Enjoyment of Dune is a priori. A person enjoys Dune if they enjoy Dune. How else to explain the inexplicable dissonance between the imagination of Dune’s concept and its actual execution, which—and this is undoubtedly not the most popular opinion— amounts to a bafflingly tepid reading experience? An epic, high-fantasy, Shakespearean war drama, family saga, and political thriller full of Abrahamic allegory, tinged with Eastern religious influences, and set in a complex, dystopian space-universe, ought to be the greatest thing ever written, and yet Dune somehow presents only an external allure with an interior as dry and joyless as the desert of Arrakis, itself. Like a stale orange. It could, however, make a great movie.
That’s why, despite the inadequacy of the source material, an adaptation makes for a welcome and exciting event. Strangely, film studios handle such attempts with self-defeating restrictiveness, for what reason it’s hard to say— too much reverence for the book that squashes the impulse to expand on or redefine it? Maybe. In 1974-76, Alejandro Jodorowski, being perhaps the best choice at the time to direct a Dune movie, had developed a version so balls-to-the-wall insane that, had it been completed, we might be talking about it and not Star Wars today. Admittedly, the 14-hour proposed running time and lack of budget doomed (duned?) it to the trash heap. Over a decade later, the film finally got made by another producer with a befuddled David Lynch at the helm. The film got trampled under an imposed running time and what seems to be, at its core, an overall disconnect between the material and the people adapting it (Lynch admitted to not even knowing what the book was about before he signed on). Lynch’s version, although not nearly as bad as everyone says, is a scrambled and poorly abridged adaptation and a neutered Lynch movie.
It seems inevitable that, after the success of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, that pop-Tarkovsky director Denis Villeneuve would be the first choice for one more swing at Dune. His proclivity towards wide, awed visuals admittedly seems like the most appropriate choice. In a sense they’re right. But at the same time, Villeneuve’s deliberate pace and loftiness when applied to a slavishly faithful adaptation results in a tediously paced film. It’s the fault of the book and the people adapting it. The harsh truth is that Dune is ironically flat. A lot of middling with few descending lows and transcendent highs as promised. So while Villeneuve has experience with projects of the same scale and a congruent directorial style, he lacks the mysticism of a Jodorowsky or Lynch necessary to inject life into the work. There’s a near-obligatory feel to this movie, like every creative decision was made with the image of DUNE in big sans-serif letters and a relentless Hans Zimmer BWAAAM in their minds at all times, which sets the path of concept to outcome in tandem with the path of imagination to big-budget dullness.
Casting Timothée Chalamet was the first indicator of this. He’s the actor that an algorithm would pick for this kind of movie. Despite being the appropriate age and having the right look, Chalamet brings little depth to Paul Atreides, son and royal heir to the Atreidies family, who have just been given control over the desert planet Arrakis and their precious resource, melange, a sort of hallucinogenic spice that gives those who ingest it a supernatural prescience. Dune is a source material that needs to be built on, not methodically reproduced, and Chalamet’s performance seems to be mimicking what is known about the character on the page, which isn’t much. Paul of the book has even less dimension than Star Wars Episode IV Luke Skywalker. He’s often sullen, not overly motivated, and troubled by a kind of low-grade anxiety, like he’s got senioritis or something. For Paul to ultimately become the idol of Arrakis’s indigenous Fremen, he must possess a bleeding angst, naive idealism, and almost lofty self-image not totally present in the book or in any performance, so far, and something that could probably have been expressed by an actor with more intensity and chaotic energy. Forget the dreamy eyes of Chalamet and bring in the bottomless depths of Ezra Miller.
Most of the other casting choices feel just as perfunctory, but at the very least the actors bring enough to the characters to make them interesting, particularly Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica Atreides. She’s far more emotional and human than Frank Herbert makes her. Same for the genocidal, grotesque villain and coveter of Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen, as portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard, whose whispered delivery, black clothing, bald head, rotund body, and frequent wetness make him a black space-slug crossed with Apocalypse Now’s Marlon Brando. Oscar Isaac is a no-brainer casting decision and brings the brief arc of Duke Leto Atreides to a surprisingly moving conclusion, and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho looks pretty good without a beard. Of course, there are many more recognizable actors who portray their characters with varying levels of success, but the casting in this movie, even when it’s bad, isn’t the real issue.
Dune’s overall gloss has a compulsorily commercial feel, the way that TV show promos cram a handful of snappy moments into a flashy, shrink wrapped soundbite. Dune has a similar affectation, but of the art-film flavor. It never slows down, never speeds up, never gets quiet, and never gets too loud. It’s locked into a tastefully placid rhythm too concerned with following the plot of the book beat by beat and obsessed with its own aesthetic. Hans Zimmer’s score drowns the ambience of every scene, and Villeneuve’s directorial approach flattens the human drama into technically brilliant but impersonal set pieces. Dune may be a serious venture, but it needs a more playful personality at the helm.
Dune, of course, is only the first of a two-part adaptation. It ends around the halfway point of Herbert’s novel with even more abruptness than the much griped-about ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I. There’s a slight sense of hope that Villeneuve’s style may actually work better for where the story will pick up in Part II, as the spiritual elements become more explicit and friendly to a slow pacing. Not that it does much good when the first half is so underwhelming. Maybe don’t say no to Jodorowski next time. | Nic Champion