The Science of Fiction

The New Dune Is the Best Yet—and It's Not That Great

Denis Villeneuve's 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi masterpiece is brusquely sensical.

By Sophie Grossman October 25, 2021

Zendaya plays Chani in the new Dune, and the plot's frenetic pace doesn't offer much opportunity for her to breathe life into the character.

Frank Herbert, a journalist for many years and a staunch environmentalist for even more, was deeply rooted in Washington state—he lived here his whole life, and his politics and career reflected a very Pacific Northwest ethos. His acute concerns with ecological erosion and capitalist avarice are reflected in his now-legendary 1965 novel Dune. Discourse around these topics has swelled to a fever pitch in recent years, and director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) emphasizes them in his 2021 rendition of the ostensibly impossible-to-adapt sci-fi saga.

Dune traces, through many intricate turns, the story of a powerful ruling family and their scion, Paul, as they take over as imperial stewards of a planet prized for its abundance of a precious natural resource: spice. The utter opulence of Herbert’s world-building is perhaps what has made Dune such an intimidating project for filmmakers, and the 2021 adaptation, with clear calculation, sidesteps the frantic and overambitious detail that characterizes David Lynch’s slightly unhinged 1984 iteration. Villeneuve does a good job of streamlining the narrative and maintaining momentum while conveying the relevant details—a commendable achievement, given how convoluted the source material is. Unfortunately, the result of this businesslike approach is almost sterile. 

As far as the acting goes, it hurts me to say this as a Euphoria fan and a devoted admirer of her bone structure, but Zendaya’s performance fell particularly flat for me. This assessment may be slightly unfair, as her character only gets about 20 minutes of screen time outside of Paul’s erotically charged prophetic dreams, but her affect in those 20 minutes was sleepy, almost bored.

Timothée Chalamet brought his signature brooding-young-man-on-the-cusp-of-greatness sauce, and added some measure of depth and sensitivity to Paul who, in my opinion, is far from the most compelling character in Herbert’s original rendering of the story. None of the performances felt particularly multidimensional, however, which makes sense given the brisk clip at which the narrative, by necessity, moves along. No time for meaningful, complicating moments of character development with the murderous, gaping maws of sandworms emerging every hundred yards or so. 

Movie review tradition dictates some sort of scoring, and according to Seattle Met’s established metric for rating Dune adaptations, I give this newest version 3.25 out of 4 sandworms. It’s better than any of its predecessors, but it’s difficult to say just how much of that is owed to stunning special effects and an equally stunning cast—it is a visual feast, no doubt, but one that left me with a lingering, frustrated hunger for something more.

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