Why I found the ending of Dune unsatisfying

Title in white on image of dark-coated hero on a beach with hills in background

DUNE is one of the biggest sci-fi releases of the year, based on a book I haven’t read. Not sure if I will, as the descriptions of it being full of chapters that are just world building is not much to my taste.

I am not going to touch the issues with the representation of exoticism, as it’s not my place to talk on that over others. Please go listen to the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) voices about that.

Instead, I want to talk about the ending, because I found it very unsatisfying, and I’ve been thinking about why. This post is an expansion on a twitter thread I did on this topic.

Spoiler alerts for the movie contained below!

A book split up

This movie is half a book I’m really glad I knew that going in, because it meant I was aware that we wouldn’t have a full book climax. It would be a midpoint ending, where the book’s goals haven’t been achieved and the character still has more growth to acquire later on.

I was expecting something a bit like the third Hunger Games movie, or the seventh Harry Potter. The big battles haven’t come, but something world shifting and emotionally significant for the lead has happened. The rescue of Peta, but he’s not well. The group’s rescue by Dobby, at the price of his own life.

However, I found the ending of DUNE really meh and unsatisfying.

What makes a good ending?

What makes a good ending is a very subjective thing. It will vary person to person, but to explain why I found DUNE so unsatisfying, I first had to work out what I wanted in an ending in technical terms. Once I worked that out, I could then start to see why DUNE hadn’t hit those points.

For me, a good ending has to be earnt. It can’t come out of nowhere, but rather needs to be built towards throughout the movie (or book.) And it needs to have a meaning, for both the character and the reader.

To achieve these, the ending needs to denote a milestone achieved for both the character’s goals and personal or thematic journey. The character needs to grow and have overcome some sort of obstacle.

What happens in DUNE?

DUNE ends on a random fight between a random newcomer. This newcomer has all of about thirty seconds on screen before he challenges Paul’s mum to a fight (not entirely sure why) and then, for a poorly explained reason, Paul’s mum couldn’t answer so Paul did.

The movie to this point has been about Paul’s place in his family, and the politics around the family. Paul has to survive those politics and their violent consequences, and then he ends up in the desert running for his life. He’s also struggling the with idea that he might be the fated hero and struggling with visions. He’s lost family and friends, and gained responsibility.

From a craft perspective, I’d expect the movie’s ending to be about those to be satisfying.

For example, Paul could be facing a (minor) crony responsible for his family’s death and do something political as a step to avenge them. He might have to declare himself the hero, or prove it through some prophetic event (and it thus being proved to him)

But it’s not. Instead, in my mother’s words, it’s a stupid fight. It wastes energy, water, and manpower in a desert that wants to kill the characters. The random challenger and the point of the fight means nothing to the viewer in terms of Paul’s story.

How might it have been improved?

The movie is adapting a book with a massive fan base. I completely understand that the writers and director wanted to stay as close to the source as possible. Plus they probably would have got some backlash for not following the plot “properly” if they invented something with the people who killed his family or similar (like the ending of LotR)

So how could this ending (which I am assuming is in the book given the reactions I’ve seen online) have been made more satisfying? I can think of a few really easy fixes.

First, spend more time in the movie focusing on the fact Pauls has never killed (and doesn’t want to) so that him HAVING to kill someone means something to his journey (and then make it affect him in the second movie.) The fact he had never killed was mentioned by his mother ONCE in the fight and felt very offhand. As it was the first time it had come up, it lacked impact.

Secondly, there was an undercurrent of Paul and his mother having a tricky relationship in the movie. It comes out of her involvement in a holy sisterhood that’s manipulating things to make way for a chosen one. And he’s not entirely on board with with. However that theme/tricky relationship felt smothered and pushed aside.

If that tricky relationship had more of a focus, then more could have been made of the fact that he was fighting for his mother. That would mean that him choosing to fight for her would mark a turning point in their relationship.

Thirdly, Paul gets a lot of visions, most of which are about things that don’t happen in this movie. After the film, I could make a stab at guessing whether they were in the second half of the book or in another book. Most of them were about Zendaya (which I later commented to my parents was clearly to up her screen time in the film, given she doesn’t appear in the story until the very end of it!)

However, none of the visions (save one moments before the fight) were about the movie’s ending. Instead, they focused a lot of Zendaya’s character stabbing Paul. The overuse of this vision made me think that that would be the ending, as so much time is spent setting that up as an Event of Extreme Importance.

If the movie had used some of the vision time (instead of vague, extreme close ups but very blurred because of the light, shots of Zendaya) setting up the ending, it would have helped feel like the movie was building towards it. It would not have been a random out-of-nowhere event, but more like a crucial point in the story. And it might have helped prove (to him and the audience) these visions are real, and not just heat-induced delusions.

Of course, doing all three would have been even better, as it would give the audience THREE reasons to invest in a fight with a character who’s been on screen less than a minute before issuing the challenge.

Some thoughts on the movie’s technical design

I really loved the cinematography. It looked really good in the trailers, which is why I wanted to go see it in the cinema instead of on a small screen. A lot of time has been taken over the framing and colours to make it visually stunning.

The sound design and the score are really good too. It can be very intense at times because of it. However, it was a tad hard to hear at times as the sound balance wasn’t great – mumbled/whispered dialogue with a loud Hans Zimmer score.

Read my other analyses of TVs and Movies:

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