Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa
Frank Herbet’s politically charged sci-fi tome Dune has brought a couple of auteurs low already. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt at filming it infamously never even made it to fruition, while David Lynch’s admirable swing led to the director vowing never to work within the studio system again. Since then, TV versions have come and gone without so much as grazing the cultural zeitgeist. Canadian FilmBro-favourite Denis Villeneuve now follows in these inimitable footsteps, clearly aiming to sidestep the pitfalls of those who walked this path previously.
The year is 10191, and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of House Atreides has been granted custody of desert planet Arrakis by the Emperor of the known universe. Nicknamed ‘Dune’, the planet represents a loaded metaphor for the middle east, contentious oil production, and the perils of colonialism. In place of oil there is spice; mined out of the sands of the desert itself and used to enable interplanetary space travel. Leto has taken a concubine in Bene Gesserit witch Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and the Duke’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is surrounded by rumours that he will become a fabled messiah. Paul dreams of Arrakis, of conflicts, and of a young woman named Chani (Zendaya).
Following on from the sombre wastelands of his Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve continues to manifest his interest in vast spaces and cavernous interiors. One of the main problems with Lynch’s Dune was how it rapidly telescoped the narrative, throwing out huge chunks from the back-end of the book just to meet Dino De Laurentiis’ pre-set running time. Wary of the same fate, Villeneuve rolls the dice on adapting just part of the book, gambling that it’s success will bankroll a follow-up. As such, for an hour or more, it follows Lynch’s interpretation beat-for-beat.
Yet Dune Part One (as the title card forewarns us right off the bat) often feels like watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in reverse. It begins on Caladan – the Atreides home world – which seems as detached from Arrakis as Bowman’s prison-like bed chamber, then travels across space, and it ends with gruff, tribalistic scuffles that take place among the rocky crags. Ship designs also recall the 1968 sci-fi classic, and so too does the glacial, ponderous pacing.
Without the pressure to contain the story to one film, Villeneuve has crafted a rich but desolate movie, and this casual approach to urgency is something that Dune struggles to overcome. The marketing materials for the film have pulled heavily from Paul’s dreams of the future, essentially selling scenes from a second installment that hasn’t yet been made (if you’re coming for the giant sand worms, take a cautionary lesson from Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla…). This film is more about set-up, about political maneuvering, about world-building. It feels, frankly, like watching 2 and a half episodes of Game of Thrones before abruptly suffering a power cut.
Lynch’s film was an often pompous folly… but while trying to skirt this, Villeneuve wades into the same sands in different ways. Both films are beautifully designed. Where Lynch’s Dune is ornate, cluttered with garish opulence, Villeneuve’s vision is heavily influenced by his love of brutalist architecture, favouring drab palettes of grey, beige and khaki. It’s a more functional, militaristic interpretation. The 1984 Dune is criticised for opening with swathes of exposition, but Villeneuve doesn’t fare much better. There’s simply so much that’s necessary to tell an audience.
Due to the tone of uncanny self-seriousness, any largess in the performances is bound to stick out. As such, Dave Bautista’s Beast Rabban Harkonnen presents as a feebly impotent angry baby, Where Lynch had a phenomenal score from Toto and Brian Eno, Villeneuve has employed Hans Zimmer who, in the spirit of things, has created an improbably hilarious bagpipe dirge. As usual, Zimmer’s droning walls of sound are featured high in the mix, hit like a cudgel, and wash straight from memory.
When it comes to the action set pieces, Villeneuve’s set-ups are as clean and orderly as his talkier ones, but – with some frustration – he mostly chooses to obscure what is happening, either with sandstorms or thanks to the intentional blur of the shields worn by many of the characters. Flipping the coin, said shields engender a new kind of tension all of their own, as colour is used to indicate whether an attack has penetrated or not. It’s one of the few instances where the film genuinely embraces the material’s potential to be, well, fun.
If this all sounds like a negative report, let me allay some fears. There are gems here. Bautista aside, performances are generally strong (though Chalamet is given little to render Paul as the messianic figure he’s rumoured to be). Of particular note, unsurprisingly, is Ferguson, whose turn as Lady Jessica drives the picture forward, torn between the character’s instincts as a mother and the priorities of her soothsaying religious order. Jason Momoa adds much needed charisma as Duncan Idaho, and if Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck is meant to be as joyless as we’ve been led to believe, nobody told the actor, who seems to be having the time of his life. Around the peripheries, Sharon Duncan-Brewster brings something fleetingly special to Dr. Liet Kynes while Javier Bardem almost steals the film in a single scene.
Credit to Villeneuve for addressing head-on the thorny white-saviour narrative that powers the piece. The disparity between the rich Atreides clan and the pauper inhabitants of Arrakis is appropriately galling. Chalamet’s casting may actually be rather savvy in this regard. He’s pale and waifish and seems almost comically ill-equipped. He may be a pin-up boy in the model of Johnny Depp (careful now, Chalamet), but from his often limp, diminutive baring he almost deconstructs the Hollywood notion of the barrel-chested leader of men. Paul isn’t a given at this point.
And, like some of the best sci-fi fantasies, it is a transportive experience. Getting out of a late screening, it was some time before I was able to shake off the rush of being taken to Villeneuve’s booming vistas, and that appealing sense of escapism will be worth the ticket price alone. Such things rarely translate to the small screen, however. And the director’s well-circulated complaints about streaming plans make sense. This is one for the cinema, baby.
But something ineffable is missing. A soul to the picture, perhaps. When it reaches it’s climax and cuts to black, there’s a sigh inside. We knew it was coming, but that doesn’t stop Dune feeling like a franchise launchpad more than a rounded and rewarding initial encounter. Consider Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. No one film there feels begrudged for being only a piece of the whole. Each is, in its own way, compelling and complete. The same isn’t true here. Dune is a huge, elegant, self-important and profoundly dreary epic. But here’s hoping fortune favours Villeneuve and he gets his shot to make this feel part of a complete and rounded whole.