‘Dune’ reviews hail Denis Villeneuve epic as ‘masterful,’ but some critics don’t agree

Denis Villeneuves long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” made its debut at the Venice Film Festival on Friday leaving some critics in awe of the massive scope and spectacle of the “Arrival” director’s work and others wondering what all the fuss is about.

“‘Dune’ reminds us what a Hollywood blockbuster can be,” The Guardian critic Xan Brooks wrote in a five-star review. “Implicitly, its message written again and again in the sand, Denis Villeneuve’s fantasy epic tells us that big-budget spectaculars don’t have to be dumb or hyperactive, that it’s possible to allow the odd quiet passage amid the explosions.”

But writing for Indiewire, critic David Ehrlich offered a strong dissent, tying in Villeneuves comments about seeing “Dune” on the big screen with the film itself. (“Dune” will debut in theaters and via HBO Max simultaneously, a controversial decision that Villeneuve has spoken out against.)

“In the end, Denis Villeneuve was all too right: Your television isn’t big enough for the scope of his ‘Dune,’ but that’s only because this lifeless spice opera is told on such a comically massive scale that a screen of any size would struggle to contain it,” Ehrlich wrote. “Likewise, no 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.”

Set in the fictional world created by Herbert, “Dune” focuses on the House Atreides and their brutal battle with House Harkonnen for the planet Arrakis, where a powerful resource called spice can be mined. Members of House Atreides include lead character Paul, played by former Best Actor nominee Timothee Chalamet, and Paul’s parents, played by Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson (whose role grows as the film progresses and eventually becomes an almost co-lead; her character, Lady Jessica, plays a key role in a potential “Dune Part 2” that the film tees up.)

“I left DUNE shaking,” critic Joshua Rothkopf wrote on Twitter. “This is how people seeing 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY back in 1968 for the first time must have felt. The grandeur of this thing is off the charts. However blown away you think you’re going to be, multiply it by ten.” Fandango editor Erik Davis was also a fan, calling “Dune” “masterful.”

Writing for Entertainment Weekly, critic Leah Greenblatt praised Villeneuve for his vision but also noted how “Dune” ends on a cliffhanger for a movie that may never even exist.

“The sheer awesomeness of Villeneuve’s execution — there might not be another film this year, or ever, that turns one character asking another for a glass of water into a kind of walloping psychedelic performance art — often obscures the fact that the plot is mostly prologue: a sprawling origin story with no fixed beginning or end,” she wrote. “Minus the fuller context that Herbert’s extended universe and dense mythology provides, the meaning of it all feels both endlessly beguiling and just out of reach: a dazzling high-toned space opera written on sand.”

The hit-and-miss response, however, was perhaps best captured by Kyle Buchanan for the New York Times. “It’s something dreamier and weirder, a movie that straddles the line between auteurist art-film and studio blockbuster so provocatively that even after watching it, I can’t quite predict how ‘Dune’ will fare when it comes out in theaters (and on HBO Max) on Oct. 22,” he wrote. “When I left my screening, the first critic I spoke to was totally besotted. The second fled the theater as if Villeneuve had planted a bomb there.”

“Dune” appears all but locked in as a major Oscar contender in the craft categories, including cinematography (past nominee Greig Fraser), editing (past nominee Joe Walker), production design (past nominee Patrice Vermette), costume design (past nominee Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan), sound, and score (Oscar winner Hans Zimmer). Villeneuve is also an early favorite among Gold Derby users for a nomination in Best Director.

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