For all its globe-trotting spectacle, the true story in Dune from director Denis Villeneuve never really gets off the ground. And that’s clearly the point. It’s really Dune: Part One and even titled within the movie as such, the first half of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel about a young man named Paul (Timothée Chalamet) who is chosen by destiny to settle some interstellar feudal disputes on a treacherous desert planet.
Utilizing “chosen one” narratives within the backdrop of pre-Enlightenment societal structures certainly has room to be fresh and exciting. And in many ways, Dune is just that, particularly when it comes to its constantly reinventing production design, which has already earned it an Academy Award or two by default.
Brought to screen, there’s something inherently fascinating about seeing age-old hierarchies from the Dark Ages seeping into lo-fi high-tech in the far-flung future. In 2021, it’s easy to imagine society regressing into disturbingly oppressive territories, now more than ever.
“Villeneuve has an impeccable vision for telling intimate character stories within larger-than-life bubbles of cinematic grandeur.“
But this is where the vigorous writing of Dune hits a sandstorm of faithful adaptation; the difference between this being merely a good film and not the masterpiece it tries so hard to be and probably should be. To make Paul a compelling protagonist, Dune needed to reset the playbook for this 56-year-old story, already adapted to film once before by David Lynch in 1984. As it stands, our connection to Paul’s emotional journey is as hollow and empty as the massive halls and structures he inhabits over the course of this 155-minute film.
This is Villeneuve’s sprawling follow-up to Blade Runner 2049, his first real foray into franchise filmmaking and likely his peak sci-fi film. In both 2049 and his 2016 standout, Arrival, Villeneuve has shown his impeccable vision for telling intimate character stories within larger-than-life bubbles of cinematic grandeur. He also tends to work with down-to-earth screenwriters.
Even Sicario, a less ambitious film, by comparison, gave Villeneuve a unique lens on border warfare through multiple perspectives. It’s not that Dune comes off as a blemish on Villeneuve’s record, or something foreign to what the director has made in the past. If anything, it’s almost too much of everything.
The apt generational comparison might actually be The Fellowship of the Ring. Also an overlong, risky part one to a big-budget spectacle that is seemingly out of fashion due to its aging source material. Peter Jackson nevertheless succeeded in carving out an entirely new fandom out of Tolkien’s opus fantasy because he simply got the characters right. Not just right in the sense that they match the spirit of their printed counterparts, but right in the sense that modern audiences could either love them for the first time or all over again. Neither was off the table.
“The sensory details here are so immaculately creative and unpredictable, you can’t help but notice that the underlying story is an afterthought.“
In contrast, it takes hard work to fall in love with Dune. And for some, that won’t be a hindrance. The performances are impressive and convincing, as expected, with Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson putting in extra effort to lend prestige to what might otherwise strike as silly and absurdist dialogue. The same goes for Stellan Skarsgård’s flavorful, villain, a short nod to Mad Max: Fury Road.
Zendaya, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem provide serviceable accounts, but they’re more like fresh-dyed action figures than living, breathing characters. They’re not quite memorable or earth-shaking, which is all the more noticeable in a film that is otherwise blasting the screen for your undivided attention.
Much will be said by many in regards to how Dune successfully brings epic scale through sight and sound. Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s score couldn’t be more intertwined with the overall art direction and atmosphere, a moody combination of Biblical chic and 80s synth-rock. The sensory details here are so immaculately creative and unpredictable, you can’t help but notice that the underlying story is an afterthought. A first draft of a bare-bones outline intended to be filled in later, but never quite. Here’s hoping the eventual destination outshines the journey thus far.
Dune lands in theaters October 22. It will also be available to stream on HBO Max for 30 days. Watch the trailer here.