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Review Roundup (Venice Edition): Denis Villeneuve’s Dune

Critics respond to Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic.
Dune - Denis Villeneuve
Timothée Chalamet as young Paul Atreides

It’s safe to say that Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is my most anticipated movie of 2021. For starters, I’m a sucker for space operas, and especially space operas splashed across the big screen. And with Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, Villeneuve established himself as one of today’s best sci-fi directors, one who could tell amazing, thought-provoking stories with jaw-dropping visuals.

Dune, however, has long been considered unfilmable, with past attempts either failing outright or being disowned by their creators. But if the early reviews are any indication — Dune had its world premiere last week at the Venice Film Festival, where it received a six-minute standing ovation — then Villeneuve has largely succeeded with the first of his two (and possibly, three) Dune films. And even those critics who ultimately responded to the film negatively still found room to praise Villeneuve’s world-building and approach to spectacle.

Justin Chang, “An astonishingly vivid, sometimes plausibly unnerving vision of the future”

For now, it’s hard to deny the excitement of feeling swept up in this movie’s great squalls of sand, spice and interplanetary intrigue, realized with a level of craft so overpowering in its dust-choked aridity that you may want to pull your mask up a little tighter in the theater. You may also feel a more qualified sense of admiration for Villeneuve’s efforts to preserve yet streamline the novel’s imaginative essence, to translate Herbert’s heady conceits and arcane nomenclature into a prestige blockbuster idiom.

Robbie Collin, “Science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling and enveloping”

This new adaptation of the 1965 Frank Herbert novel from Denis Villeneuve, the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling and enveloping. Watching it feels like wandering through some enormous, otherworldly structure built in honour of higher powers you’ve never heard of — and, from the look of the place, rather hope don’t actually exist.

David Ehrlich, “A massive disappointment”

[N]o story — let alone the misshapen first half of one — could ever hope to support the enormity of what Villeneuve tries to build over the course of these interminable 155 minutes (someone mentions that time is measured differently on Arrakis), or the sheer weight of the self-serious portent that he pounds into every shot. For all of Villeneuve’s awe-inducing vision, he loses sight of why Frank Herbert’s foundational sci-fi opus is worthy of this epic spectacle in the first place. Such are the pitfalls of making a movie so large that not even its director can see around the sets.

Owen Gleiberman, “An act of world-building that runs out of storytelling steam”

Here’s one useful definition of a great sci-fi fantasy film. It’s one in which the world-building is awesome but not more essential than the storytelling. In the first two Star Wars films, those dynamics were in perfect sync; they were, as well, in The Dark Knight and the Mad Max films. Blade Runner, in its way, is an amazing movie, but its world-building packs more punch than its transcendental neo-noir noodlings.

Viewed in that light, Dune is a movie that earns five stars for world-building and about two-and-a-half for storytelling.

Glenn Kenny, “A more-than-satisfactory movie of the book”

A little while back, complaining about the Warner Media deal that’s going to put Dune on streaming at the same time as it plays theaters, Villeneuve said the movie had been made “as a tribute to the big-screen experience.” At the time, that struck me as a pretty dumb reason to make a movie. Having seen Dune, I understand better what he meant, and I kind of approve. The movie is rife with cinematic allusions, mostly to pictures in the tradition of High Cinematic Spectacle.

Leila Latif, “A staggering spectacle of sci-fi imagination”

Villeneuve has been very clear that a conclusive installment would depend on ticket sales, which would have to impress in order to justify a sequel — an even dicier gamble in these uncertain times. Dune is engrossing and spectacular; it’s rare to see a blockbuster so grand, intelligent, and distinct, one that speaks to humanity’s past, present, and future. But by its very nature as half of a story, the film offers a slightly dissatisfying conclusion. So let’s hope that history doesn’t repeat itself at the box office.

Germain Lussier, “The jaw-dropping sci-fi epic you’ve been waiting for”

Dune feels like a product from another time in Hollywood history. A movie with the scope and vision of modern blockbusters that tells a complex, mature story usually reserved for independent dramas. It’s hugely ambitious, not always straightforward, but accessible and lived-in in a way that makes watching it completely engrossing, even when the thrills and chills aren’t quite as abundant as recent hits have made us accustomed to. It’s an old-school blockbuster told with visuals that’ll delight a new-school crowd.

Rodrigo Perez, “A spellbinding arthouse blockbuster odyssey about destiny & betrayal”

A complex, byzantine space extravaganza about family rivalries, tribal clashes, social oppression, and ecological disaster, among the still-to-be, explored ideas of religion in Part Two, Villeneuve’s Dune has much to shoulder before its heroes journey begins. Still, it does about as good as a job as humanly possible given the constraints of time. Those who find Villeneuve to be a self-serious, humorless, and pretentious bore likely won’t be changing their minds anytime soon after Dune, but that just might be their loss. Whether Warner Bros. accepts the call to make a sequel in a climate of dismal box-office returns remains to be seen. But that’s not our concern at the moment; Dune is undeniably impressive, spellbinding, and evocatively immense, regardless.

David Rooney, “It doesn’t quash the frequent claim that the book is unfilmable”

Perhaps the biggest issue with Dune, however, is that this is only the first part, with the second film in preproduction. That means an awful lot of what we’re watching feels like laborious setup for a hopefully more gripping film to come — the boring homework before the juicy stuff starts happening.

Stephanie Zacharek, “An admirably understated sci-fi spectacle”

As someone who has zero interest in most books beloved by proselytizing, glassy-eyed dudes of the 1970s and 1980s, I always figured I could never be a Dune person. But I sort of enjoyed Villeneuve’s Dune — premiering out of competition at the Venice Film Festival and opening in the United States later this fall — and though it’s hard to say if serious Dune dudes will approve, what Villeneuve has put onscreen proves, at the very least, that he respects the source material to just the right degree. He neither genuflects to it nor tries to tart it up as a flashy, self-satisfied blockbuster flimflam. As movie spectacles go, it’s admirably understated: What can you say about a movie that makes the absolute most of sand?

Dune arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22. Watch the trailer below.

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