Last week the meticulously crafted and highly anticipated remake of the 1984 film cult classic (and 1965 novel), Dune, was released to theaters and HBO Max. Dune was made with a $165 million budget, a contract for two films (this was part 1, part 2 is to come),and four countries filming in three long years. Needless to say, audiences are watching Dune with a lot of expectations.
The film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September of 2021 and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Was it warranted? The Conservative Critic will ask: Is it entertaining? Does it have intellectual/artistic value? And finally – Is it liberal propaganda?
Conservative Critic Meter Check: Dune
Overall Rating: Genre strong
The new Dune is technically a “part 1” and serves primarily as a set-up of worlds and characters. Set in the distant future, Dune is a political drama about Paul Atreides, the future Duke of the House Atreides, and his destiny on a desert planet, Arrakis. Paul and his family face foes from their rival family, House Harkonnen, the native people of Arrakis, the Freman, and the sandworms which inhabit the vast dunes across the landscape.
For its genre, science-fiction, Dune performs well. One of the pillars of science-fiction is to craft a detailed, typically future-set, world that provides logical and truly possible explanations for the current conditions of the story which seem almost fantastical to the viewer. This effort often rests on currently known technology or currently theoretical technology which has a basis in known science. Dune carefully sets a well-crafted stage. It addresses geopolitics, it addresses physical sciences, it addresses standing religions, and it addresses economics. All of these pieces are critical to understanding the complexity of a world and watching a fictional environment come together with this level of realism and thought is a treat for viewers where so rarely filmmakers take the time.
It does have drawbacks. In order to establish such an expansive and detailed world, viewers have to patiently watch the world being built with very little action. Dune plays out almost like the first season of an epic TV series (think Game of Thrones) and perhaps would have been better suited as such.
Despite its being slow and somewhat boring for some viewers, Dune’s beauty and careful attention to detail make it a strong installment for its underserved genre.
Is it entertaining?
Rating: Slow due to elaborate world creation
It is difficult to rate Dune on entertainment quality. For true nerds, those who truly love sci-fi and live for the creation of a future world, Dune does perform albeit slowly (even for me). But for the average viewer, Dune is at times downright boring. Dune does not balance its high-intensity sequences with its narrative weaving and there is a lot to be desired in terms of pacing and intrigue.
The conflict in Dune does exist but escalates slowly and though it often comes with extreme consequences, it doesn’t spend time dwelling on the heavier materials. Somehow, though life is on the line and often lost, nothing seems overly dire.
Dune’s creators could have stood a little editing to help ease boredom. While world creation of this quality is tedious work, the film did spend far too much time on things like real-time travel. Is it beautifully shot? Yes. But do we really need to spend precious minutes tracking someone literally walking around? No.
In the end, Dune would have made a fantastic limited series where detailed set-ups are taken in hour-long installments and an expected part of series enjoyment.
Does it have intellectual/artistic value?
Rating: Beautifully composed
Dune the novel was a genre-defining story so it’s no surprise that its film adaptation had the potential to take that story and make something as special on-screen. The detail in which the world is created is unrivaled in modern filmmaking with the exception of beloved fantasy works such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. However, fantasy world making is far easier than science fiction because so much can be explained with magic (or the force in the case of Star Wars). In Dune, explanations are, with rare exceptions, explained in some form of existing or theoretical science (hard, social, and theological). This kind of detailed logical creation is rare because it’s extremely difficult. While Dune has been celebrated for this care since 1965, it’s important we do it again for director Denis Villineuve who also helped adapt the screenplay and could have just as easily nixed half the set-up.
On top of detailed storytelling, Dune was also beautifully filmed. The team shot the movie across four different desert landscapes (Jordan, Hungry, UAE, and Norway) to create the perfect Arrakis which combines elegant beauty and breathtaking power. In his signature style, viewers would be familiar with from the film Arrival, Villineuve manages to make the landscape his characters are traversing extremely personal to the characters. There is a physical connection between his players and the surroundings at all times which bonds them and brings the setting more deeply to life. This is critical in a film such as Dune where the setting is in and of itself a character in the story.
The costuming and styling are beautifully imagined and have been rightly fawned over by the fashion industry since the first screenings of the film and the promotional tour. Even the militarized survival suits have beautiful lines and textures which pull together the science of the film including the religious and political environments.
The acting, even with a star-studded cast, is only fine with the one bright spot of the unimpeachable Timothy Chalamet (The King, Little Women). Chalamet is a gen z favorite and undeniably gifted. The Gods of theater kissed Chalamet with penetrating charisma that is seen in so few leading men. Defying stereotypes of action heroes, Chalamet manages to present as a delicate noble with cut glass bone structure but still convincingly fight in hand-to-hand combat with much bigger men. There is just something inherently believable about Chalamet. He calls to mind a young Leonardo DiCaprio or Johnny Depp. It’s not really clear why they were so brilliant they just were.
Overall the film is a beautifully composed artistic and intellectual masterpiece.
Is it liberal propaganda?
Rating: Pretty lib
Alas, future worlds often choose a political tenor and this one seems more on the liberal side. Notably the film attacks the mining industry which is a tired trope that even in its own film world seems to completely miss the point of mining.
In Dune, the main economic value of Arrakis is mining “spice” which is a substance that is extremely valuable because it allows for humans to manipulate their brain capacity/function to safely guide ships through warp speed amongst other feats of the human mind. However, the mining operation inherited by House Atredis for the global galactic empire is presented as greedy and problematic to the ecosystem of Arrakis. The trees of Arrakis might be nice but if everyone needs this spice material, are the mining operations really so evil? I guess all liberal space travels will just stay on the world and never expand beyond the region?
Further, there is a tangible “imperialist” versus “natives” plotline which fails to fault the native people for any wrongdoing or nuanced decision making and places all evils squarely on the shoulders of the big bad colonists. So evil to advance society through the achievement of medicine and science against the wishes of those who would keep the status quo forever. The film is a lot more nuanced in this part of the story than I’m relaying here, but it still leans in this direction.
Overall Dune is an artfully made science-fiction which is a smash hit for any fan of the genre and definitely unique enough to consider watching for the average viewer with an open mind who might at least appreciate the beauty.