A better screenplay would spice-up Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
“A beginning is a very delicate time”, or so we are told at the opening of David Lynch’s notorious 1984 adaption of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune. The beginning of Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited new re-imagining of Dune, however, is intriguingly indelicate. From out of nowhere a strange, guttural voice speaking an alien language instructs us that “Dreams are messages from the deep.” The fact that this offhand bit of narration occurred before the studio credits rolled knocked me off balance for a moment. Was this Warner Bros. new company motto, or…?
Then we begin the movie proper, with a Disney-fied exposition dump delivered by Zendaya (who plays the Fremen Chani in the film) that sets up the basic plot of the movie: Planet Arrakis (or “Dune”) is beautiful and magical, but the Harkonnen meanies who brutalize the local population only care about the planet’s precious “spice”. Now they are leaving, but will the new landlords, the Atreides, be better or worse?
This contrast in just the movie’s first few minutes, between the arousing and unexpected and the PG-13 safety of what should have been an R-rated Game of Thrones in space, is a thread that will run throughout the entirety of Dune: a close-but-no-cigar mix of high hopes, dazzling spectacle and baby shampoo.
Dune fans, a cult nerdier than even Star Wars groupies, have long wished to see Frank Herbert’s dense and nuanced tome done right after the letdowns of David Lynch’s artsy but half-realized big screen adaptation, followed in 2000 by the SyFy Channel’s Babylon-5-quality Dune miniseries. Like the desert-dwelling Fremen of the titular planet itself, the faithful have been awaiting the arrival of a visionary to deliver unto them a spectacle worthy of the Prophet’s words.
Director Denis Villeneuve seems like the right man for the job. Villeneuve’s subtle yet grandiose cinematic vision, as demonstrated in film’s such as The Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, proves that he has a taste for the unearthly that is required for a story such as Dune, whose enduring appeal is rooted in Frank Herbert’s deep world-building and unique vision of humanity’s progress tens of thousands of years into the future. Villeneuve puts the movie’s massive budget to good use too, in lavish (and sometimes over-indulgent) panorama’s of Dune’s vast expanses of sand and structure. It was definitely worth braving the Delta variant to see this, as I did, on an IMAX screen. In fact, it is almost a necessity to do so if you wish to appreciate this movie at anywhere near the level a fan will want to. Absent a viewing experience that makes optimal use of the director’s wide-eyed wonder, you are left with a much smaller movie that is not quite carried by its script or talent.
Set eons in the future, the story of Dune is an ambitious melding of Shakespearean drama, religious mysticism, politics and ecology, all focusing on the figure of the young Duke-In-Waiting Paul Atreides, who, as a mythical locus of the fate of the Universe, outshines Luke Skywalker’s role as the guy who made the Death Star go “boom” by several orders of magnitude.
Paul, played by the birdishly handsome Timothée Chalamet, is every chosen-one ever conceived of all rolled into one. To his royal House he is the ass-kicking heir of the galaxy’s only virtuous leader, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac.) To the order of near-magical religious zealots known as the Bene Gesserit, he is the Kwisatz Haderach: the conclusion of a centuries-long breeding program designed to create a supermind. And when he at long last arrives on planet Dune, Paul is revered by the locals as Lisan al Gaib, the “Voice from the Outer World” — a prophesied messiah. Did Harry Potter ever have such expectations heaped upon him?
Unlike the protagonists of most hero’s journeys, Paul has been groomed for greatness right from the start: trained by his Bene Gesserit mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in the use of the Voice, (a mind-control technique that is portrayed here through marvelous sound design) and drilled by the Duke’s chummy men-at-arms, Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho (Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa) in the knife combat that is used exorbitantly throughout the movie. Lately Paul has also begun exhibiting the first stirrings of the prescient powers that will someday mark him as the most powerful being in the Universe — that is, if Dune ever has a sequel. The film teases us from the beginning that this two-and-a-half hour epic is merely “part one” of the saga. Will theaters survive long enough for the second half to be screened?
Set against our noble colonizers is the vicious and in all ways disgusting House Harkonnen, featuring Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (wearing the best fat suit since Eddie Murphy’s in The Nutty Professor), Dave Bautista as the radically underused “Beast” Rabban, and David Dastmalchian as the (as far as I can tell) never named vizier Piter Devries.
The Harkonnens are conspiring with the film’s unseen Emperor to eliminate the popular Duke that both sides hate for their own reasons. To do this, the Emperor has handed over control of Dune, and its valuable spice-mining operation, to the Atreides, seemingly ousting the evil Harkonnens. Little does the Duke realize that a traitor within his household will pave the way for a Harkonnen sneak attack designed to retake Dune and eliminate the pesky Atreides once and for all.
Villeneuve’s film has overwhelming artistic flair, from the sculpted meringue hills of Arrakis’ deserts to the cyclopean spaceships and vehicles, the director is in his element when it comes to the aesthetics of the future (which will refresh any fantasy movie enthusiast who has grown bored with Marvel’s torrential CGI). Some have complained of the oppressive starkness of the movie’s brutalist designs, but I think they make sense for a future where cruel, galaxy-wide commerce overwhelms the human soul. Nevertheless, this style is a detriment when it comes to the spaces the characters actually inhabit, which often seem cavernous, abstract and sterile. (“Where are the silks??” as Matt Christman asked.) A bit of warmth and a lived-in appearance could have at least been reserved for the environs of the personable Atreides. Artistically the world of Dune seems like a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
The movie does not skimp on the gewgaws that Dune aficionados have been aching to see portrayed with modern special effects: shields, lasguns, ornithopters — you wanted ‘em’, you got ’em, and they are marvelous! Strangely, when it comes to the design of the always popular Manhattan-sized Guild space freighters, Villeneuve chooses once again to portray them merely as big cylinders. (Although there is some poetry in the fact that the vessel has a gigantic maw that evokes the colossal sandworms of Dune, which are the source of the spice — a subtle reminder that the fates of the entire galaxy all hinge on giant, mindless maggots.)
But if Denis delights in bringing the world of Dune to life, stamped with his trademark cold splendor (and reinforced with another of Hans Zimmer’s always thudding scores — would it kill ya to throw in some flutes once in a while, Hans?), Dune nevertheless drops the ball when it comes to its characters.
It is incredible that given its ponderous run time, Villeneuve’s movie still manages to develop the players on Dune’s stage less well than David Lynch did in his outing — and his Dune told the book’s complete story! While Villeneuve does a fair job cutting through the complexities of Frank Herbert’s film-unfriendly epic, precious time needed to build our affection for the sprawling cast are wasted on unnecessarily long chases, dream sequences and set pieces that could have been axed with no detriment to the story.
Timothée Chalamet, the One, dominates the screen time. But Chalamet’s performance is too wistful and one-note for the film to lean on it so heavily, especially when there are so many supporting characters played by outstanding actors being short-shrifted by the never memorable writing of Jon Spaihts. (I wish someone like George R.R. Martin had been allowed to punch up Frank Herbert’s original dialogue, which doesn’t exactly crackle.) We get scarcely a drop of interplay between The Duke and Jessica — their fraught romance is left virtually unexplored. Practically nothing is shown of the relationship of Leto’s lieutenants (Duncan, Gurney and Thufir), whose camaraderie is the means through which we are meant to be endeared to House Atreides. And the critical plot element of the turncoat Doctor Yueh, built up to over many pages in the novel, is here practically abandoned until only the exact moment that the reveal is required, leaving the audience feeling zero emotion from the betrayal, which is meant to be the heartbreaking pivot point of the Atreides’ downfall. Only Javier Bardem, as the stoic Fremen leader Stilgar, manages to distinguish himself with a brief performance that steals your attention away from the movie’s monumental visuals.
Oscar Isaac doesn’t quite capture the Duke as he is portrayed in the novel: fair-minded but severe, the weight of the world on his shoulders as he walks headlong into a trap. A lot of visual nods to the fate of his own father, who died recklessly fighting a bull, are proffered, but Isaac would have needed much more dialogue to reinforce this motif. Conversely, Stellan Skarsgård conveys the novel’s zestiest character, Baron Harkonnen (written as a crapulent, mustache twirling porker, his weight offset by anti-gravity suspensors) as a glowering homage to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. But when the Baron and captured Duke finally confront each other face to face (the only time in the film where our heroes and villains are actually in the same room together), we barely understand enough of their relationship to seethe at the Baron’s triumph.
Skarsgård’s performance should have been the breakout role of the movie. But he mostly murmurs, and occasionally floats. Unfortunately, he (and the rest of the movie’s villains) are never allowed to be as sadistic as the film wants them to be. In order to preserve Dune’s PG-13 rating (Why? Kids aren’t going to want to see this) we are teased with several moments of explicit gore only to have them pulled away from us at the last moment. When the Baron stabs a man to death, or Rabban decapitates a prisoner, or the murderous Sardaukar soldiers perform human sacrifice, we barely get a glimpse of it before it is gone. This is a good vs. evil epic for all time where we are never taught to love the goodies or even properly hate the baddies. (But goddamn, those ornithopter’s look sweet!)
Subtler elements of the story that are more critical than the excessive knifeplay also fall by the wayside. Although Villeneuve is wise to avoid cumbersome plot details that could easily mire the movie in too much space politics, the soul of Dune’s appeal as an allegory has always depended on the ironic significance of two precious elements: spice and water. Spice — the exotic commodity that can only be found on Dune — is the lifeblood of the galactic economy. It allows the wealthy to live longer, it alone enables interstellar travel. But on Dune itself, where spice is everywhere, the most precious substance is water, of which not even a drop can be squandered. But both water and spice — and how Paul’s position as messiah really comes down to him being a power broker of both — scarcely matter in this movie. For almost the entire film you forget that the enormous importance of both these substances is the prime mover of the entire saga. For a man who appears to truly be a fan of the source material, Villeneuve’s vision of the work seems to be much more about big ol’ worms swallowing spice harvesters.
Artistically, Dune is worth the price of admission. There is detail and grandeur that I want to see again. Just not again and again. I am reminded of the awful Disney Star Wars trilogy: how can so much talent and money still not yield a good story with performances you remember and dialogue you quote to your friends?
Dune — the novel — opens with a caution that “a beginning is the time to take the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” Denis Villeneuve’s Dune ends with Paul’s future love interest Chani smiling at Paul — and the audience — as she tells us “This is only the beginning.” Hopefully part two, if there ever is one, will know how to keep its balance. This first installment sure was wobbly.
Previously: The Rise of Skywalker