Dune [TIFF21 Review]

Dune is an impossible book to adapt. It’s a lot of lore and convoluted for a lot of the read. It is one of the best science-fiction books ever published. It’s a property that has been adapted multiple times with various levels of success. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation will try to be the one to change it all, the one to be able to tell the full story on screen. It’s a tall task, a task that will completely depend on box office revenue but also how the film will do on HBO Max when it arrives. Because this film is definitely the prologue of it all, being billed as Part One. It’s a risky move, after all, the second one has not been even greenlighted yet and this film banks everything on the promise of a second one. And yet, even has the screen cut to black, I found myself fascinated by this film, a film that even a week after watching, I can’t quite put into words why I loved it so much. But, I will try to do so.

Dune will not be for everyone, many will walk away unsatisfied by a film that really starts when it ends. This film is what I would call “all set up”, a film that relies on everyone being willing to sit through two hours of explanation of the world just so we can get a second film where everything will pay off. Now, this doesn’t mean that the film is boring and without any actions, but it just means that in-between action sets, it is a lot of explanation and lore that some might just find plain boring.

I am not one of those, I have read the Dune books, I am someone who thrives off lore, I knew what to expect going in. I never was lost as the film dumbs lore, when a quote from the book was set, I geeked out a little bit. The thing is, Dune the book is stiffed, so stiffed that translating it to the screen is almost impossible if you want to keep the core of the book intact. The dialogue, the exposition, it’s all present in the book and so even with so many tries, the dialogue in the film just keeps that same feeling that you have when reading the book. It’s not perfect, hell, it’s a lot of exposition and dialogue that could have been reworked. But that isn’t the magic of Dune, the magic of this film relies on the cinematic vision of Denis Villeneuve.

Villeneuve has made a name for himself over the last few years with his filmography. As a French-Canadian person, I have watched Villeneuve’s work years before he became known to the general English public. Films like Incendies and Polytechnique were films that stayed with me long after I finished watching them, films that to this day, I still think are his bests. But what Villeneuve has done over the last few years is crafted himself into someone who creates science fiction films with intelligence that we have barely seen before. Arrival subverted everyone’s expectation when it was first released, Blade Runner 2049, while not my favourite, is the best example of Villeneuve’s sensibility as a filmmaker. Dune continues this trend of making science fiction films that are not what you expect.

Visually, Dune is stunning. From the costume design to the world design, everything is just breathtaking. There isn’t anything on the screen that feels out of place, this is a world that was thought and everything has a purpose. Even when the film fails with its story, it can always fall back on the world it has been able to build. The score from Hans Zimmer is put into place in the perfect moments, elevating what we see on the screen at any moment. The acting, especially from Rebecca Ferguson, is always at the top of its game. Dune is an incredible feat, a film that should not work really, and yet, it does. It’s Villeneuve’s genius at work, able to craft something that fails him at times, but also brings it back to the point where you can forgive the flaws.

Now after discussing the film with others after my viewing, my opinion of it did change. While I do still really enjoy it, it is impossible for me not to look at it with a different approach. See, when I watch the film I had my fan googles on. I had this idea of what the film would be and it was greatly met. I got my straightforward adaptation that even with its faults still gave me what I wanted on top of being visually stunning. But, a week remove from it, it is impossible for me to not address the elephant in the room. Dune fails its female characters on every single level. 

We can attribute that to the book, which was published in 1965, but in today’s world, that should have been fixed. The female characters in the books are described as strong and yet, the books failed them a lot of the time, what I had hoped for was that the film would remedy that. It doesn’t. There isn’t one conversation between women that isn’t centred around a man. The female characters are all shown to be great warriors and yet, they always need a man to help them through it, that is probably the truest of Rebecca Ferguson’s character who somehow is said to be an extremely skilled warrior, we even see it, and yet, spends most of her time crying and lamenting about her situation. It’s frustrating, because changes have been made and yet, it is still not enough. The film might not center around them, but I would argue that they are as important as any other characters.

Dune is frustrating in hindsight. While, as a fan of the books, enjoyed it a lot, it is impossible for me now to not see the problems that lie within it. Do I think it’s great? Yes, I really still do love it. Just from a pure fan perspective. And yet, I can also criticize it for what it is. While it is visually stunning, it is also stiffed as a board with the dialogue and didn’t fix any of the issues that the book has. It’s also a promise of a future that we might never get, a prelude to what will be probably the best part of the film. It’s frustrating and I find myself middling in the middle, wondering where I lie in terms of liking it or not. Walking out, I found myself telling everyone that I thought it was fantastic. Now… I don’t know.