SPOILER ALERT: If you have not read Frank Herbert’s books, there are possible spoilers in paragraphs four and five.
The disappointment of Dennis Villeneuve’s “Dune” occurs even before the movie begins when, in the opening credits, we are informed that what we are about to see is “Dune Part I”. I thought that I had signed on (and you guys will be spending a minor fortune in theatre tickets or to HBO Max) for a complete movie with an actual beginning and an actual end. No such luck. In today’s franchise crazy world, it seems that Warner’s and Villeneuve assumed that “Dune” would be continuing indefinitely. However, unlike the book (see below), based on what I have seen here, I am doubtful that’s a cinema franchise can be born from this material. NOTE: Nothing has been filmed yet for Part II.
Although not an abject failure like David Lynch’s 1984 calamity, Villeneuve’s movie falls victim to the same inherent difficulties in adapting the un-adaptable. That would be Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel which, in true Tolkien fashion, has become an enormous popular success without losing its cult status. The book has also generated a massive literary franchise, with Herbert himself writing five sequels before he died in 1986 and his son Brian Herbert, together with Kevin J. Anderson, writing another 13, giving a total of 19 books in the Dune series.
“Dune” is set in the distant future on the inhospitable planet Arrakis, noted for its endless sands which are at once prized for their medicinal properties and their source of energy for starships. This is due to the presence of a very special substance that is, due to the survival of certain French words in the lexicon, called “melange”. Arrakis is governed by House Harkonnen whose members rape the planet and oppress the planet’s indigenous population (say hello Zendaya!). Meanwhile, a prophesy has foretold that a young prince, Paul (Timothée Chalamet, following in the footsteps of Kyle McLaughlin in the Lynch film) from the House of Atreides, will rescue the citizens of Arrakis from Harkonnen tyranny.
Villeneuve who has directed some interesting movies in the past (his best is still the wonderous “Prisoners”) got waylaid with his unnecessary sequel to “Blade Runner” and his debatably poor choice in material continues here. ‘His “Dune” is burdened with so much expository detail (and many would say that this is what doomed the Lynch version) that, there are times when you wish for a split screen with an unburdened movie unfolding one side and a glossary of key terms and events on the other. There are occasional wonderfully visual moments which, in typical Villeneuve “Sicario-style”, involve his camera swopping down over a battlefield as the Atreides-Arrakis alliance rage against the superiority of House Harkonnen (kudos to cinematographer Greg Fraser and composer Hans Zimmer whose pulsating choir-driven score is over-the-top in a good way!). There is also the obligatory shot of someone being chased by one of the giant sandworms who live in the sands of Arrakis. Even these shots brought a modicum of thrills in the Lynch version. Then, like in that classic Star Trek TV episode set on a distant planet where life is based on silicon as opposed it’s sister element carbon, and the rocks which are being mined in massive quantities turn out to be the eggs of a very angry silicon-based mama, in “Dune”, we discover that it is the sandworms’ baby larvae who produce the much-prized melange .
The visual awe is there. However, in the absence of a narrative drive, most of these moments get lost in time, like, dare I say it, tears in the rain! However, unlike “Blade Runner” (the Ridley Scott 1982 original not the Villeneuve sequel), with Villeneuve’s “Dune”, we never get a real feel for, or loose ourselves in a dystopian future. Chalamet and other gifted actors like Oscar Isaac (playing his father Leto) have little room to maneuver, although Chalamet and Isaac do have a nice rapport. Only Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, manages to wrestle free of the background to make a fleeting impression.
Sitting through this long and sometimes boring movie you feel that, for all its moments of visual glory, the filmmakers may have kept the best of their inventory for part II or part X or part XX or whatever they expected to be making. If so, how presumptive of them!
STILL SHOWING AT VERY SELECT THEATRES