‘Dune’ Critics Warn Audiences to Go Big (Screen) or Don’t Bother

The epic sci-fi is “a sensory experience so opulent and overwhelming it begs to be seen big, or not at all,” Entertainment Weekly writes

Dune Timothee Chalamet
Warner Bros./HBO Max

“Dune” (finally) premiered Friday at the Venice Film Festival, ahead of its theatrical and HBO Max release on Oct. 22, but mixed reviews seem to signal that the sprawling sci-fi epic may not have been worth the wait, at least for general audiences.

Critics are hailing Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel as a transporting viewing experience — but with about 100 asterisks attached, mostly pertaining to the flatness of the screenplay and a lack of direction to where this mission is exactly headed. 

Steve Pond’s review for The Wrap calls “Dune” both “dazzling and frustrating, often spectacular and often slow. It’s huge and loud and impressive but it can also be humorless and bleak,” adding that “it tries valiantly to address the problems of taking on Herbert’s complex epic, which requires a director to spend lots of time setting things up and explaining the world before they can even get the damn thing off the ground.”   

Indiewire’s David Ehrlich couldn’t resist the punny descriptor of “lifeless spice opera,” writing that “the first and most fundamental problem is a screenplay (credited to the heavyweight trio of Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Villeneuve himself) that drills into Herbert’s novel with all the thunder and calamity of a spice harvester, but mines precious little substance from underneath the surface.”

“The history and complex societal structure that are integral to the author’s vision are condensed into a blur, cramping the mythology. The layers of political, religious, ecological and technological allegory that give the novel such exalted status get mulched in the screenplay,” he wrote. 

Scott Collura’s critique for IGN noted that the story essentially “ends at Act 2,” arguing that there’s “a shapelessness to the latter part of the movie that drags it down and distracts from its beauty.

Even the more positive reviews, like Leah Greenblatt’s for Entertainment Weekly, admit that the film adaptation’s handling of the complex plot is “mostly prologue.”

Still, Greenblatt insisted that Villeneuve’s famous remarks that watching “Dune” on television would be like “driving a speedboat in your bathtub,” were not self-aggrandizing BS but right on the money, hailing the flick as “the kind of lush, lofty filmmaking wide screens were made for; a sensory experience so opulent and overwhelming it begs to be seen big, or not at all.” 

But hope is not lost, “Dune” fans; Robbie Collin’s five-star review for The Telegraph touts it as, “Science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling and enveloping.”

Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times claims that the film “​​slams to an abrupt, unsatisfying halt,” yet admits he is looking forward to what Villeneuve does with the second half of the source material in Part 2 due to the “pleasure in watching this particular game of thrones play out” in the first. 

“Dune” ultimately had The Guardian’s Xan Brooks exclaiming, “Good heavens, what a film,” writing that what other critics slammed as pacing issues were actually just Villeneuve being “confident enough to let the temperature slowly build before the big operatic set-pieces eventually break cover.” 

Big budget spectaculars don’t have to be “dumb or hyperactive,” he says. “’Dune’ reminds us what a Hollywood blockbuster can be.”

“Dune” lands in theaters and on HBO Max on Oct. 22.


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