conveyed to me through narration, I would read the book. That, coupled with the blatant Zendaya-baiting that I had been forewarned about, was only setting me up for disappointment and did not leave me hopeful for what followed. (I know this is a low blow, but if you think I was gonna let them get away with the seven minutes of Zendaya screentime to 150-minute runtime ratio, you are sorely mistaken.)
One thing you can say for Dune is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. That is, if one’s imagination is exclusively limited to sand. While I left with desert sandscapes etched for eternity in my mind’s eye, such elaborate scenery came at the expense of other, more pertinent aspects of the film. That’s not to say I wasn’t impressed by the visuals and world-building of Arrakis. From the silhouettes of vast infrastructure against a backdrop of golden sand and plumes of fire illuminating hulking drones of enemy ships against a backdrop of golden sand to the finer details that fleshed out this universe, the audience was truly immersed into the world of Dune. However, some details flew by without any explanation, not subtle enough for the casual viewer to ignore but not clear enough to avoid continually reminding me of my novice status to the Dune fandom. Like inside jokes swapped between close friends, and you’re just there, not sure whether to chuckle along awkwardly or just disappear into thin air. This is where my problem lies: this film did an impressive job of bringing the rich setting of Dune to life but, to do so, sacrificed a strong plot and details that helped the general audience feel oriented rather than lost or confused in this vast world. Some might counter this with the suggestion to “just read the books.” To that, I would reply, “no <3.” Just as you would never expect a book to be inadequate without its film counterpart, so too should films be judged as standalone works.
This film places a lot of time and energy focusing on Paul’s emotional journey as he navigates being the “messiah” — not sure how having an upper-class white guy save the native tribes of Arrakis passed the vibe check but moving on. He’s also confronted with political and literal warfare, his significantly cooler friends dying and all that other good stuff. I will concede that we do get some quite dramatic scenes, like when Paul faces Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother in a mind game that involves excruciating pain. Timmy conveys this pain and his struggle to conduct himself during the process primarily through his facial expressions, and he nails it. But such emotionally charged scenes are not the norm for Mr. Chalamet in this film. While the costumes– the costumes were so great I want to kidnap Timmy’s wardrobe stylist–and scenery crafted a rich environment, all I could see was Timothée Chalamet traversing through sets as an angsty, gangly teenager, brooding at the weight of his own existence.
Is Dune a visually stunning film with a star-studded cast? Yes. Did it make more money at the box office than I can possibly comprehend? Also yes. But these accomplishments are truly just examples of how Hollywood’s movie-making equation works. Famous people + story they can milk for nostalgia/fan base = profit. I’m not convinced this film was made because the director was just *so inspired* to revamp Dune. They’ve done more Star Wars spin-offs than are possibly justifiable, and there are too many Marvel movies to even catch up to the current films. But audiences are still willing to pay for some sci-fi entertainment and another simp-able white boy, so voilà: Dune 2021. Maybe we should just respect the original source material as the peak of Dune’s existence. Go watch the original movie or try to actually crack open the book, but can 2022 finally be the year we let the past revel in its accomplishments and try to make unique media for the present?