I Watched “Dune” Without Knowing Anything About It [Review]

You read that right; I have never watched or read anything “Dune” related until this new version was finally released. All I’ve ever known about it is that “Dune” exists and Chris Parnell quotes it in one of my favorite poker parody films, “The Grand.” Outside of that, I am completely clueless when comes to anything and everything regarding spice, Arrakis, the voice, and yes even Paul himself.

It’s not so much that it never interested me (as I enjoy a good Galactic “Game of Thrones” as much as the next person), but more so that it just kind of passed me by and never grabbed me. Most of my sci-fi/fantasy love was manufactured by my own accord, with neither of my parents having any interest into anything involving space ships and suit shields. Needless to say, “Dune” 2021 was my very first foray in the world of Frank Herbert, and I’d be remised if I didn’t say I have some mixed emotions. “Dune” is enormous in both scale and ambition, and sports some of the best visuals ever put to screen, even if the narrative leaves newcomers feeling confused and disconnected. It’s a little too pretentious to be engaging story wise, but so well done visually it’s hard to not enjoy the experience.

I can’t stress enough how green I am to “Dune.” I know there’s going to be a lot of “well if you had just read the books” and “watch David Lynch’s version” and “you just don’t understand it, noob!” So it’s important to really hammer home the fact that this is truly my one and only experience with the material, source and adaptive. Just try to remember that as I unpack my thoughts on Villeneuve’s massive adaption by remembering that I watched it with absolutely 0 frame of reference of familiarity. I am perfectly find identifying as outsider here as long as I am not held to any kind of preconceived opinions or prior knowledge to influence my interpretation. I am quite literally reviewing this at face value, and I am fully aware of the limitations and differing perspective that that brings. Lastly, no; I’m not going to start reading the books or go back and watch anything already created. I’m not going down a post “Dune” 2021 rabbit hole, so what we got is all I’m going to work with.

Ok so now that we’ve establish that I know nothing Jon Snow, let’s get into this enormous film. Directed by Villeneuve (who also helmed “Blade Runner 2049” as well as one of my all time favorite films “Sicario“), as well written by him and writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts.  Combined, the men have written such films as “Forrest Gump,” “Prometheus,” “Munich,” “Doctor Strange,” and the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.”  Suffice it to say, the writing and directing is about as stacked as the cast, and despite some misgiving and strange narrative choices, these writers and this director pair really well together.  You can actually see tinges of a number of these aforementioned films, both the good and the bad.  For example it has all the nuances and tension of say “Munich” (which is further powered by Hans Zimmer’s unnerving, wonderful score), but also the unfounded pretentiousness and self importance of “Prometheus.”  It is well directed, well written, and well acted, and while it’s a visual masterpiece, its narrative and adaptive mistakes fall a little short here. 

Those mistakes really boil down to this: “Dune” is not made for an outsider like myself. Villeneuve seemingly goes to great lengths to make a lot of assumptions surrounding key plot points that drive the world of “Dune,” and unless you’re very familiar with things like the spice, the Bene Gesserit, the weird dream visions, the voice and the prophecies that permeate just about aspect of the film’s overall premise. While no one can deny Villenueve’s eye for stunning visuals, there’s something to be said for heavy handed pretentiousness over simple hand holding exposition. I don’t necessarily need you to dumb things down, but you’re trying to introduce the world to a whole new universe. “Dune” seems unconcerned with making that universe accessible to anyone who wasn’t already deeply invested in it. These key points are glossed over constantly, leaving myself to wonder just what the hell is actually going on.

This makes “Dune” really beautiful to look but difficult to really invest in. Make no mistake; it is drop dead gorgeous visually. Much like Villeneuve’s previous outings, he once again cements himself as one of the great visually directors of our time, with every single shot and frame being carefully crafted and executed to dazzle the eyes at every turn. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is breathtaking here, and even if everything else had failed, it would still stand as one of the best looking projects of the year. It’s almost enough to make you forgive some of the more muddled narrative misgivings that make the film hard to take for noobs. Almost. These missteps are compounded by another major issue that, had I not known beforehand would have been a deal breaker.

Josh Brolin as Gurney Hallack, and Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atredies, “Dune” PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES for Vanity Fair

I’m talking about the never marketed, never discussed prior “Dune: Part One” title card that pops up at the very beginning of the film. That’s right. This is part 1 of apparently 2, with nothing but a green light to assure us that there will indeed be a conclusion to this story. Look, I know that was their intention all along was to make two movies, but given how the film ends (or just kind of stops) it would’ve been better to film both movies together and deliver part one with the absolute certainty of part 2. [Editor’s note: it’s important to remember the delays to even get this film to the theaters now. Chances are, production for Part 2 would have spun up directly after Part One opened.]

What happens in “Dune” is that we barely get a resolution the story at hand, feeling more like an extended prologue than an actually chapter in a larger story. Not to get too comparative (because they aren’t really the same thing at all but remember I have no frame reference within this world so I have to pull from things I’m familiar with) but “Lord of the Rings” comes to mind and example of what TO DO when you’re trying to tackle a massive fantasy adaption and spread the story across multiple films. Yes, “The Hobbit” franchise is the example of what NOT to do, but that’s a different article altogether.

See, if we look at something like “Fellowship of the Ring” we are given a satisfying ending to this particular chapter in the larger story. We know we aren’t done with the adventures of Sam and Frodo, but this particular part of their journey has concluded and we can look forward to the next leg of the adventure. “Dune” doesn’t do this at all. It just abruptly stops. Like, HARD stops and doesn’t feel satisfying in anyway when it does. It essentially makes the entire film feel relegated to a little more than a set up, which is a LOT to ask of an audience who has to sit through almost 3 hours of intergalactic space politics and less than coherent prophecy and a possible space….Jesus? It’s fine if you want to stretch out your story as long as the desert it’s based on, but you have to give us SOMETHING more than all set up and no punchline. Nothing feels conclusive or purposeful because now we know all the important stuff that we should’ve gotten here is all saved for a possible part 2.

From the outside looking in, “Dune” is really hard to understand and even hard to invest in on a character or narrative level. It’s not completely inaccessible, and the visuals and stellar cast and performances sell it harder than most. Were this story in less capable hands both in front of and behind the camera, “Dune” is one bad decision away from total failure. It’s held together by incredible visuals, solid action, practical effects and strong performances that elevate the material beyond its adaptive restraints. I know this sounds like I hated the movie, but I really didn’t. I actually rather enjoyed it, but it did leave me wanting in all the wrong ways, and I just can’t get over the confusion that the vast amounts of narrative assumptions left me with. Could I do a quick wiki search and brush up on the lore? Sure. But you shouldn’t HAVE to do that just to understand the film better.

Dune” is clearly made for fans, and not those wanting to dive into the sands of Arrakis for the first time.

Quick final thoughts: Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica is the MVP and absolutely crushes it here. She’s probably the most interesting character in the film and that is pretty much solely dependent on how good she is. Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides does fine, but he seems to be tonally imbalanced throughout, ranging from a listless dead behind the eyes robot to fully emotive and interesting without warning, as if someone turned on the “emote” switch on the back of his robot face.  That’s probably more the directors fault than Chalamet, as “Dune” proves he really CAN act, but he never really gives off the naïve boy with all the gifts kind of vibe, so when Paul is going I don’t know who I am we’re also left shouting at the screen going I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE EITHER. Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho is really good when he’s playing an actual human and isn’t hamming it up as a Nascar loving sea king. Everyone else is good but they’re all blink and you miss them kind of appearance, yet another fault of “Dune” for focusing too much on set up with practically no pay off. But hey, props to Zendaya for collecting the easy check of her career. Not kidding, she’s in the film for maybe 15 seconds longer than what you see in the trailer. Any of them.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica. PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES

So, as an outsider looking in, I can marvel at the wonders of “Dune” and the mesmerizing visuals it brings, but I also struggle with really understanding what the hell it is I’m watching. I shouldn’t need cliff notes just to identify characters, and the assumptions of familiarity and a little too difficult to forgive because they happen so much. Add to that it’s very weird and unsatisfying ending, and I’m not entirely sure what you’re left with. “Dune” is a beautifully well made film with little to offer someone coming to it for the first time.

Also, the film is long. Like really, really, really, REALLY long so I would advise peeing before it starts and don’t drink water while watching it. Also, see it on the big screen if you can. I saw it on a tiny screen in the comfort of my own home (mainly for time constraints for deadlines) but the film screams big screen. “Dune” is meant to be seen as big and as loud as you can possibly see it.

But yeah fine I’ll watch part 2. You win, Villeneuve. You win.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

  • Dazzling and Ambitious
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