Directed by Denis Villeneuve; Written by John Spaiths, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth
“Dune” is a doorstop novel in three parts full of mysticism, lore, and space politics spanning several planets, families, and cultures; rightly one of those works labeled an epic. It centers on “spice”, a cosmic commodity precious beyond belief, and found on one planet only, meaning its natives have long been oppressed by imperialist colonizers because of it. A desert planet, its inhabitants wear suits that recycle every liquid your body parts with (yes, everything, only some coward writers left that part out) and underneath the sand, behemoth worms run wild, crashing through dunes like a torpedo cuts through waves, swallowing anything that touches the sand long enough.
A novel like this requires both precision, meticulousness, and a touch for the grand. Science fiction, however, requires a sense of irony and a willingness to look the fool. A film like Dune (a mini-series was also made in 2003) is the fusion of those two things, and it’s a gauntlet two men have tried their hand at. David Lynch’s 1984 effort was his definite low-point, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s imagined epic was never realized. Now Denis Villeneuve, someone I’ve on several occasions called the most joyless man in the world, has a go.
Shrouded in the whirlwind of alien tongues and politics is a simple enough story. The House of Atreides is entrusted with the stewardship of Arrakis, a planet whereon the spice is harvested. It’s a setup, it turns out, as the Emperor, who sent the Atreides there, is colluding with the former rulers of Arrakis, the Harkonnens, to wipe the Atreides from the intergalactic chess board. Paul, heir to the Atreides fiefdom, is exiled as a result, thrust forward into this game of long knives where he must fend for his life, but also get to grips with growing murmurs that he is a Messiah-like figure come to bring peace to the known world. Timothée Chalamet, currently enjoying Jesus-like ubiquity himself, slots right in.
It’s clear Denis Villeneuve has both love and respect for the source material, with perhaps too much of the latter. He wrangles the story and its many details into something digestible and engaging, and he manages to invoke the formidable spectacle a story like this can be, realizing palaces wondrous and strange, battleships equally so, and not getting lost in riotous battle scenes. It’s an exciting film for its entire runtime, and the thought that there are two more films to come doesn’t feel exhausting. That’s no small feat.
Villeneuve does treat this story of noble houses and intergalactic warfare like the unearthed mythology of some dignified religion, however, and it can feel sanctimonious and self-important at times. Colour has been completely drained from every scene, with space never before so beiged-out. While the lair of villains must be dank and dark places by movie law, one might think our protagonists’ chambers could offer a counterpoint, but no. Calling them somber is generous.
Don’t get me wrong, Dune is still visually striking and a technically sound ship well worth the price of admission. Its splendour is taken to the next level in technical departments, where costumes, sets and props offer up a bevvy of details to take in, almost competing for your attention. They’ll surely compete too at the Oscars.
As somber as the film’s visuals is the film’s dialogue. How heavily it leans on Frank Herbert’s source novel, I don’t know, but coupled with a pulseless delivery that affects the entire cast, it’s hard to grow attached to these characters. It reminds me of the personal distance of ancient mythology in that sense, where Zeus never feels like one of the boys, and that makes perfect sense – he’s an immortal being after all, whose consideration for humans and our norms is equal to his consideration of ants, but Paul and rest are ostensibly meant to be relatable as human beings.
That is perhaps why Villeneuve has never found a home in my heart, because as a storyteller, he has an android’s understanding of humanity. He doesn’t grasp the inconsistencies, the ironies, the pathetic lows and bittersweet highs that make up a person, and the characters he immortalizes on screen are merely expressions of the plot’s circumstances. What happens in Villeneuve’s films is the draw, never its people.
For example, would you watch Paul do anything else? Would you want to check on him years from now and watch him struggle to relate to a surly teen? Would you watch Kate Macer from Sicario go on a girl’s night out and drunkenly belt out “Believe” at a karaoke bar? Would you care to see Louise Banks from Arrival try to assimilate into the doldrums of domesticity after spearheading the effort to intelligently communicate with alien life? You wouldn’t.
One caveat to this, perhaps: Dune does have an interesting outlook in Paul and his familial role models. He has a dignified father in Oscar Isaac’s Leto, a daddy in Jason Momoa, a warrior who is allowed to smile, which seems like a no-no otherwise, and his mother Lady Jessica, a non-mother concubine and member of a space witches’ coven. How they shape him and live in him would have been interesting, but Villeneuve doesn’t quite go that route. Maybe in the announced part two. Cue the Full House theme song.
As for Dune, it’s greatest sin is perhaps its lack of rhythm. Every moment is geared to be awe-inspiring, either in the spectacle of violence or wonder of the alien world, and precious few moments are reserved for people to exchange a word about inner lives. As a result, Villeneuve doesn’t see a quiet moment he doesn’t want to fill with Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score, beating you into submission with disjointed percussion, roaring tribal choirs, and droning synths. Mercy, please, Denis. What I’m saying is that Dune is a well-executed blockbuster that I’d celebrate every day of the week in a steadily narrowing media landscape. It’s a multi-million dollar effort based on an odd source novel, and for that, we ought to probably be thankful, seeing as how only cinematic “universes” and stories told therein can lure out big production budgets. Well, here’s an actual cinematic universe, enjoy it while you can.