For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art of the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.
I can’t say I didn’t like the movie or engage with it intermittently, but I didn’t warm to it. As frequently muddled, confusing, and sometimes underwhelming – Dino DeLaurentis cut the effects budget from under Lynch, but let’s face it, anyone hoodwinked into thinking the rogue mogul would be straight up going in was probably TM-ing their tits off, when not chain-smoking their way through the day – as the 1984 movie was, it had a pulse. A sense of a vast, strange, weird world and universe, one dense and layered and perhaps unknowable but still worth exploring for all that. Villeneuve’s take on the same is as arid as Arakis. That worked for me with Blade Runner 2049, the director’s essential iciness providing a distinctive shift from Scott’s cluttered neon grime chic, but this is all faux-portentousness (as was the case when Arrival collapsed in on itself with timey-wimey nonsense at the final hurdle).
I was most struck, however, by how banal Villenuve’s take on the book’s mystical elements is. Take away the politics – and he does, since they’re dealt such short shrift, you wonder why he thought he needed two movies, aside from those gargantuan vistas – and that’s Dune’s other main element. Yet his approximation of the same is either slightly risible or utterly lacking in resonance, and further evidences areas that were right about Lynch tackling Herbert. When Paul (Timothée Chalamet) has visions, they’re little more than wispy, sun-washed, Malick-primed glimpses of an enchanting Chani (Zendaya, who, in a nod to progressiveness – difficult in a story all about tyrannical male despots and the matriarchal force that guides the universe, I know – administers the opening, epic-scene-setting voiceover; just whose story is this? If Villeneuve is any guide, it’s hers come Part II, before backtracking and suggesting he’d been misquoted).
There’s no frisson or tension to Paul’s portents of the future or intuiting precise details about others or situations, just the plod of the prosaic. We’ve had this before with a too-well-known text finally getting the “version it needed”, and there it also felt as if it was inspirationally spent for being so well known (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The entire exercise becomes little more than a fait accompli. When Paul or Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, good, but not Francesca Annis) uses the Voice, it’s utterly underwhelming, entirely lacking any visual/verbal sense of how powerfully compelling it must be. It needs to give the viewer a degree of subjective compunction for it to carry, and Villeneuve entirely flunks the opportunity.
One ends up looking all about for life in Dune, and only finding it sporadically, like the (beautifully depicted) Arakis desert mouse that so captivates Paul (and so gives him his name… in Part II). Hans Zimmer’s score is largely a bust, falling for clichéd, Hollywood-ised Arabic rhythms and strains, as if he’s competing with Villeneuve for the most stock manner of dealing with sandy climes (the same for whoever came up with Jessica’s ceremonial shawl and her sigil-covered face; Herbert was undeniably embracing Muslim themes in his book, but only someone with a dearth of imagination would interpret them with quite such pedestrian flair). Still, sooner such on-the-nose accompaniment than the frickin’ bagpipes (because what says colonial intruders better than a pair of bagpipes strolling across the moors?) Where are Toto when you need them?
I read – for the first time – Dune about a year ago, thinking I ought to take the plunge if I was to give a fair appraisal to whatever this version was attempting. I came away impressed with the amount of compression Lynch achieved – inevitably, his interpretation informed the way I absorbed the text – but responded with surprise at the extent to which this Dune fails to capitalise on the extra room to breathe. It further underlines Warner Bros’ fool’s move to put this on the big screen, rather than making it the next Game of Thrones. It was staring them in the face, and they flunked the test, resorting to wretched, inevitably-dead-in-the-water GRRM prequels. Obviously, I’m no Dune aficionado, but off the top of my head, the entire subplot of doubt and suspicion of Lady Jessica is completely gone. Which means Gurney (Josh Brolin) is shorn of significant motivation. Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), meanwhile, becomes a non-entity.
Nothing of the Guild makes it into the movie, and the potency of the Spice is pretty much blue eyes and Paul seeing stars. The Bene Gesserit become depressingly mundane, rather than awe-inspiring and slightly terrifying. And while I’m all in favour of creating mystique – show don’t tell – the novel’s transhumanist themes (outlawed AI reconfigured as human computers, basically – Mentats who are essentially the embodiment of what Rudolf Steiner would call Ahrimanic influences*) are barely even broached. Some eyeballs in the sky, and that’s about the extent of it. There’s precious little sense of a rich vibrant world, so spartan and detached is Villeneuve’s adaptation. There’s no nuance.
I keep going back to the desire for something in this take to surprise me or make me sit up, rather than merely representing a solid or stolid, reasonable and respectable envisioning of the material. But save for the weird passing spider-human thing in Baron Harkonenen’s chambers, I’ve got nothing. Look at the cast. Ferguson is fine. Oscar Isaac is fine. James Brolin is fine. Charlotte Rampling is fine (she’s no Siãn Philips, that’s for sure, max mon amour). Zendaya is fine, as inconsequential as she is, for all that Villeneuve has gone out of his way to big her up (big her up for Spider-Man, where she’s quite sparky, but here?) Javier Bardem is solid, but notably no more substantial than Everett McGill. Stellan Skarsgård in a fat suit is fairly disappointing. Enough that you long for a stray pustule or two.
Dave Bautista fares better. He lacks the cartoonish malevolence of Paul L Smith, but he can rightly lay claim to being just about the best former wrestler turned actor there is. Chang Chen makes negligible impression, the ghost of Dean Stockwell (okay, he’s still with us) haunting the part of Dr Yeuh. Likewise, gender-swapped Sharon Duncan-Brewster is no instant-gravitas Max von Sydow as Dr Liet-Kynes (gender swap all you like, but make it memorable if you’re going there. She was much more convincing turning all half-Ice Warrior on us).
The picture attempts diversity casting to balance its white centre – and possibly because it’s actually germane to the material for a change, but let’s not get carried away on that point – but does so with the same determined lack of inspiration found in every other nook and crevice (of which there are very few, because, y’know, gargantuan vistas. The much derided The Chronicles of Riddick also had gargantuan vistas, some of them not entirely dissimilar to those here, but managed to be a lot fun with it).
There is a star player in the recasting stakes, however, one rightly recognised as the charisma focus in a dune sea of also-rans: Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho. He boasts exactly the kind of casual, exuberant confidence that seals the deal on why Paul would so look up to him; theirs is the only interaction here that carries the lightness of touch that made Lucas’ plundering of Herbert – amongst many other sources – initially so effervescent. Momoa also gets to run with a sterling last stand that plays like gangbusters.
That Duncan lands so well only serves to underline how much of the movie feels disappointingly truncated each time a celebrated scene, theme or character arrives. As far as nice touches go, I also liked the movie’s Doof Warrior, the guy doing acoustic warbling on Salusa Secundus prior an attack force of Sardaukar being sent to Arakis.
What’s that? I haven’t mentioned Paul? What’s there to say about Hollywood’s favourite twink Timothée? He can play fifteen just fine, coming equipped with a natural air of petulant sullenness, but he’s 25, and I can’t see him suddenly turning into a leader of men by the time he’s 35, let alone in the timeframe they’re hoping to make the rest of these movies. I guess it doesn’t matter too much, if they only do Part II.
Chalamet can act, but he isn’t winning. You aren’t on Paul’s side. For all that Villeneuve – rightly – goes to pains to point out that the position Paul is destined to attain is a terrible one, that along his way there he will kill a man for the first time and it is not a triumphant thing (although, still something to get behind dramatically… ), he makes the task that much more difficult for the viewer, asking them to empathise with remote, distant Timmy, traipsing around like a Smash Hits take on Tim Burton. I spent most of Paul’s fight with Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) wondering how someone with that extent of fringe in their eyes ever expected to emerge victorious.
One thing that makes Dune a science-fiction movie of our time, of course, is the need to wear masks in order to survive. And for our heroes to wear masks. As a fact of life, rather than because they’re superheroes. Why, it’s almost as if, despite the stupidity of the task Warner Bros set themselves, of splitting a book into two but not filming part two at the same time, of casting a director who was no one’s idea of a crowd pleaser and a lead who’s much better at playing little shits than someone relatable, there was no way this iteration of Dune could fail… Roll on Part II.
*Addendum (26/10/22): It seems Steiner made Ahriman up, whether knowingly or inadvertently, but the reference remains apposite.