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'Dune' reviews say Villeneuve's sci-fi adaptation is epic, but sometimes lost in sandstorm of its ambition

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Sep 3, 2021, 2:12 PM EDT

"Fear is the mind killer." Luckily, there's nothing to fear about the first Dune reviews coming out of the Venice Film Festival, where Denis Villeneuve's latest sci-fi epic held its world premiere Friday. Well... maybe there is a little to be afraid of here in this epic adaptation.

Based on the influx of reactions popping out of the ground like the mighty sandworms of Arrakis, it sounds like the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 has poured a ton of beauty and scope into this lifelong passion project (based on the massive tome penned by Frank Herbert in the 1960s), even if all that effort doesn't actually result in a masterpiece. As of this writing, Dune holds an 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Variety's Owen Gleiberman describes the film as a cross between David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (a Nazi propaganda film from 1935), and "the most visionary cologne commercial that Ridley Scott never made. (The movie is more than a little enthralled with the clockwork imagery of fascism.) Dune is out to wow us, and sometimes succeeds, but it also wants to get under your skin like a hypnotically toxic mosquito. It does…until it doesn’t."

"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," writes David Ehrlich for IndieWire.

The C- review closes out with what many have claimed over the years: that Herbert's magnum opus may just be un-filmable (just ask Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch) and anyone crazy enough to try bites off way more than they can chew. The gargantuan tale about feuding royal families in a far-flung future — a future propped up on a mind-altering drug harvested from alien worms, we might add — also serves as a biting critique of environmental devastation and capitalist greed, while also packing in a ton of idiosyncratic world-building concepts. It's enough to turn anyone's head.

The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney echoes that sentiment in the second paragraph of his review: 

"Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to tame the notoriously difficult novel about an interstellar empire at war over control of a precious natural resource has no lack of cinematic spectacle — from its majestic landscapes to its monumental architecture, nifty hardware and impressive spacecraft. It also benefits from a charismatic ensemble led by Timothée Chalamet in intensely swoony form as the young messiah who might lead the oppressed out of tyranny. But it doesn’t quash the frequent claim that the book is unfilmable. At least not in part one of what is being billed as a two-part saga."

 Credit: Chiabella James / © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

Scott Collura of IGN calls Dune "beautiful to behold" and "a faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel" — at least for the first half of its massive 2 hour, 35 minute runtime. "And therein lies the problem that the film faces, for in cutting this story into two parts, Villeneuve has front-loaded Dune with a lot of set-up and no obvious way to end things… and so it lingers, and eventually overstays its welcome. This is a technically brilliant, visually amazing movie with a top-notch cast and deep sci-fi concepts. A shame, then, that it feels like a drag in its back half."

The Guardian's review by Xan Brooks breaks from the mixed pack with a perfect five star rating. "Dune is dense, moody and quite often sublime — the missing link bridging the multiplex and the arthouse," writes Brooks. "Encountering it here was like stumbling across some fabulous lost tribe, or a breakaway branch of America’s founding fathers who laid out the template for a different and better New World."

Empire Magazine's Ben Travis also gave the movie a perfect score, calling it, "an absorbing, awe-inspiringly huge adaptation of (half of) Frank Herbert’s novel that will wow existing acolytes, and get newcomers hooked on its spice-fueled visions. If Part 2 never happens, it’ll be a travesty."

(Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

Despite a stacked cast that includes the likes of Timothée, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and more, GamesRadar's James Mottram writes that the performances, however impressive, often take a back seat to the mind-blowing visuals. Not necessarily a bad thing.

"When the sandworm makes its inaugural appearance, you’ll have a genuine OMG moment, in what is surely the most remarkable scene you’ll see in cinema all year," he writes. "Pray that Villeneuve is granted a chance to continue the story, because his Dune is the adaptation fans have waited a generation for."

Writing for USA Today, critic Brian Truitt declares that while the end product is "a mixed bag," it doesn't fail to give the viewer a truly "awesome experience ... with astounding special effects, great production design and a propulsive Hans Zimmer score. Insect/helicopter hybrid vehicles buzz around, Paul’s frequent future visions add a mysteriously neat vibe, and it’s hard to beat scarily mawed sandworms that could stretch across quite a few football fields."

Co-written by Villeneuve, Jon Spaiths, and Eric Roth, Dune will allow the spice to flow in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, Oct. 22. Despite the unorthodox hybrid rollout, which caused quite a stir among A-list Hollywood filmmakers last December, Villeneuve hopes that audiences will choose the theatrical experience over the streaming option.

"At the end of the day these are difficult times for everybody, safety first, if the audience feels comfortable I encourage them to watch it on the big screen,” he remarked at the festival, according to Variety. "It has been dreamed, designed, shot, thinking IMAX. When you watch this movie on the big screen, it is a physical experience. We tried to design it to be as immersive as possible."