REVIEW: Underneath the sheen of great visuals, ‘Dune’ is a dull experience

This marks the second time the book “Dune” has been adapted into a feature film, with the first attempt coming out in 1984.

Having never heard of either the book or the 84 movie, I walked into this experience with a fresh perspective.

The film’s main character is Paul (Timothee Chalamet), a young man who’s heir to the throne of House Atreides. The house is one of several noble families who control planets and hold most of the power in the cosmos, second only to an unseen emperor.

The film opens with House Atreides, under the leadership of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), preparing to take control of the planet Arrakis, which was previously ruled by the rival House Harkonnen. The planet is one giant desert with dangerous conditions and even more dangerous inhabitants.

It’s not just the Arrakis inhabitants Atreies has to worry about, though, as there are other forces working against the house, too.

Two words at the start of this sci-fi adventure immediately created a bit of concern. Those words were “Part One.”

It turns out that concern was valid, because “Dune” wraps up after what felt like a never ending, two and a half hour first act. The film is a slog to get through, with every scene stuffed with exposition about houses, planets, emperors, some special power, and a commodity. The latter of which the audience doesn’t really know the true power of.

Instead of feeling welcomed and immursed in a new sci-fi world, “Dune,” comes across more like a lecture, with constant explaining, broken up by a few action scenes. As a result, “Dune” is mostly a dull experience, full of political drama that has little meaning to the audience.

Once the movie does reach its conclusion, there’s a “that’s it?” feeling washing over. Not only is this because the finale is immensely anti-climactic, it also has to do with the structure.

It comes across like the movie didn’t know what its inciting incident could be. Is it when House Atreides leaves their current planet and arrives at the new one? Is it when Paul is out exploring the planet and has a close call with a giant desert worm? Or is it during a major battle in the middle of the movie?

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Courtesy Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s honestly hard to tell. And by the time it seems like an arc is about to start for Paul and the film is gaining momentum, it comes to an end. A lot of its issues when it comes to the story likely could have been forgiven, though, had the characters been easier to connect to.

There is a major lack of humanity in the characters on screen in “Dune.” Everyone is so stiff and lifeless that it becomes hard to relate or root for the protagonists.

Paul, for example, has such little energy and heart on display. It’s understandable that he’s under pressure to take over one day and wants to act serious, but that persona is center stage so much that it becomes hard to connect with him.

The audience learns that he’s a sort of “chosen one” figure, but he never really earns that status the same way, say, Neo does in “The Matrix.”

The villains aren’t all that better. Stellan Skarsgard plays a bad guy boss who looks monstrous, but like Snoke from “Star Wars,” isn’t all that menacing.

One of the evil henchmen, meanwhile, is Rabban, who’s played by Dave Bautista. Basically, he just came across like a darker version of Drax from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

I’m not asking for the expressive alien villains from “Battlefield Earth” here. Nor am I asking for super gung ho heroes. Just characters who are likable and enjoyable to watch develop on screen.

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All of this is such a shame, too, because the movie looks absolutely phenomenal. The spectacle in “Dune” is top tier. The giant desert worms are intense and threatening, while the advanced vehicles are well designed and the big space ships are imposing.

The desert planet is also brought to life in convincing fahion. It truly does feel like another world. Plus, the action is on point, with battles on a huge scale and fantastic combat sequences.

The fight choreography makes for some impressive action scenes. One particular standout is Jason Momoa’s character taking on a bunch of baddies at once.

Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite directors working today. His films “Prisoners,” “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” all made my top 10 lists the years they were released.

With “Dune,” though, he falls short. It looks amazing and sounds great, but this sci-fi epic is a largely hollow experience. 2.75 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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