I have, mildly on purpose, learned very little about Dune. I’ve long been aware of it as the first book in a very long and very well-regarded series, but a few too many people have used it to signify their intelligence to me, which made me run as far away from it as I could. Something pretty miraculous needed to come along to persuade me to check it out, and Dune, co-writer and director Denis Villeneuve’s big budget take and intended kickoff of a series, looked like it might be that gamechanger. He clearly got the money to make the family-clashing, sandworm gobbling tale of a boy and his drugs the genre-defining marvel people hype it up to be, but let me tell you dear reader, I will not be picking up the book.
His Dune (David Lynch took a stab at adapting the book in the ‘80s, so now there’s two movies running around) is exactly what you should expect from a blank check Villeneuve movie. It’s too heavily concerned with plot, too little concerned with character, tries to visually dazzle you at every turn, and doesn’t bother to vary its tone. I know this is harsh and perhaps unexpected given how revered the man has become, but I’ve always seen him as a deeply flawed, deeply cold filmmaker, with none of his work but Incendies lingering in my mind.
But Arrival, you say! It’s a meaningless exercise in a predetermined universe, I say. But Sicario! Nihilism isn’t interesting in my opinion. I could go on, but you get my drift. Denis and I do not get along, but it’s still bizarre to see all his faults, which have grated me for so long, put into one turgid movie.
I will give him this: he’s got the eye. He always stages at least one breathtaking shot in his movies, the kind that comes from such intricate vision and planning that it’s clear he knows how to tell the story he wants to tell through film. Dune has a few of them, and they’re almost worth the price of admission alone. Problem is the stories he tells are one-note, so matter how well he tells them, they’re still a bore at feature length.
Dune, at least in this early going, isn’t a complicated enough story to break this trend. It’s a pretty straightforward chosen boy narrative, with Timothée Chalamet’s Paul as the heir apparent to the powerful House Atreides. They are tasked with managing the harvest of spice on the desert planet Arrakis, which in this world powers spaceships and gets you high, the former making the appointment both lucrative and dangerous. Paul doesn’t feel like the born leader Atreides needs to navigate this, though, probably because he’s really the prophesied special boy of his mother’s order, and also because he really likes that spice drug. From what we see the poor kid spends his time studying alone or taking directions from adults, so yeah, of course he wants to ditch everything and get high. Plus, there’s cool space worms in the wilds of Arrakis
Okay, so there’s a lot of window dressing, but at its core it’s still just a boy with special powers discovering his destiny, and all the rest is accoutrement of the genre. Except it’s all of the accoutrements, with every potential beat of the genre being thrown in instead of picking a lane and going with it. That makes for a tediously packed plot that relegates its characters to pieces on a chessboard. Is this what the book is like or is this just the Villeneuve effect?
Either way, Villeneuve is definitely responsible for pitching every single moment as the most portentous event you’ve ever seen, which becomes numbing real fast. I mean, Paul can’t even look at some trees without it MEANING SOMETHING and having a character explicitly state the meaning. I know Villeneuve had a lot to get through, but would a joke kill him? Or how about letting us discover a theme for ourselves? Does he not realize that the best way to make us deeply invested in a story is to give things to work out and people to care about? Otherwise, you’re just a terrible history teacher reciting facts instead of making the past (even if it’s fictional) come alive.
The only character who pops here is Jason Momoa’s Duncan, whose rapscallion ways shine through in only a few brief scenes. Everyone else can basically come and go as the story pleases, which they do, and these developments play more as a rote procession than developments that hits you emotionally.
But again, none of this was exactly surprising to me because I’ve always found Villeneuve’s films to be cold exercises. The only thing that did surprise me was how murky he made this movie, putting all the elaborate costumes, sets, and special effects in such gloom that it’s hard to see their detail. There’s no clear reason for this; even obscured, you can see the amount of money that went into realizing this world. Did he think this would emphasize his tone? Did he think that’s what his movie needed help with?
There will always be a certain grandeur to this level of science fiction. So rarely do we see them get funded that the novelty alone makes you lean forward to try and glean pleasure from this grim, incomplete story. The movie doesn’t make that easy for you, though, and it doesn’t even have the decency to hit you with some hard truth as a reward for all your work. Instead of delivering glorious sandworms it just lies there like a slug, and it isn’t even in self-defense.
Release: now available in theaters and on HBO Max
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård