O&A movie columnist Mark Fields’ quick take on the latest releases
New Dune film beautiful but nearly devoid of life
I really, really wanted to like Dune. Oh, believe me, I did. But unfortunately, I cannot say that, and I am sorry.
The newest adaptation of the epic Frank Herbert novel (incidentally, the best-selling sci-fi book in the world) features striking images that evoke some of the immensity and otherness of Herbert’s universe. As directed by the accomplished Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), Dune embodies much of the lyric mysticism of the story of Paul Atreides and his transformative experience on the desert planet of Arrakis. And, it is well cast, especially with the ethereal Timothée Chalamet in the central role.
But despite these strengths, Dune ultimately disappoints because it feels like it was made primarily for fangirls and boys, putting their fevered imaginings onto screen without providing a compelling human story to accompany them. Like Arrakis itself, Dune is starkly beautiful but nearly devoid of life.
First published in 1965, Dune and the five Herbert books that followed it were devoured and loved by dreamy adolescents (including me). Much like another all-encompassing story of the era, The Lord of the Rings, Herbert created an incredibly complex and unfamiliar world, filled with political intrigue, strange people and cultures, personal and societal conflicts, and layers upon layers of secret agendas. The intricacy of the story arc and the philosophical musings that undergird it are much of the reason that Dune has defied previous attempts of adaptation into a movie. In fact, Villeneuve’s new version is the first of two parts that will only cover events in the first book.
Even a rough synopsis for this review seems futile, but for some context, Dune involves a mysterious substance called spice that has both practical and metaphysical uses, and whose production on Arrakis rewards some characters and threatens others. Into this scenario comes young Paul Atreides, whose lifepath get altered by his experiences with the planet and its native inhabitants, the Fremen.
So why then, given the vastness of the Dune mythology and the myriad complications of its story, does director Villeneuve spend so much of the ponderously long film focused on the take-offs and landings of strange spacecraft, the purposeful striding of small groups of people through large, odd-looking places, and languorous sweeps across the alien landscapes? It seems that his primary intent was to depict the exotic beauty of Dune rather than tell its tales.
Yes, there are attempts, even serious ones, to try to capture the narrative throughline of the novel, as well as the spiritual undertone. But for me, who had read the book and watched earlier iterations of the story on film, it was still confusing, opaque, and unsatisfying. My viewing partner, who was not a particular devotee, was often completely lost in the arcane plot machinations.
Although well cast, the actors — which include not only Chalamet but also Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Rebecca Ferguson — struggled to create fully formed characters with such cryptic narrative and a director thoroughly distracted by the visuals. Many times, they felt like smaller, organic versions of the fascinating machines and architecture in the background: lovely to look at but difficult to feel connected to.
That’s disappointing because Villeneuve would have seemed to have been the ideal director for this project. After all, his haunting Arrival transcended the tropes of its alien-invasion genre to be a touching and grounded experience. On the other hand, his valiant but disappointing fantasy sequel, Blade Runner 2049, suffered from a similar substitution of stunning imagery for satisfying cinematic story.
There are some, perhaps many, filmgoers who will find this adaptation to be a thrilling evocation of their mental images of the Dune story. But for me, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune fails to deliver because it never really dips below the surface of the saga to explore in depth the human drama underneath. It serves more like a pretty picture book rather than a satisfying moving picture.