Nate Ridgeway’s review published on Letterboxd:
The 2021 film that needs no introduction, Dune, has a scope of such magnificence, it may even be its downfall.
(This is to be a spoiler-free review, meaning I will not give specific examples from the movie to prove my points.)
There are things we come to expect from saga, trilogy, or franchise movies: vivacious cinematography, dauntless action, feelings of grandeur…Dune has them all. Everything you anticipate from this movie is here. No surprises, no letdowns. When it comes to this film being an epic, it shows no deviation from what we (as filmgoers) have been conditioned to expect.
The cast is committed. With such a diverse range of characters, we barely get to know most of them before they’re killed. Even so, every actor here is selling their character with fluidity. Jason Mamoa in particular is incredibly charming, I just wanted more (we’ll get to that later).
Hans Zimmer’s score is a work of brilliance. The creativity feels other-worldly, which helps to impress that we’re not somewhere familiar. This world is different and exciting, and Zimmer’s work accompanies the camera in such a way that pulls on the heart strings—you can’t help but love this world.
Pulling no punches, the scope is too big. This could have been fixed a number of ways, but standing as is, it creates problems with pacing, character development and rising action.
Firstly, pacing. Dear goodness, this movie doesn’t stop. From the get-go we’re whisked along with barely a moment to breathe. I mean, there are 30-50 page blocks in the book that are covered in mere minutes here. This means we never get the rhythm or slow breaths for this story to feel like a true epic—instead, it reeks of a wannabe LOTR, but is never patient enough to develop a world that we truly get invested in. One thing that could have helped this is having less score, replacing it with moments of silence. The score’s great, but Dune is drowning in it, and there’s not enough contrast in the sound to break up the beats within the story. It’s all shoved together for time’s sake, and we barely get to soak in Caladan, Arrakis, or even the harsh desert.
Any character development or arc is totally missing from this movie. I could choose to critique the writing here, but the real problem is that too much book is being forced into one movie. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, we’re given so much time to experience the characters. We get into their heads, understand their thoughts, experience the world with them. With a camera, it’s a bit harder to get inside someone’s head. The way this is done is simply by showing the actors as they experience the hardships and joys of the story. Apart from a few jokes, there is a huge disconnect between audience and characters. We get exactly one scene to see Paul show emotions, and even that is a six-line conversation with his mother. We needed more dialogue between characters, or more time to see them struggle. What is Paul’s struggle here? He is an unflawed character, meaning he has no room for growth and no room for relatability. He is instead a superhero who cannot be hurt, so we already know how the final battle ends. No surprises and no tension means no conflict which means no emotion. Make. The character. Flawed.
And rising action. The film goes nowhere. In terms of tension, I mean. The third act feels less powerful than the first act. I believe the problem here is that one book was split into two movies. Where do you decide to end one movie and start the next? If you end the first movie after the first act of the book, you’re left with two acts to shove into the finale. If you split it right down the middle (which is what Villeneuve’s Dune has done), we get an ending that doesn’t feel like an ending. I was shocked when the credits rolled for this movie. I thought for sure there was another hour, at least. Nope. The movie had nowhere to go, and already it’s bitten off more than it could chew. I believe the real solution to this problem is to make the book into three movies. There is more than enough material from Herbert’s Dune to create an engaging story if you split it one movie per act. For whatever reason, it was decided that two movies was sufficient, and so the last couple of acts do not have any sense of rising action, they instead feel like a series of events where we watch the protagonist do things, the antagonist do things, and it’s hard to care about any of it. Conflict is so important for entertainment. Dune chooses to take the combat route as its source of entertaining conflict, but this isn’t John Wick. This isn’t Bond. This is Dune. This is supposed to be on parr with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. We want to see the characters struggle, internally and with other characters. Let this be what leads to combat if you must, but don’t use action to fall back on as a safety net. It’s cheap and boring.
And yet, it’s Dune. It’s Villeneuve. It’s Chalamet, Isaac, Ferguson, Mamoa, Bardem, Zendaya, and many more fantastic stars. It’s just fun. While I wholeheartedly believe this is no more than a 2 star movie in terms of quality, I can’t help but like it, and I can’t help but root for Part 2 to make us all forget about Part 1.