Review: Denis Villeneuve's massive and gorgeous 'Dune' still feels small
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Within the opening seconds of Denis Villeneuve’s gargantuan sized “Dune,” you’re easily transported to other worldly dimensions as the filmmaker preps for the ensuing 155-minutes. The most popular science fiction novel of all time, Frank Herbert’s hugely influential 1965 classic has gone through the ringer from page to screen, there’s even a documentary about how Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make his version, and David Lynch’s, since reevaluated, cult hit wasn’t embraced by audiences in 1984 either. If anyone could-cinematically-make sense of this sprawling space opera, it would be Villeneuve whose work on intimate, character driven films “Prisoners” and “Sicario” helped put his spectacles “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival” into a league of their own. He’s a visionary with an eye for panache, ear shattering sound, and pristine visuals. All along, the director was correct in saying “Dune” needs to be seen in the biggest auditorium with the best sound system, except underneath the intoxicating aura of his most ambitious project, resides a shallow foundation. One with convoluted lore and mythology that’ll struggle to connect with viewers who weren’t already fans in the first place.
It all begins in the year 10191 as Villeneuve brings together the novel's spiritual and ecological themes under one roof. “Dune” interweaves the narrative of two dueling dynasty’s (the Harkonnens and the Atreides’) battling for supremacy of the prized “spice,” a substance crucial to the sustainability of life as it fuels interstellar travel and acts as a mental stabilizer, on the desert planet Arrakis. The Atreides possy, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) along with his son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) are the new gatekeepers of spice thanks to marching orders from the unseen emperor. Half attempting to colonize Arrakis while trying to make peace with the locals, desert dwelling townsfolk known as the Fremen’s, who thanks to the ingestion of spice have glowing blue eyes and daft fighting abilities, the Atreides’ are facing their own internal struggles.
Paul is actively trying to harness his potential, going through life threatening rituals and vigorous training sessions at the behest of his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), one of them involving the use of the “voice” to compel enemies to do his dirty work, a supernatural power that isn’t so much explained but felt. Meanwhile, the assignment of the Duke’s new post doesn’t sit with the Harkonnen family (which also features an angsty Dave Bautista who screams and yells a-lot) considering they’ve controlled the planet (and spice production) for over 80 years. Headed by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard who looks, er, different), an oaf dripping with black ooze and resembling the Slimer from “Ghostbusters,” the Harkonnens hatch a plan to steal the planet from right under the Atreides nose plugs.
The “Game of Thrones” meet “Lord of the Rings” style world-building is surely next level, but once you pull yourself from Hans Zimmer’s radiating score (my Dolby Atmos theater was literally shaking) and Greig Fraser’s stunning cinematography, you realize “Dune” isn’t holding an ace up its sleeve, it’s showing the entire deck within 45 minutes. A sinking feeling once you realize two hours remain and it feels like nothing is getting accomplished. Other characters maneuver in and out of the film, which predominantly follows Paul on his “hero” journey, like Jason Momoa’s fighter pilot Duncan Idaho and Josh Brolin’s military coordinator Gurney Halleck. Zendaya’s Chani has a smaller role to play as Villeneuve plants breadcrumbs for part two (the film opens with the subtitle “Part One”) but with a budget of nearly $165 million, those HBO Max numbers better be sweet.
Exploring the social order and influences Herbert took from Nazi propaganda and facisim to help create the universe of “Dune” is easy to notice alongside the potent visual presentation. There’s no sand storm or critter that looks half-assed. Except it feels like a giant misdirect-”hey look at this glistening sand and pay no attention to the sluggish pacing of this glorified set-up for a second installment!” Patrice Vernette’s production design deserves praise (and possibly some Oscar attention) as Chalamet “Sand dances” his way through the desert. Speaking of Chalamet, he delivers a solid, disciplined performance with believable leading man status Kyle Maclachlan could only dream of possessing. His rise as one of the more bankable actors (he’ll next be seen headlining the Willy Wonka origin story “Wonka”) has been fun to witness.
But he also stumbles in the overall vastness of Villeneuve’s scope, which goes beyond the reaches of Planet Arrakis. Screened in IMAX, the preferred format of the filmmakers, “Dune” doesn’t seem to waste a penny of its budget, with the costumes and visual effects department creating rare movie magic. So then it is perplexing how a film with hovering aircrafts that resemble dragonflies, space suits which can recycle sweat into water, and Hans Zimmer throwing out one of the best scores of his career, lands with a thud. Part of it stems from pacing, the other is trying to create an inclusive narrative that doesn’t get buried under the enormous pressure of catering to fans and finding common ground for newbies. I root for the success of “Dune” as it’ll hopefully shape a world where superhero franchises aren’t the only thing getting released theatrically. I’m eager to see where Part Two takes these characters, but the awe-factor of Part One is seriously diminished by a lackluster script that gets stranded in the desert of its own creation.
DUNE is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO MAX.