‘Dune’ is not a complete movie

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

1/10 Dune is not a complete film. It is a deliberately incomplete film, and despite what writer/director/producer Denis Villeneuve will tell you, the decision to only make half of it was made at the story’s expense, not its benefit.

The Galactic Padishah Empire, 10191- The emperor has reassigned fiefdom over the planet Arrakis from House Harkonnen to House Atreides in a transparent attempt to consolidate power by triggering a war between the richest and most powerful houses in his empire. Arrakis, desert planet infrequently referred to as Dune, is the only source of the spice Melange, the most important logistical, medical and religious substance in the universe, meaning the planet is a great source of wealth to its rulers, but it also poses incredible danger from the heat, the indigenous Fremen population and the great sandworms that shape the desert. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), knowing the Harkonnens will soon attack, seeks to build an alliance with the Fremen, whom the Harkonnen brutally suppressed, while his son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), at the confluence of several destinies, studies the politics of the situation.

Leadup to Dune: Part One

The story of Dune being cut in half starts with Villeneuve’s last film, Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve and Joe Walker, who edited both films, toyed with the idea of splitting Blade Runner in half based on their initial four-hour workprint. Six months after that film’s release, Villeneuve was publicly saying he wouldn’t adapt Dune in less than two parts because the book is too detailed to capture in a single film, but only secured funding for one of those parts, and all personnel contracts were only for a single film as well. Villeneuve was making the first half of an adaptation with absolutely no assurance of a second, betting on a good performance by the first half right after making a movie that lost $80 million despite being an unquestionable masterpiece.

Not a great plan.

This was further jeopardized by the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed Dune back almost a full year and compromised its chances at the box office even further when Warner Bros. unilaterally decided to release all of its 2021 movies day-of on HBOmax. Legendary Entertainment, which co-funded Dune and Godzilla vs Kong, said they and other co-financiers were not consulted on this decision and were rumored for several months to be suing Warner Bros. over it before eventually reaching a deal. Villeneuve was one of several prominent filmmakers who lambasted the decision, which may damage Warner’s ability to hire talent in the long term, and demanded that Dune have a theatrical exclusivity window, seemingly to no avail.

Because of the situation he’d put himself into, Villeneuve’s concerns weren’t just artistic, they were commercial – he needed Dune to perform well in order to realize the second half of it. The advance marketing for its eventual release turned into public begging, which included a public assurance that Dune’s streaming performance would be taken into account, and that begging seems to have seeped into the film itself, from its insistent “Part One” subtitle to its last words, “This is only the beginning.” It feels deliberately incomplete even without that context, spending two hours on conflict between the Harkonnen and Atreides houses only to completely change subjects, establish a new conflict with the Fremen from what feels like scratch and then resolve it all in the final 20 minutes.

Some of the design choices are flat-out bad, particularly the soldiers’ armor, which looks like an elaborate cardboard design you’d find at a local cosplay convention. The obvious counter-example here is stormtrooper’s plastic armor from Star Wars – but that armor is perfect for them. The cheap-looking sheen reflects both how valueless their lives are to the fascist machine they’re caught up in, as well as the armor’s general ineffectiveness. What are Leto’s big cardboard pauldrons supposed to symbolize?

What Dune does here absolutely has not been done before. Lord of the Rings, which was shot as one production, stretched its first installment to end on a minor battle and bring the lead characters’ emotional journeys to a satisfying stopping point. Kill Bill, which was shot as one production, was designed to work as two distinct eastern and western halves. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, which were each shot as one production, warped themselves around ending part one on a suitable cliffhanger. It, which was shot as two productions and which Villeneuve used as an example to convince Warner Bros. of the model, split two stories that are traditionally intercut and told them as separate stories in such a way that the first movie stood just fine on its own.

Dune does nothing. Dune simply ends. It feels like the movie gets bored and wanders off the screen, vaguely referencing a conclusion that wasn’t greenlit until days after release. What is otherwise a perfectly thrilling film is transformed into an anticlimactic, deeply unsatisfying experience.

What it really feels like is a pilot, the opening salvo for a television series that may or may not get fleshed out. While several blockbuster series have been vapidly episodic in their assuredness of endless sequels for years now, most of them remained closed installments, with related setups and payoffs all in the same packages. Dune appears to be the final threshold, something that is functionally a television series by the nature of its story structure, but is screened in theaters.  

Details of Dune: Part One

Villeneuve’s justification for insisting on a two-movie adaptation was so that he could do justice to the details of the book, but Dune doesn’t have a ton of detail. In fact, some story beats distinctly lack exactly the kind of social, political, religious and technical detail that you would expect something like this to have, especially when it compromises itself so deeply to make room for it all.

As clear as it is what the emperor is doing to House Atreides, I don’t have a great feel for why he’s doing it, and their rivalry with House Harkonnen feels just as surface-level. The relationship of the Bene Gesserit, a shadowy organization of Catholics with Jedi powers, is less clear than it needs to be for some key plot points, and the fact that the Fremen worship the sandworms as manifestations of God is a key detail that would add both sense and depth to the film.

As Dune goes on, Paul’s visions of the future intertwining with his present begin to feel increasingly like the main plot device of Arrival, and if I had to pick one movie that would absolutely not work at all if it were split in half, Arrival would be that movie.

Villeneuve brought a lot of the visual and sound design team back from Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, another masterpiece in his recent past – Walker edited both, but most of the team worked on one or the other – and a lot of the set and sound design choices feel pulled directly from those prior films, which is alarming. Why do the interiors of the palace at Arrakeen, on a distant planet eight millennia from now, look exactly like the bad guy’s office in Los Angeles 2049? There are certainly worse films to steal your sets from, but it critically undermines the idea that Villeneuve had a detailed, original vision for Dune, let alone one that needs to be split in half.

At the same time, it feels like there was someone who didn’t like Blade Runner 2049 or Arrival was looking over Villeneuve’s shoulder and making decisions about what needs to be spelled out through dialogue, because it was clearly a layman, not a pro storyteller and certainly not one of Villeneuve’s skill, who made those decisions for Dune. There is some absolute nonsense exposition in this movie, with details set up hours before they pay off and several points that are visually obvious being stated for no one’s benefit – the lowlight and best example being another character saying “he locked the door” as Paul Atreides frantically tries to open the locked door.

Contextualizing Dune: Part One

In the weeks leading up to its release, marketers positioned Dune as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings for a new generation, partially to prime viewers to expect multiple sequels, and Villeneuve’s announced plan has since expanded to a third movie adapting “Dune Messiah,” but a much more direct comparison is to “Game of Thrones.” Both media are based on series of fantasy novels set in late capitalist societies in which power in a crumbling empire has centralized under “great houses” that rule fiefdoms, and both focus on the conflicts between those houses.

Dune’s failure to build out its world is further highlighted by proximity to The Last Duel, released a week prior, which took a very simple rape-revenge story and infused it with the social, political, religious, economic, military, judicial and sexual dynamics that underlaid it.

This is the comparison that really illuminates what Dune might have been and captures what a disappointment it is, because even before its ending, it feels distinctly like the final seasons of “Game of Thrones,” when showrunners who were publicly known to be rushing toward other projects decided to put action over detail. House Harkonnen lays siege to Arrakeen just before the halfway mark of the film after House Atreides has spent what could be a single day on Arrakis, and it’s stylized mass action all the way down from there.

In the world of “Game of Thrones,” all decision-making power is vested in the Hand of the King, an appointee who appears to have absolute control and frequently sits on the Iron Throne in the king’s stead, but this is seen as a shit job and is often given out as punishment – that’s part of the magic of the show, everybody wants to be in charge and nobody wants to make any decisions, and it’s no wonder their empire is falling apart. Similarly, “Dune” is set on Arrakis, the only source of the most important substance in the universe, specifically the only substance that can enable space travel in a galactic empire, and yet it is kept at the far outskirts of the empire and, because of problems that we are told would be easy to solve, rulership over it is so dangerous that it is awarded deliberately as a black mark to a house the emperor wants to fall. Something very “Game of Thrones” -ish has gone wrong here, and I’m much more interested in the history of this obviously collapsing empire than I am in the grudge match between Harkonnen and Atreides.

Another bad comparison is to Star Wars, which many cite as being heavily inspired by the book “Dune.” In just the first film, for which no sequels were planned, we get a much clearer picture of a larger, more vibrant and original world than is depicted in Dune, especially its history, politics, technology and religion. This is what inspires fans to demand sequels and independently build out a fictional world, not seeing a deliberately incomplete portrait of it.

Much of Dune’s massive scale is granted in scenes like this, with human characters contrasted against massive mining equipment or sandworms, but it’s not like this shot was actually created. These sorts of things are all done in composite and miniature, it’s not a complicated thing to do. To really make this movie feel as large as it ought to, they need that depth of backstory.

Future of Dune: Part One

After a few days in release, part two of Dune was greenlit for Oct. 20, 2023, but there’s absolutely no way it’s going to make that date. Villeneuve says he can’t start production until Q4 of 2022, and he’s already talking about how he’ll use pre-production notes from the first part to accelerate the second part, which is something you would never ever hear about a movie that’s going to release as scheduled. It’s doubly troubling to hear that about Dune, which already appears to have taken much more than pre-production notes from Villeneuve’s prior work.

Villeneuve reportedly insisted on a guaranteed 45-day theatrical exclusivity window for part two, but part one’s 90-day window, the old standard, was waved aside without anyone related to the project being asked. If the next pandemic hits before then, we’ll see what good it does him.

I’ve been saying for four years now that Villeneuve is far-and-away the best working director, but Dune doesn’t show off why, and his priorities in making it seem more about the ego of having an epic series to his name and the compromises required to make it with Warner Bros. than producing a quality final product.

And he may stick himself on Dune for a very long time.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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