It has finally arrived. Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" is finally here, but it's a mixed bag of sand, splendor and style that never coagulates into anything of substance.
Simultaneously and ironically, it's everything we've hoped for and everything we feared it might be. "Dune" is a visual (and audible) masterpiece. It delivers in scale, taking its time to craft a world - to steal from the 1984 film's tagline - "beyond your imagination." It is every bit as epic, grand and mind-blowing as you dreamed it could be.
It's also somewhat of a disappointment, with uneven characters and a flatness that doesn't invite the viewer to invest any emotional currency. It's a touch too avant-garde for the casual movie-goer, a bit too convoluted for those willing to dive in head-first. It also suffers from dreaded "Marvel-itis," where in setting up future films, it forgets to be a complete one itself.
All of this sounds dreary, but "Dune" still gets a passing grade based on what DOES work...and the promise of what is to come, even though I would have preferred some of that spice be offered up NOW.
Mild spoilers are to follow.
"Dune" was a 1965 novel by author Frank Herbert, and is thought of as one of the best and most commercially-successful science-fiction novel of all-time. Herbert who died in 1986 (maybe due to shock from the unintelligible 1984 film version of "Dune"?) - went on to craft five more sequels, and it's clear that this mountain of content is one of the draws for Warner Bros. to revisit this franchise...they see mining the books as a means to build an entire Dune empire of movies, TV shows and video games, should they strike a cord with the public.
That though, is easier said than done. Famously, "Dune" was kicked around Hollywood for decades before finally being financed in 1984. Directed by David Lynch ("Twin Peaks," "Mulholland Drive"), it was a commercial flop and is considered one of the worst films of all-time (Siskel & Ebert at the time gave scathing reviews, naming it the most disappointing film of 1984). But it would go on to become a cult classic, building momentum with the release of the 2013 documentary, "Jodorowsky's Dune," which chronicles filmmaker Alejandor Jodorowsky's failed film adaptation of "Dune" in the 1970s, and how this failure actually led to some amazing things that would come later (the special effects team assembled by Jodorowsky, for example, went on to create "Alien" and other iconic creatures).
At the time, the 1984 "Dune" had put together a great cast of young talent and was helmed by up-and-coming phenom director David Lynch. Being based on a mega-popular existing intellectual property (IP), what could possibly go wrong? The answer was everything. Flash-forward to today, and you have a great cast of young talent matched up with one of the hottest and boldest directors (Denis Villeneuve) of his generation, still anchored by the fact that the source material is ripe and ready for consumption. The question is asked once again: What could possibly go wrong?
Villeneuve's "Dune" is not a disaster on the scale of Lynch's version, but it doesn't quite tap in to whatever it was that made the novel so popular. It apparently lands closer to the source material than the 1984 film, but Villeneuve almost finesses the material TOO much, rubbing the fun right out of it.
As the story goes, the year is in the 10,000s and a substance known as "spice" is the most valuable in all of the universe. This "spice" has elevating properties, and makes interstellar space travel possible. It is so rare however, that it only exists on the desert planet of Arrakis, a barren place full of ginormous sand worms and a primal, native people known as the Fremen. Their long-term exposure to spice gives them a distinct look, with radiant blue eyeballs. An unseen intergalactic Emperor assigns the House Atreides to defend and protect Arrakis and its spice from the villainous Harkonnen, who look to invade. Caught in the middle are the Fremen, who did not ask for this war and who are weary of all of these space people trespassing on their sacred lands.
House Atreides is led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), a proud and noble man who rules with empathy. His wife, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) at his side, he is trying to groom his son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), to one day take over. Paul - the protagonist of "Dune" - is haunted by dreams and visions where he sees close allies dying, as well as recurring appearances from a mysterious Fremen woman (Zendaya). Paul clearly has a higher-calling, and might just be the long-awaited savior and messiah of the Fremen people, although he has a long journey ahead of him.
What does this all mean? We'll have to wait for "Dune: Part Two" for any real answers. This "Dune" film only acts as an introduction, and a large ensemble of players jolt in-and-out of the story to pass the time. Josh Brolin is Duke Leto's right-hand man, Gurney Halleck. Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is an ecologist with deep knowledge of Arrakis, acting as a guide for House Atreides. Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) is a proud champion warrior for House Atreides and a role model for young Paul. Stilgar (Javier Bardem) is a leader of a Fremen tribe looking to end the conflict on his home world. Dave Bautista is Harkonnen bad guy Glossu Rabban, the strong-arm for the grotesque, floating, bloated Baron of House Harkonnen (Stellan Starsgard).
There's no question that "Dune" has risen the bar for what a movie can achieve from nearly every technical standpoint. The visceral, pounding score by Hans Zimmer is among his best work, and that's really saying something. The cast has some bright spots, namely Oscar Isaac and Jason Momoa, the only two characters that provide any real spark or elicit some kind of deeper-level response from the audience. Unrecognizable under make-up and CG, Stellan Skarsgard's Baron Harkonnen is memorable, but given little to do. The sandworms are epic, the editing and cinematography award-worthy. Despite the massive, sprawling storyline, Villeneuve creates a much clearer vision of "Dune," but one that still might exist just outside the grasp of your common movie-goer.
But for all the good comes some glaring bad. Sadly and unexpectedly, Timothée Chalamet - one of the finest young actors in Hollywood today - is uninteresting and empty. The camera lingers on close-ups of his face for much of the film, and he isn't able to make us feel anything. Zendaya is wasted, as is Dave Bautista and Javier Bardem. Clearly all three of these characters must be important to the overall arc, but this must not be their chapter to shine. Zendaya especially - who has been marketed as one of the leads - barely has any lines and only appears fleetingly.
Villeneuve seems very intent on making this the anti-Marvel film, but the movie's lack of FUN leaves it falling short of what, sadly, many might expect. As the film progresses, he leans heavily into the dreams/hallucinations of Paul, instead of rewarding the viewer for having sifted through hours of character introductions, explanations and exposition. Sure, it's a beautiful sight to behold, but in the whirlwind of visual splendor, a lot of the potential effectiveness of the story is swept away.
"Dune" apparently only covers the first half of the novel, leaving what I'm guessing to be a more exciting climax lingering just beyond the end credits. The problem is that the filmmakers and cast have publicly pleaded that they hope to do more Dune films in the future, but that none have been officially greenlit as of yet. The future of the Dune franchise is seemingly in the hands of the general public, and those that may instead choose to stream this on HBO Max.
There is a lot invested in the future of the Dune franchise, I just wish that they would have focused more on the now. We're left with a "Dune" that is both grandiose and meandering...an epic saga that now has all of its pieces in place, but this time around didn't really know what to do with them.
The good news is that the future of the franchise seems so promising, that I'm willing to give "Dune" a slight pass for now. It would be a real shame if we never get to witness what comes next. Villeneuve is a master at his craft. But thus far in his career he has not quite had the ability to connect on the mass scale required to keep a movie like "Dune" from being buried forever in the movie studio's sandbox.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgard, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chen Chang, Charlotte Rampling.
Co-Written and Directed by Denis Villeneuve ("Blade Runner 2049," "Arrival," "Sicario," "Enemy," "Prisoners").
"Dune" is in theaters and on HBO Max on Thursday, October 21st, 2021.
Watch a trailer for the first "Dune" film, the 1984 film directed by David Lynch:
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