Director: Denis Villeneuve Starring: Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgaard, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster Running Time: 156 minutes
Frank Herbert’s Dune is today considered one of the sci-fi forefathers, a richly told epic with much on its mind and an influence on everyone, from George Lucas to Hayao Miyazaki. Adapting the story itself on screen has proven…challenging, for many reasons, the material dense on its own merits and a challenge to capture the eye of audiences without everything that drew from it already obscuring the view.
Where Jodorowsky failed and David Lynch befuddled, now Denis Villeneuve steps in with a new effort to make Dune a success. His weapon of choice is the modern blockbuster model, a brutalist exercise in asserting box-office through sheer force of will. Every tool in the arsenal – the all-star cast, the source material devotion, the enormous runtime, the spoiler seclusion and sequel hooks – they’re all out there to get Dune over and get the Part Two in future that this film’s opening title implies, fans, stans and studios. The drive is considerable, and tautological: Dune here is a big name franchise because it looks like, moves like and is certainly budgeted like a big name franchise.
Has it got ambition? Unquestionably. Scale? Massively. Heart? Well. Um.
Take it from someone whose big empty head has long resisted efforts to be told what Dune is about, it’s really not, at least not as presented by Villeneuve here, as complicated as it might seem. Certainly if you can follow Game of Thrones , you can follow this, a more space-faring flavour of war, myth and the politique. In the far-flung future, Timothee Chalamet is Paul, the troubled young heir of the noble and respected House Atreides. Paul keeps having fleeting dreams and visions of a future on the hostile desert planet Arrakis, where battle is constantly waged over control of the invaluable resource Spice. These visions – the beautiful blue-eyed Fremen girl Chani (Zendaya), those closest to him lying dead in battle – are equally alluring and alarming, all the more so when word comes from the Emperor that the House of Atreides is to take control of Arrakis, uprooting their political rivals House Harkonnen in the process.
So off Timmy goes to this strange new world, along with honorable father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), member of the magical Machiavellian matriarchs the Bene Gesserit, an order with superhuman abilities that Lady J has been passing on to her son on the sly. On Assarik, Duke and his House, including bannermen Gunnar Halleck (Josh Brolin) and super soldier/pulp hero/captain of the football team Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) attempt to get the elusive indigineous people the Fremen onside, particularly those led by Javier Bardem, to take on their former oppressors the Harkonnen, whose leaders the Baron (Stellan Skarsgaard) and his Large Adult Son (nephew, but the energy is the same) played by Batista, have their own plans in motion to take back what’s theirs. Threats natural and nurtured are everywhere, tensions over the desert heat up and all the while Paul’s visions, and the whispers of the Fremen that he is their Messiah, grow louder…
So it’s certainly A Lot, and even in 156 minutes we’re only halfway through this story, but Villeneuve and co are committed to getting across the scale and scope of the matter. The pace slowly but steadily ramps up as the pulse of Paul’s forward flashes beats ever more erratically. Shots of the deserts and the impressively rendered sandworms that wriggle through them are suitably daunting, widescreens and white sands that reward being seen on the biggest available screen. For a screenplay that is giving you so much information all the time, from magic rules to space regulations to alien customs and a lotta lore, it is commendable that many of the key things Dune wants to convey are done with visuals – the Fremen hidden on the sand vs the fascistic, screen-devouringly enormous spaceships of their colonisers, the way defiance can suddenly set hard in Paul’s otherwise downcast eyes. It’s not likely you’ll get lost in the story, but it is possible that you’ll get lost in the screen, the sheer breadth of the frame, the length of the stares, the enormity of the action. There’s a point at which the awe inspiring passes over into the alienating, like the difference between star-gazing and being fired into the sun.
The plotting and pacing seem fine on the surface, but opinions may differ as to how much is going on under the hood to keep your engagement going. Palace intrigue is always a good story hook after all, and the maneuvering (and murder) of Dune’s factions fit the bill, but shouldn’t palace intrigue be a little…sexier? The goodies of Atreides treat their power struggles, family bonds and secret schemes with the resigned duty of someone giving a Powerpoint presentation of Monday morning, with the exception of Jason Momoa’s Lord Flashheart-esque Duncan Idaho, a welcome injection whenever he’s on screen. Chalamet has plenty of previous form for playing fragility behind a sneering facade, but too often Paul is a blank slate, carrying so little weight for the immense expectations placed on him by all sides. A few scenes aside, many hours in, Timmy and Zendaya have little more emotional impact than they do on the magazine covers they’ve been gracing on the promo tour.
What’s happening is clear, how it’s happening is creative. The why is where Dune falls short and it can only hope that the spectacle is so big that viewers don’t take in the stumble. For all the build-up, however technically accomplished it may be, Dune flatlines into an unrealised conclusion, unsatisfying and lacking in momentum. Villeneuve has previous for drawing emotion out of the opaque and alien, so the final, hollow feeling of this film, however much it may be excused by being the first of a two-parter, is hard to take. In all it’s impressive, but empty and a little…exhausting. Only fleetingly – in the grace of Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s Arrakis pride, in a belated Chalamet freakout, in the brutally cracking schism between Rebecca Ferguson’s senses of devotion and duty – does the depth of feeling in Dune come through. The big picture of the war at hand feels like it’s barely moved since we’ve got started. The smaller picture of who these people are, how and why we should connect with them, shrinks ever further and further away, a grain of sand disappearing downwind in a vast, dry, cold desert.
(2 / 5)