“Dune” (2021) is a planet-sized disappointment

Illustration by Jaida Noble | Sandworms were the unsung heroes of “Dune” (2021) for distracting us from bad writing.

Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited remake of the 1984 David Lynch cult sci-fi classic underperforms in multiple ways.

In the year 10191, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is the coming successor to the great House Atreidis, a family and empire which is granted conservatorship of an unforgiving desert world famed for its invaluable mineral, Spice. However, Paul has been having disturbing premonitions of the world, of war, and a mysterious woman (Zendaya), and fears the worst.

If nothing else, this new adaptation of Tacoma-native Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel is massive: the visuals, the score, and the cast are all enormous. As many have noted, “Dune” (2021) is built to be seen on the biggest possible screen — whether it’s good is another question. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Lion,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) uses scale to the max, if blandly, to depict enormous and uninspiring shots of para-futuristic technology. His attempts to smash Denis Villeneuve aesthetics with amusement park visuals do more to dull the spectacle than enhance it, and that partly comes down to the overuse of CGI. For example, Villeneuve’s signature aerial shot used to follow vehicles in his films is usually breathtaking with the natural scenery gushing by like a watercolor backdrop. In “Dune” (2021) however, someone high up in production thought it was a brilliant idea to use this with a tan vehicle over a tan, CGI dust cloud — an expensively boring shot. Many big-budget films have recently failed from their excessive use of CGI (I would argue that “Avengers: Endgame” is among this list), which often lacks the same awe-power as analog visuals.

The score, I’ll credit Hans Zimmer, was quite good. It may not have lined up perfectly with the stale dialogue, but that may have been his attempt at bringing any level of intrigue to the film. The sound was unnecessarily loud, though, and at times the mixing made it difficult to hear the characters, another example of trying way too hard to create something ‘massive’ rather than something good.

The cast should have been incredible, but it was inevitable that there would be little room for acting so much as reading lines in such a nondescript, big-budget Hollywood mess. The acting low was by far held by Jason Mamoa (“Game of Thrones”) as soldier Duncan Idaho, who I have come to realize loses all of his compellingness as an actor sans-beard. On the other end of the spectrum Stellan Skarsgård (“Good Will Hunting”) was easily the best, playing the arch-villain imperialist Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Most of the acting, though, fell into the unremarkable grey zone populated by a boring script and flat characters. The surplus talent is immense; from Javier Bardem (“No Country For Old Men”) to Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) to Zendaya (“Euphoria”) to Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences”) and on, the extent of wastage is Marvel-sized. 

Even the plot was over-bloated with unremarkable filler and unclear worldbuilding. Large sections of the film were borderline boring, the exposition viewed like a poorly edited restaurant wall of fame, introducing each character like a choppy cameo, and the end-portion was entirely unnecessary. In fact, the entire film felt like an exposition which, between one milquetoast action sequence and the next, was apparently meant to promise better things in the inevitable sequels. The entire time the audience is jerked around by narrative tour-guides from one shallow scene to the next — at least it can claim quality production design.

I can’t say that I expected more, but I am disappointed in the director. This has to be my least favorite of Villeneuve’s features since before his critical resurgence with “Polytechnique” over a decade ago. “Dune” (2021) is as bland and poorly articulated as any other revenue-motivated, agar-flavored, B-grade Hollywood sci-fi flick.

Title: Dune (2021)

Star Rating: 2.5/5

[Available at time of writing to see in theatres or stream on: HBO Max]

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