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Dune review: Epic saga's first instalment brought short by truncated story

Length: 2 hours 36 minutes
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan Brewster, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Chang Chen, David Dastmalchian

In theatres from 16 September 2021 (Singapore); United States/HBO Max release on 22 October 2021

3.5 out of 5 stars

This review contains spoilers for Dune.

Dune might be a great movie – if it actually covered the whole novel that it's based on, instead of half of the book. That said, the movie already has a runtime of two and a half hours, so covering the whole book might well take five hours. (Yeah, word of advice: empty your bladder before watching Dune.)

That's a big "if" – because Frank Herbert's classic science fiction saga wasn't just one book. Dune, regarded as the best-selling science fiction novel of all time as well as the best literary work of science fiction, was the first in a series of six novels which were published in the '60s up till the '80s – and after Herbert's death, his son wrote two more novels to finish the story based on his father's notes. The huge length and epic scale of the Dune saga have proved difficult for filmmakers to adapt for movies and television over the years, though many have tried. The latest one to try is director Denis Villeneuve.

Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Don't get me wrong. Villeneuve's Dune – subtitled as "Part One" – isn't so much a bad movie as an incomplete movie. Its storyline ends at the mid-way point of the original novel. Therefore, I don't think I'm in a position to judge the work as a cohesive film – nevertheless, I have to judge the film that has indeed been made. The movie-making business is ultimately a money-making business; the studio Warner Bros. is still waiting to evaluate the response to this first part, which cost US$165 million, before greenlighting the second part.

Villeneuve, who directed the high-concept sci-fi films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, returns to his favourite genre with this foray into the universe of Dune. The seminal Dune novels could be regarded as "Game Of Thrones but in space": in a galactic empire 10,000 years in the future, various noble houses and political factions fight for control of the planet Arrakis and its precious resource, "spice".

Chang Chen in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Chang Chen speaks Mandarin in Dune. Go figure. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Spice, also called "melange" in Herbert's novels, is a substance produced by the sandworms, gigantic carnivorous creatures that live beneath the sands of the desert planet. When consumed, spice has narcotic properties that are crucial for space travel, allowing navigators to guide ships through warp space. As such, Arrakis and spice harvesting have become the locus of an interstellar politico-economic conflict.

The Imperial court appoints the noble house of Atreides to take over the administration of Arrakis' spice operations. However, the former masters of the lucrative business, House Harkonnen, are plotting to destroy House Atreides to recover their wealth and power.

Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac are stewards of House Atreides. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)

As I mentioned, this iteration of Dune isn't a bad movie. It just depends on what you're looking for when you enter the cinema – are you here to begin a journey into a story of epic scope? Or are you looking for a popcorn-bite-sized self-contained piece of escapist entertainment? Dune: Part One is the former but certainly not the latter.

The movie's world-building and visuals are top-notch, from costumes to CGI to special effects, amply making the futuristic setting believable (having said that, there was one piece of projector technology in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot that looked exactly like a projector we use now, LOL.)

The cast is also top-notch, including Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Jason Momoa, and Zendaya. Enough said. Although I will say this: Zendaya and Javier Bardem are grossly underused. Again, likely a problem owing to the incomplete nature of the story.

For fans of action and adventure, there are the requisite fights and explosions as the rival Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen scheme and counter-scheme against each other.

Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet in Denis Villeneuve's Dune. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet, mother and son in Dune. (Still courtesy of Warner Bros.)

However, from what we can see in the half of the story that was explored, not much more is portrayed of the main character, young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), other than his confusion as he inches towards his destiny as the leader of the native people of Arrakis, the Fremens, in their battle against imperial oppression. By the end of the movie, he has still only just been inducted as a member of the Fremens (in a plot development that is frankly rather abrupt and baffling.) Furthermore, the film suffers from a draggy last act which culminates in an anti-climactic cliff-hanger (which, once more, may be attributed to the truncated story.)

To call Paul the "main character" is disingenuous, however, because he is not the main character of the Dune universe – there is no one main character. He appears to be the main character in this film, but he never really has a proper arc or dramatic conflict. He's a pivotal character in the first book, for sure. But the grand scope and themes of the Dune saga extend far beyond Paul and what this film can tackle. If you hope to see Villeneuve's whole vision for the saga, you had better round up everyone you can get to watch the movie and help its box office sales.

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