October Review: Dune (2021)

Fear is the mind-killer.

Okay, this one isn’t a horror movie (though it does feature some scary worms that tend to be a little on the large size). This October sees the release of the highly anticipated, third adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 SF classic.

The first adaptation (1984) featured spectacular production and design, but it lurched into incoherence.
The second (2000), a TV miniseries, stuck to the script, but production and performances were not consistently stellar.

Third time’s the charm?

UPDATE: It’s a go for Part Two!

Cast and Crew

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth
From the novel by Frank Herbert

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides
Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides
Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho
Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat
Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck
Javier Bardem as Stilgar
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes
Chen Chang as Dr. Wellington Yueh
Dave Bautista as “the Beast” Rabban Harkonnen
Zendaya as Chani
David Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries
Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam
Babs Olusanmokun as Jamis
Benjamin Clémentine as Herald of the Change
Souad Faress as Bene Gesserit Sister
Golda Rosheuvel as Shadout Mapes
Roger Yuan as Lieutenant Lanville
Seun Shote as Arrakeen Residency Gardener
Neil Bell as Sardaukar Bashar
Oliver Ryan as Hawat Specialist
Ben Dilloway as Sardaukar Assassin
Elmi Rashid Elmi as Shamir
Tachia Newall as Tanat


Aristocratic families of the distant future feud over a desert planet with a critical resource, involving in the process the world’s established settlers and a quasi-religious sisterhood hoping to produce a superhuman.

But that’s too much for one movie, so this one ends just as Paul and Jessica join the Fremen.

High Point

Villeneuve found a way to take a complex story with a developed historical and cultural context and present it visually. Yes, we lose some details along the way, but he eschews excessive exposition and makes the intricate narrative comprehensible even to people unfamiliar with Herbert’s Dune.

He also made a film visually worthy of your return to a large-screen theatre.

Low Point

I have a Low Point with a possible expiry date.

Even in a nearly three-hour (two hours and 35 minutes) adaptation of half of the novel, a lot goes missing, necessarily. In this case, we get told, briefly, why the spice matters, and we never see a Guild Navigator. That strikes me as a significant omission. However, the filmmakers have said they were concerned about front-loading too much, and the Guild’s role in Part One’s events may yet be explored– a sort of twist for those unfamiliar with the source material.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 We have the third adaptation of a novel from 1965. The director brings his own touch, but he has tried to do a version of the established story.

It seems even less original, because (1) it uses tropes and cultural references more familiar to current viewers than to the novel’s original readers and (2) the source has had a strong influence on the SF-minded. I’m sure that somewhere out there, some clueless audience member is walking out a theatre door and complaining how much this Dune thing rips off Star Wars.

Effects: 6/6 The visuals have been seamlessly integrated.

Production: 6/6 Inspired by the novel, the film creates a melange of a hundred real cultures into a fascinating far-future.

Acting: 5.5/6 The film features an epic cast who, for the most part, give epic performances. Jason Momoa makes a memorable Duncan Idaho, while the Harkonnens are repugnant without becoming full-on WWE grotesques. Zendaya remains a fascinating screen presence, whose key role will be in the second half.

Charlotte Rampling strikes the correct notes as the Reverend Mother.

Story: 5/6 That might be a 6 or a 4, depending on what happens in Part Two.

Emotional Response: 5/6 The film is powerful, but the response is occasionally muted. Timothée Chalamet is an impressive actor whose version of Paul we’re only just beginning to explore.

Overall: 5/6 I give Villeneuve and company credit for making a film of this length move so well. Yes, the pacing of the early portions is deliberate, and not for those with short attention spans. That pace picks up as the story develops.

I have no real issues with most of the changes. The usual suspects have complained about the casting of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes. However, she does an excellent job as one of the few characters for whom sex is not really relevant. A female Kynes and the expansion of Chani’s role in the first half also provide a balance for contemporary audiences, given that the film needs must maintain the source novel’s overall handling of gender. It’s complex, nuanced, and fascinating, and necessary to how Herbert’s story unfolds, but it is also problematic and dated.

The film accepts Herbert’s world on its own terms, making some allowances for the differences in genre and era. A lot has happened since 1965. I’m struck especially by Herbert’s understanding of imperialism, colonialism, religion, and environmentalism. His analyses may be far from perfect, but they’re certainly prescient.

I only hope we get the next installment, so that, at least, the first (and, IMO, best) of the novels gets a complete, big-budget adaptation.

This first half deserves that more exciting second half (at least), and contemporary audiences must learn the answer to the central question: is Paul Atreides a Man or a Mouse?

In total, Dune receives 34.5/42

Our Mind-Killer Countdown Continues:

2: Tales from the Crypt (1972)
9. Suspiria (2018)
16:Vampire Circus (1972)
23: Dune (2021)
30: Body Bags (1993)
31. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

10 replies on “October Review: Dune (2021)”

  1. I’m a big fan of both Star Wars and Dune, I think the complaints about Star Wars stealing from Dune are overblown (the reverse for people who don’t know better is also trivial). Dune has never had any planet killer weapons or pew pew starfighter battles, and the spice in Star Wars is a dangerous drug and not a key plot element at all.

  2. The only problem I have with the Kynes gender swap is that Kynes MUST be a direct ancestor of Chani. I’ve heard she’s played off as an aunt or great aunt of Chani, but God Emperor requires Chani to be a direct descendant of Kynes.

    I’m hoping the Aunt thing is a ruse do to the fact of Chani being her granddaughter would be scandalous.

    I don’t have a problem with this gender swap, but Chani has to be a direct blood descendant of Kynes.

    Although this could be a tell indicating that they will only film the first trilogy and God Emperor will never hit screens. And as hard as God Emperor would be to put to film, even though it’s my second favorite Dune book, I could understand that it may just be too hard. And if that’s the case the Kynes/Chani lineage thing isn’t important to the films. But damn if someone were bold enough to film God Emperor, I’d say Denis would be that guy.

  3. I think the likelihood of the series getting to God-Emperor is very small. Part Two of Dune would be enough and I can hope, if the take is big enough, maybe getting a Dune Messiah movie. Mega-budget SF movies at present tend to mean lots of Pew! Pew! Pew! Dune has action, but it’s most definitely not a Pew! Pew! sort of franchise.

    • Well, many people seem to want this, inside and outside the studio, to be a series. But after Dune, it looks like Messiah would be one movie and I don’t think Children could be stretched to two. So that would end the series as 4 movies. So that wouldn’t be bad, but if they could make all 6, the last few would be multi part movies too. But there is much more limited action in those books. But if they do pull that off Jason Mamoa is gonna get quite wealthy on it.

      But yeah, I think the best case is to get the trilogy put to film.

      I shudder to think of the worst case because that’s where the second part doesn’t get made…

      • I know a lot of people loved Dune and felt the books got worse I loved Chapter House. I loved the inference that the Bene Gesserit were the descendants of the Catholic Church with the Bene Tleilax linked to the Muslim faith. The final jump being out of the samd box where a Father, Son and friend were directing what was in the box was of an imagery that the minister in my was profoundly impressed by. However I would agree that these stories as movies are a lot harder to pull off than the initial Dune.

        Perhaps instead of a Dune movie series retreading the path of Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, the House Attreides, House Corrino and House Harkonnen books would be of better source material to adapt.

  4. I was super skeptical about this movie.

    But I liked it. It’s very well done.

    With that said, my opinion doesn’t really matter. Much of my enjoyment of this movie derives from having read the book — and even from having watched the 1984 David Lynch version.

    I’ve yet to hear an opinion from someone who has _not_ had any exposure to the story beforehand. There’s a _lot_ of exposition piled on in the beginning and I think that might turn a lot of people off, and, ironically, not enough exposition about some things which may leave a lot of people confused.

    • I know someone who saw it who has not read the book. She liked it. However, she is also well-read in SF (just not Herbert), so that is a factor.

      UPDATE: Spoke to two young people who saw it on the weekend. They went almost completely unaware of the books or previous incarnations and really liked it.

  5. As far as I can tell, and my assessment is suspect automatically both because I have read Dune and that I did so some time ago, the critical plot points that have to be there for the story to make sense are there. Though that opinion may change after part 2 depending how that goes. But, from what I’ve seen so far, Villeneuve at least understands the story. I was relieved to see the steady pacing leading up to the betrayal because it meant there was plenty of time to set up the politics, people, and places, at least to a point. I was also pleased that they didn’t spend half the runtime on totally pointless action set pieces. As I recall, there are also some good points in the second half that will allow filling in details without derailing anything. A flashback here or there, etc.

    I’m actually very interested to see what Villeneuve and gang would do with subsequent volumes though I worry that meddling from the investor types will try to stretch volumes 2 and 3 into two movies each. As I recall, those two barely have enough story points between them for 2 movies, at least screen-time wise. It would be really interesting to see it all the way through Chapterhouse. However, I suspect that won’t happen. On the other hand, so far, it looks like they haven’t done anything that should make Messiah and Children completely incomprehensible.

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