This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
I was always intimidated by Dune, the book, even though I assumed I would like it. It has a glossary of terms to explain the confusing language that’s used early and often. It has a million sequels that people will passionately tell you are either essential or terrible. When I finally read it, I saw what people were talking about but I also couldn’t believe I’d let that make my decision for me. The book is great. It’s a tough read and, yes, the language is dense, but it pays off consistently and the result is incredible.
I feel like every review has to walk the reader through the history of Dune as a cinematic property. David Lynch made a version that no one (especially Lynch himself, who still talks about it as a terrible experience even decades later) seems to like, though I will offer the hot take that it’s not anywhere near the disaster people claim it is. It’s a fairly decent adaptation of the novel, though it’s confusing to audiences with no context and it tries to be all things to all people. Especially towards the end, you may wonder why certain conflicts are either beginning or resolving. I do not mean to suggest we need to rethink David Lynch’s Dune. The director and the masses are right and it is a mess. I saw someone today say it’s better than the 2021 version, so we clearly need to pump the brakes very hard.
There are other versions, but we don’t need to go any more in depth. Denis Villeneuve has adapted it again, and anyone who knows the history knows the challenge and the reputation that he was up against. The 2021 version is a masterpiece, plain and simple, and it might be even more so because of how famously the other major attempt failed.
Dune is a story about heroes. Central character Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, who nails the part but we’ll get back to that) is thrust into a need for heroics when a conflict between two royal families gets him lost in the desert on a hostile planet. If you know anything about Dune, you probably know the giant sandworms or the race of native people to the desert planet itself. These are the lasting images from the novel, but the film walks right up to this part and ends. Lynch covered the whole story and lost the audience, even with some distracting exposition techniques, and Villeneuve’s choice to tell this in (hopefully) two parts works very well. It just might not be the story you’re expecting to see.
The choice to make it two parts is obviously the right one, but it does divide the audience. If you don’t know anything about Dune it may not matter to you, because I think you have to know what you’re missing to miss it here, but it robs Chalamet of the chance to do a lot. Paul as a character has no real arc in the first half of the story of Dune, which makes him feel a little like a cipher here. Chalamet’s performance works for that and it’s not a criticism at all, it just stands out because of where the film has to cut to divide the narrative in two. But even by mentioning this I’m nitpicking, because this isn’t even a problem. It’s just what happens when you watch half of a movie.
I think Villeneuve’s Dune will probably work for you whether you know Dune or not. Criticisms of Dune always say that it’s too confusing, but I think this version shows some of the creative ways you can explain a world to people without having someone barrel down the camera and tell you a story. Some of these are less subtle, like when Paul watches a video that explains the planet they’re going to, but some of them are just the context of the character conversations. When one person tells another they will inform the Landsraad about a betrayal, they don’t tell them what that is because the character would already know. The audience doesn’t need to know. If you do, from the book, that’s great, but if you don’t, you still follow what’s happening. There are dozens of examples of this trust in the viewer that Villeneuve displays and they make the difference between a pretty good epic and a great piece of storytelling and worldbuilding.
We won’t really know if this all works until we get the rest. The ending to Dune is convoluted in ways the rest isn’t and the middle includes a lot of wandering around in the sand. Can Villeneuve weave all that together in a way audiences will follow and enjoy? I think you have to assume yes based on this version, but the degree of difficulty gets much higher when you get into the arc of who Paul must become. I hope we get to see it, which I don’t think many people would have said ten years ago.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, I don’t think it is better than The Third Man, though it’s a weird choice for me to have made here. The Third Man is one of my all time favorite films and I think it changed cinema, where Dune feels in the moment more like a culmination of what a ton of other “big” films have done decently well but never this cohesively. Obviously I am hamstrung here by my own premise because Dune is a totally different kind of movie.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it certainly has a chance to be. Almost all of the reviews focus on how it’s an incomplete film, which is not a legitimate criticism of a film that is very literally incomplete. It will be interesting to see how the whole thing lands in the end, but for what Dune is, today, it’s a staggering success that accomplishes a nearly impossible feat of being both an interesting movie to watch on a whim and an effective visualization of a world nerds really want to see on a big screen. We can quibble with specifics, but folks calling this “slow” watched a different movie than I did or wanted something that is not possible to deliver. You have to watch movies for what they actually are, not what you want them to be, and if you’re able to do that, you will really love this.
You can watch Dune on HBO Max until November 21, but Villeneuve would really rather you go see it in the theater. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.