Dune (2021) review: A beautiful mess

Fans of the fantastic podcast The Weekly Planet will be familiar with the “let the games begin” award, a mockery of Dracula Untold from 2014 which ends with that sentence.

Let the games begin” is supposed to imply that a sequel is coming to continue the story, but Dracula Untold never received one leaving this piece of dialogue in purgatory which is perpetually mocked.

Why bring this up? Because the latest attempt at adapting Dune must be the most sequel bait movie we’ve seen in years that is crushed under the weight of the source material and trying to tell the story of this universe within its time constraints despite running for 155 minutes.

Hell, Dune 2021 even ends on a piece of dialogue that is frighteningly similar to “let the games begin”.

But let’s reverse things a bit. This movie is the latest directing feat from Denis Villeneuve, a titan of the industry who has brought us Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario and many more.

Villeneuve’s involvement alone would be enough to get many into the theatre, but the cast is absolutely stacked too. Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in the main role backed up by Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson as his parents Duke Leto Atreides and Lady Jessica respectively.

It isn’t just House Atreides with big actors either as Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck), Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho), Stellan Skarsgård (Vladimir Harkonnen), Dave Bautista (Glossu Rabban), Zendaya (Chani) and many more are all here too. Dune could even be considered an ensemble cast given the sheer star power.

Let’s start with the cast then because everyone really brought their A-game. We saw Venom: Let There Be Carnage recently and in our review we mention that the cast was sleepwalking through their rolls and just showing up for workmanlike performances that get the job done.

Dune is on the other end of the spectrum as the actors and actresses sold us their characters and brought to life the nuances in a story that is so focused on its characters.

This truly is Paul’s story and Chalamet is on screen for the majority of the time. The actor knocked it out of the park as a young messiah which is burdened with supernatural powers and the fate of billions of lives.

Isaac as Paul’s father Leto was also outstanding as a paternal figure which clearly inspires the hearts of men and woman under House Atreides and his acting was important as (without spoiling the movie or the book from 1965) he is the catalyst of the entire story.

Isaac adds a more likeable edge to Leto and we only have good things to say about him.

Actually we only have good things to say about the entire cast. With so many great performances we can’t touch on them all, but we can say that fans of each member will be happy with what they see, but may be disappointed that each doesn’t get enough screen time.

Similarly worth breathless praise is the art direction, overall aesthetic of the world and amazing music. Anyone who watched Blade Runner 2049 can attest to the beautiful worlds Villeneuve can create and the same has been done here.

As you can see in the trailers on this page, the movie has a striking visual style that makes up for its lack of colour with alien designs and a strong sense of massive scale.

From the giant Sandworms to the tiny specs of spice in the air everything is a visual treat and a proper reason to spend the extra money on an IMAX ticket to this movie.

The score is ethereal and chilling but completely overused. The other movie Momoa was involved in, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, was meme’d to death for the overuse of melodious chanting whenever Wonder Woman was on screen. Dune repeats that mistake tenfold by never giving the audience a moment of peace outside of certain dialogue scenes.

The music is fantastic – don’t get us wrong we’ll be listening to it again – but sometimes the movie should be left to have its quiet moments.

We also have to touch on an issue that isn’t exclusive to Dune but applies to most movies in and out of cinemas. Dune is once again a victim of terrible sound mixing and audio levels where dialogue is too low and difficult to hear while action is so loud that it’s physically painful.

It hurts Dune more than most as there’s many non-English and made up words that will be difficult to keep track of with the poor mixing. A perfect example is the Litany Against Fear which is said multiple times during the movie, but you wouldn’t realise it. This litany is arguably one of the most influential small pieces of writing in the history of fiction and you can barely hear it uttered here.

But this is a small issue compared to Dune’s real enemy: writing and pacing. In short Dune is a bit of a mess when it comes to presenting itself to the audience. Far too long is spent on inconsequential elements like how people need to walk across the sand not to attract worms, while far too little time is spent on monumentally important elements such as the shields or the aforementioned spice.

This is made exponentially worse by frequent flashforwards and flashbacks in this movie. A big part of Paul’s character is his burgeoning powers of supernatural sight and vision being able to see both the past and potential futures.

In film this is a bit of a confusing tangle which is only kept in check barely by prior knowledge by those who have read the book(s) or seen past adaptations. For newcomers it will seem even worse.

This all feeds into Dune 2021 hoping to continue into future movies. The title screen at the beginning of the movie even plainly says “part 1” under the name of the movie.

Back now to the infamous “let the games begin” as a sequel to this movie isn’t set in stone yet so the work may never come to fruition.

This movie is a slave to tempting the audience with events to come, much like Paul’s visions, but it ends up self-sabotaging to do this.

As a standalone film Dune 2021 is a beauty to behold and a triumph for certain elements of the Dune series brought to a big budget film, but it struggles to be a singular, standalone movie. These issues also make it difficult to digest for newcomers which is a shame as new adaptations of old works should always work to create a fresh generation of fans.

This concept should have been a multi-part series with the budget of something like Game of Thrones.

As it stands this is a deeply flawed but also enjoyable movie that we think may only be appreciated in retrospect if future movies can properly build on it, assuming they’re made at all.


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