Written by Taylor Baker
Unless you’ve been under a rock the last two and a half years you surely know that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is finally being released to both theatrical and home audiences via HBO Max on October 22nd. Like me you may have had some of your most blissful cinematic moments with Villeneuve. From his enthralling detective drama Prisoners to his otherworldly narrating fish in Maelström Denis has constantly shirked convention and brought to life a visual story that feels fresh or an improvisation on the previous tools of cinema. Which is a long way of saying that walking into a Villeneuve film feels very much like walking into a Spielberg. You have expectations, how could you not. And unfortunately those expectations were unmet.
Anyone familiar with Dune knows the moments that are cinematic and has personal moments that are cinematic to them, the ones that played like a filmbook in their heads, whether it’s the thopter rescue sequence on Arrakis, Paul reaching into the box, the hunter seeker sequence, or the siege by the Harkonnen. You will have personally had these sprawling crystal clear visions of cinematic splendor or stark pieces of affecting drama in your head. And that’s precisely where Dune begins to fall apart; nothing feels personal. Intimacy is missing between the audience and the vistas of Arrakis, the characters of Dune, and it’s storyline. From the lack of world building to the poorly framed miniatures on screen meant to erupt as yawning behemoths, even the worlds of Calladan and Arrakis are small. They lack character, their meaning to the audience is clouded and we’re nearly always briskly trotting somewhere new with Paul which keeps us from ever becoming invested in the characters around him, which are the true magic of the world.
Despite the scaling issues, the drop off from Villeneuve’s recent SciFi film collaborators is noticeable. The step down from Roger Deakins in Blade Runner 2049 with some of the best cinematography in the last decade and Bradford Young in Arrival with a intimacy and love sickness that somehow feels woven into the imagery to recent Adam McKay collaborator Greig Fraser is severe. The layered compositions are absent, instead stark cold images hang like laundry on screen, uninteresting and rigid. Obscured by nothing and harshly naked. The images aren’t zhuzhed up, they don’t seem to have been made with an effort to make them more appealing, or framed in a way to exemplify the scale we should feel we’re witnessing. Not just the cinematography but the whole film seems like more than this team was capable of taking on. But I must commend the splendor and effectiveness of Hans Zimmer’s score. Using an assortment of wind instruments to make the sands and billowing winds of Arrakis come to life aurally. With Bagpipes, wind chimes, and what seems to be the sounds of wind itself used in tandem with other musical components. Zimmer schemed out and achieved something big through small choices to conjure the atmosphere of an otherwise meaningless place.
Huge performers like Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin scarcely have a moment of solitude or development. Everything is reactionary, and what brief exposition is achieved is typically narrowly focused on Paul in ways that don’t inform the feeling of the further picture at large. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of the Mentat Thufir Hawat is one particularly effective bit of casting that allows one of our era’s great character actors to use his miniscule moments to humanize and embolden the sentimentality of what we’re witnessing. Chalamet is restrained, perhaps those not looking for a 14 year old boy will be more moved by his performance, but with all the other poorly stacked bricks underneath him Chalamet’s Paul fell apart. Over acting in moments and seeming like stone in others. Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother Mohaim thankfully does lots of heavy lifting unquestionably in mere moments. As does Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Oscar Isaac is sturdy, believable and as you might expect from my previous words underused. In Dune’s case I think it’s safe to say the volume of talent has nothing to do with it’s issues. But rather the strategy at play to employ the available resources.
If I were an audience member inexperienced with the narrative I think I would be lost. Failing to grasp the script or grandeur of the beginning of this otherworldly tale. Unsure of it’s religious names and their meanings, unclear on the topography of Arrakis, the distance of Calladan to Arrakis, where exactly the Empire is located(not to mention what they are), what the guilds are, or how interstellar travel is achieved from the spice. In essence this is nothing more than a proof of concept standard comic book hero origin story. The fact that at the end of the film we’re unclear not only all the things I mentioned but the very reason why Paul appears to be some sort of a religious figure to this planet is presumably an enormous reason why it fails. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a novel built on meaning, stakes, loss, hope, gains, and language itself. The fact that none of those strength are transitory into this representation of the narrative by Villeneuve despite the two additional writers that worked with him raises questions not only about the draft of this film. But the drafts of part 2 and further should they be allowed the chance to make further entries. You can’t remove the heart of Dune and still succeed in telling it’s story.
Perhaps my most biting piece of criticism would be to look at the exposition of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace of Star Wars. How clearly and how effectively it sets up the entire arc of what’s going on with the empire and in comparison how entirely unclear and incidental that understanding is conveyed to the audience, especially those unfamiliar with the sprawling tales of Frank Herbert on which it’s based. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t focus some attention on the bungled enterprise that was bringing Lady Jessica to life on screen. She not only lacks character but seems to be a constantly crying and cold woman. Nearly all we see is her crying, being silent, or harshly instructing Paul. A far cry from the intimacy and confrontations she shares with Duke Leto, Thufir Hawat, and Paul in the first novel. The very moments of the plot where her intimacy and character and complexity come to life have been erased, rushed passed completely without being compensated for. Leaving one to wonder how much is on the cutting room floor and why they would favor a shot of palm trees rather than a sequence under their new citadel on Arrakis that if you’re familiar with you’ll know is one of the most transitory moments of the novel in conveying the character of this mother and son to the reader. Dune isn’t a bad film, but it’s so cold, distant, and unsplendorous that it could be easily mistaken for the next high budget Amazon project that has no staying power. The excruciating wait for Dune did no favors for what was already a middling exercise in adaptation of a storied novel. If anything, maybe now we’ll all have a renewed appreciation for the undertaking of Lynch in his adaptation to tell the whole story (roughly) and establish the Empire and its politics and factions all in one feature. Any way you slice it Dune fails to live up to its expectations, fair or unfair as they may be. We’ll see if Denis gets to make Part Two but for now I’m not counting on it.
Dune releases in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22nd.
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