Dune (2021 Movie): Art & Action All in One

Madeleine’s Score: Enjoyed itwould watch it again
(4/5 cool points)

Dune. Sci-fi fans everywhere know how loaded of a title it is, and most of us have strong emotions attached to it—either positive or negative with little middle ground. I’ll save my review of the novel Dune for another day and focus, as much as I can anyway, on this most recent movie adaptation in this review.

For those who don’t know, Dune is a space opera akin to the scope and science fantasy mix found in Star Wars. Although, in many ways, you wouldn’t be able to tell its depth and breadth from the 2021 movie alone. There’s a complex political setup in this fictional world with an Emperor of the known universe at the top that’s just hinted at in the film. What we do know in the movie is that the powerful House Atreides has just been gifted (or cursed with) the responsibility of taking over the treacherous planet Arrakis, which is the sole source of powerful spice—a substance with myriad abilities, only some of which are explained. Within House Atreides is Paul, a young man who is about to find himself forever changed by the threat against his family, the beautiful danger of Arrakis, and spice itself.

While the movie doesn’t focus too heavily on blatant worldbuilding, it does accomplish a good bit of it through cinematography, costumes, and CGI, all three of which are stunning. The contrast between dark, mysterious, ocean-covered Caladan and the blinding, sand-covered Arrakis is stark, and it sets the precedent of old life vs. new life in every way. There’s a scene set on the burial grounds of House Atreides on Caladan that’s just gorgeous and full of meaning as Duke Leto tells his son Paul amongst the bones of their ancestors, “Your grandfather said, ‘A great man doesn’t seek to lead. He’s called to it, and he answers.’ And if your answer is no, you’ll still be the only thing I ever needed you to be—my son.” Lady Jessica’s intricate, flowing, and sometimes completely over-the-top clothes from the beginning of the movie juxtapose with the functional stillsuits of the Fremen she later finds herself donning to survive the harsh desert. And the sandworms, well…of course they’re CGI brilliance.

Now, I’ll dive just a bit into comparing the movie with the book for a moment, because it’s almost impossible not to do so. In addition to the movie being beautiful to look at, it focuses on action rather than the political intrigue and spiritual philosophies so prevalent within the source material. This is a plus for some viewers, a big offense to others. I personally didn’t mind it. Putting pages and pages of internal wrestling over spiritual questions on screen would be difficult, to say the least, and arguably less entertaining for general audiences than stuff blowing up and killer fighters like Duncan Idaho making the infamous Sardaukar look like overblown rent-a-cops. So while I missed some of the political intrigue, I really did enjoy the action and, in a lot of ways, it accomplished some of the worldbuilding that the novel accomplished through exposition and internal monologues.

Regarding character, I felt there were some missed opportunities. As I did in the book, I felt that Duke Leto’s character was more or less wasted. According to the Bene Gesserit, he served his purpose, but as a writer, I beg to disagree. He’s conflicted and truly fascinating, but we don’t get to see much of that in the movie. Duncan Idaho also deserved more screen time as he’s one of few within House Atreides who says “to hell” with decorum and shakes things up. We got glimpses of it in the movie, but largely, we just saw Jason Momoa being Jason Momoa (not that I’m complaining). And while one must admire the cosmetic feat of turning Stellan Skarsgård into the evil Baron Harkonnen, the spectacle left me shrugging rather than quaking in my stillsuit boots.

It’s worth noting that there have been several other attempts at adapting Herbert’s world to film. If you’re curious, or if you have a strong opinion about said previous takes, check out this ranking of all the Dune adaptations, including the 2021 movie by Villenueve.

What did you think of 2021’s Dune? Are you looking forward to part two?