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Dune is the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve, who also did Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, which are regarded by many to be some of the best modern sci-fi films of the last decade. Similar to Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve has decided to tackle a book adaptation that already got a film back in the 80s.
So in this case, he’s adapting a story known to be difficult to put to film, and that is Dune. David Lynch did his own take on the material way back in 1984, which goes through plenty of the same beats as the novel, where we follow a gifted young space noble named Paul (played by Timothée Chalamet), as his family is sent to a desert planet called Arrakis. In terms of resources, it’s mostly barren save for an extremely valuable spice that is the key to intergalactic space travel. So Paul’s noble family has been tasked by the emperor to essentially tame Arrakis and bring these resources to heel.
But to do that, they must contend with giant sandworms that can detect human footsteps, even on sand, as well as the planet’s indigenous population, a group of humans called Fremen who’ve already figured out the best ways to survive the planet’s inhospitable environment, to the point where their eyes have adapted to having a blue shaded color and they wear special “drysuits,” so the opposite of a wetsuit essentially, that keeps them from overheating and even recycles their sweat.
Lynch’s Dune was a big, absurdist mess. Despite its high budget, the effects were comically bad and as you can imagine from Lynch, the story was profoundly difficult to follow, which is a big reason why the studios have kept their distance from retrying a Dune movie. It stands to reason that they would trust someone like Villeneuve with this project, and he certainly lends his epic vision of what a modern sci-fi blockbuster should look, feel, and sound like. But for all its grand world building and immersive atmosphere, the film’s story is extremely lacking.
This is a “Part 1,” to be clear, which the marketing avoids for obvious reasons. They don’t want the audience to think they’re only getting half a movie, even though that is exactly what they’re getting, despite this movie clocking at 155 minutes, so just shy of 3 hours. The movie covers the first half of the book, which is easy to pick up on once you notice that we’re nearly halfway through and only just getting to Arrakis. Dune suffers through an extended prologue on a different planet, setting lots of stakes and repeating a slew of dream sequences from Paul’s perspective. The first dozen or so serve a specific narrative purpose, but by the time we see Paul daydreaming about characters we haven’t met yet but know from the poster, it really beggars belief that Villeneuve didn’t trim this down by at least an hour or so.
The performances are nothing to scoff at, besides. Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson are key highlights, balancing their differing parenting styles for Paul and showcasing a dueling morality for him to reckon with. These were, for me, the most interesting aspects of the writing, when Paul is gleaning advice from his very different parents and trying to make sense out of which of their legacies he should cling to more than the other, while also wondering if he can have the best of both worlds.
The rest of the performances range from good to good enough. I found myself particularly taken in by Stellan Skarsgård as a levitating, deliciously villainous Baron who wants to wage war on Paul’s family. Jason Momoa comes in as a daredevil sword master with some thrilling moments, though he’s not stretching his range very far. Zendaya is featured prominently in the marketing but we won’t really get any story material from her until the next film, as in this she’s more or less a phantom in Paul’s mind. Similarly, we really don’t see anything here from Dave Bautista that stands out amidst the rest.
So to be clear, Dune is half a movie in many respects. It’s half a movie in the sense that everything great about it is only about half of what you actually get. The rest isn’t terrible, and it’s certainly not incomprehensible. It’s all just a little flat, emotionally, save for a few heart-filled scenes mentioned earlier between Paul and his parents. This movie goes a long way in satisfying that sci-fi itch many fans of the genre and the book might be looking for; that is, an imaginative and sprawling tale where you get to consume more and more ideas. Little things like how people fight with shields that light up across the body, or dragonfly vehicles that zip through the sky with the turbulence of a propeller jet. There’s a lot of food for thought in this movie, just not all that much thought. Save for a lot of, what feels to me, empty and superficial contemplation of basic ideas like destiny and legacy. In other words, I wish the writing had as much flavor, or spice, as the sight and soundscape.
Dune opens in theaters this Friday in the U.S. and will be available to stream for 30 days on HBO Max.