Unless you’re sufficiently up on Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic to know your Sardaukars from your Bene Gesserit, your crysknife from your hunter-seeker, chances are you’ll be glazing over not too far into Dune. Or wishing that House Atreides and House Harkonnen would kick off a vogue ball.
Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to tame the notoriously difficult novel about an interstellar empire at war over control of a precious natural resource has no lack of cinematic spectacle — from its majestic landscapes to its monumental architecture, nifty hardware and impressive spacecraft. It also benefits from a charismatic ensemble led by Timothée Chalamet in intensely swoony form as the young messiah who might lead the oppressed out of tyranny. But it doesn’t quash the frequent claim that the book is unfilmable. At least not in part one of what is being billed as a two-part saga.
Decades after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted 1970s attempt to bring Dune to the screen and David Lynch’s baffling 1984 version — which was memorable mostly for putting Sting in a winged metal diaper — Villeneuve’s film at least gets closer to the elusive goal than its predecessors. It has a reasonable semblance of narrative coherence, even if a glossary would be helpful to keep track of the Imperium’s various planets, dynastic Houses, mystical sects, desert tribes and their respective power players.
What the film doesn’t do is shape Herbert’s intricate world-building into satisfyingly digestible form. The history and complex societal structure that are integral to the author’s vision are condensed into a blur, cramping the mythology. The layers of political, religious, ecological and technological allegory that give the novel such exalted status get mulched in the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve and Eric Roth into an uninvolving trade war, with the blobby Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) ordering a genocide to secure a monopoly of the addictive Spice found only in the desert wastelands of the planet Arrakis.
That drug looks like a glitter bomb set off in the sand in the dreamlike visions of Paul Atreides (Chalamet) that punctuate the action with numbing regularity. The mind-expanding substance’s benefits to health, longevity and knowledge place it in high demand, as we learn during an exposition dump disguised as Paul’s study time. Those visions also feature Chani (Zendaya), a member of the Fremen civilization that lives on Arrakis; she haunts Paul throughout in a spiritual connection, but doesn’t show up physically until the final scenes, just in time to say, “This is only the beginning.” Never a good sign at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour movie that has been long since sagging under its dense thicket of plot.
It’s the year 10191, and House Harkonnen has been in charge of harvesting Spice for some time, ravaging the land and inflicting cruelty on the Fremen. But the emperor abruptly pulls them out and puts Paul’s father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), in control, giving House Atreides exclusive stewardship over Arrakis. Leto and his concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul’s mother, both see the vulnerability in their elevation, even if the Duke hopes to forge an alliance with the Fremen and bring peace. For reasons that the film hurries through with too much haste to clarify, the stage is set for war nonetheless, and Leto calls the reluctant Paul to power as the future of House Atreides.
Jessica comes from the matriarchal Bene Gesserit religious order, whose superhuman powers have been enhanced by generations of carefully crossed bloodlines and Spice consumption. As the sole male born against the rules into this Spice-girl sisterhood, Paul has inherited its witchy powers, even if he hasn’t yet mastered the key skill of mind control. He’s forced to learn fast when an assassination attempt presages an all-out attack, with tragedy forcing him and his mother out into the inhospitable desert.
Part hero’s journey and part survival story, the film keeps throwing arcane details at you, which might thrill the Herbert geeks but will have most everyone else zoning out. Villeneuve is a smart director who honed his chops on brainy sci-fi with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. For sheer monolithic scale, visual imagination and visceral soundscape alone, a number of the set pieces are arresting, and the film has the benefit of putting the focus on physical production, with far less CG saturation than most of its recent genre brethren.
There’s much to admire in Patrice Vermette’s production design, particularly the Zen elegance of the aristocratic Atreides household on their beautiful oceanic home planet of Caladan and the Arrakis stronghold Arrakeen, a sprawling structure that combines ancient Egyptian and Aztec influences. The costumes by Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan also are full of eye-catching touches, from the gauzy gowns of Jessica and other women billowing in the desert wind to the utilitarian body-cooling “stillsuit” developed by the Fremen for survival in the desert and equipped with a fluid-recycling system.
On a scene-by-scene basis, Dune is occasionally exciting, notably whenever Atreides swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) is in action, backed by Hans Zimmer’s thundering orchestral score. (Duncan also benefits from being the only guy in this dull old universe with a sense of humor.) But the storytelling lacks the clean lines to make it consistently propulsive. Paradoxically, given its lofty position in the sci-fi canon, much of the narrative’s novelty has also been diluted, rendered stale by decades of imitation. Looking at you, George Lucas.
All the actors do what’s required of them, especially Chalamet, whose magnetic pensiveness gives the coming-of-age element some heart. His too few scenes with Isaac leave you wanting more. But the roles generally are more dependent on gravely meaningful looks than scintillating dialogue.
I found myself less interested in the human ordeals than the tech business — the giant Harkonnen harvesters raking the sands like desert beetles as monstrous sandworms tunnel up to the surface to suck everything into their huge fibrous maws; the wasp-winged choppers known as ornithopters, buzzing through the skies; the stillsuits and the recycling tubes of an emergency tent, turning sweat and tears into drinkable water.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Dune, however, is that this is only the first part, with the second film in preproduction. That means an awful lot of what we’re watching feels like laborious setup for a hopefully more gripping film to come — the boring homework before the juicy stuff starts happening.
Zendaya’s role, in particular, is basically a prelude to a larger arc that Paul has partly foreseen, where he lives among the Fremen as their “Lisan al Gaib,” or off-world prophet, as they plot to take back Arrakis. A quick glimpse of him rodeo-riding a sandworm signals the future extent of his powers. Other actors, like Javier Bardem as proud Fremen chieftain Stilgar, will presumably have more to do, as will good guys like Josh Brolin’s Atreides warmaster Gurney Halleck if part two sticks to Herbert’s plot. On the villainous side, Skarsgard’s levitating lard-ass Baron Harkonnen and his thuggish nephew Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) seem sure to be back to wreak more destruction.
Whether audiences will choose to return for more after this often ponderous trudge through the desert is an open question.