Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgard
I’ve read the novel Dune exactly one time, when I was around fifteen years old. Frank Herbert’s book was, allegedly, visionary, prophetic, a masterpiece of storytelling, a seminal work of science fiction. Truthfully, even at that age, I found it ponderous, a series of strong set pieces, separated by pages and pages of dull description, the book rife with exposition and pseudo-spirituality. I don’t recall reading more than a chapter or two of any of the follow-ups and once the Herbert estate signed up uber-hack Kevin J. Anderson to boil and render the leftover bones, I lost all interest in the “franchise”.
When I learned Canadian director Denis Villeneuve had been tapped to take another crack adapting “Dune” for the big screen (the 1984 David Lynch version was a fully dressed and steaming turkey), I didn’t exactly jump for joy. His “Blade Runner” sequel was godawful: dull-witted, humorless, literal, a poor man’s ass version of Ridley Scott’s near masterpiece. No poetry, no music, just the sound of cash register drawers opening and closing.
So, I ponied up my money to see “Dune” last night, not expecting much…and have to admit to being pleasantly surprised. One of my problems with Villeneuve’s cinematic output is that the director takes such a detached view of his characters and subject matter that his films lack an essential emotional core: we simply don’t care for the people onscreen. I was worried Timothée Chalamet’s “Paul Atreides” would be another cipher (a la Ryan Gosling), but the kid manages to coax some life into a young man who may or may not be a messiah and savior of the universe. There are other strong performances: Rebecca Ferguson is convincing as “Lady Jessica”, Paul’s mother, and Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa manage to imbue their roles with visceral energy. And it was, frankly, a delight to see Charlotte Rampling again, as doyenne of the Bene Gesserit order.
The movie is pure spectacle, needless to say, the special effects every bit as amazing as you’ve heard. The first appearance of the sand worm is thrilling and the attack of the Harkonnen invasion force, supplemented by the Emperor’s imperial Sardaukar, is something to see (especially on the big screen, Hans Zimmer’s score pounding away). The desert sequences are gorgeous (kudos to cinematographer Greig Fraser) and the film’s production design stellar.
Yet my quibbles won’t be completely silenced.
Yes, the movie looks impressive, but it is also freighted with the novel’s faux-literary hauteur and portentousness: Jesus Christ, doesn’t anyone in this universe crack a joke? And aren’t great movies supposed to be self-contained, boasting an actual climax and resolution of the basic points of conflict? But “Dune” just sort of peters out, the cast trudging resolutely through the swirling, shifting sand toward a sequel looming on the horizon (likely popping up sometime in late 2023), leaving film-goers with a sense of tangible dissatisfaction, a throbbing, annoying case of cinematic blue balls.
Good, yes, but certainly not a work of genius (never mind what the shrill, undiscriminating fanboys are claiming). Better than a superhero flick, I grant you, but if I want to see a desert-based epic with a beating, human heart, I think I’ll pop in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” instead.
“Visual style is never an end in itself, and it cannot be ultimately defended except as it relates to a director’s taste and sensibility. Any visual style can be mechanically reproduced, but without the linkage to a directorial personality, the effect is indeed mechanical.” (Andrew Sarris)