Director: Denis Villeneuve Runtime: 2 hr 35 min Rated: PG-13
Studio: Legendary Pictures Based on: Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’
Screenwriter: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timohée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Dune is a science fiction saga layered with all the typical trappings of humanity. Rife with greed and civil unrest as a set of noble houses control planets for resources, wealth, and power. Often to the detriment of the locals.
Not too far into the film, and I’m having a flashback to 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, which was marginally more exciting than this film.
In Dune, the house of Atreides is given stewardship of planet Arrakis by the overlord of all the houses-the Emperor. House Atreides, people of a water planet, go to Arrakis, a desert world, to mine spice. It’s the only thing of value to the houses because though spice is a drug; they also use it to navigate space. Okay. Spice is only on Arrakis, with two other things: the locals, known as the Freemen, and massive sandworms.
The Freemen walk in a certain way to not cause unnatural vibrations in the sand that would otherwise attract the worms. They also wear special garb to help them endure the intense heat of the surface. Freemen characters are Chani (Zendaya), Stilgar (Bardem), and Dr. Kynes (Duncan-Brewster). Dr. Kynes has the most screen time out of these three, and the trailers for this movie imply the other two have more significant roles than they do. So if you see Dune just because they are in it, you’ll have to wait for most of the film and will be vastly disappointed.
The previous stewards of Arrakis, House Harkonnen, mined the spice for 80 years and left abruptly. Houses Harkonnen and Atreides are sworn enemies but obey the Emperor’s decree of change. Still with me?
Paul Atreides (Chalamet) is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac), next in line to rule his homeworld. Paul follows his father and mother, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), to Arrakis to learn how to lead more. Dune is billed as a sci-fi hero’s journey of a young boy born for a destiny he can’t grasp. A journey to provide safety for his people and family, all while not giving into fear.
Frank Herbert originally published Dune in 1965.
To get to my following observation, let me highlight some key phrases and notions about Dune. 1. An Emperor (really) 2. Mine spice (Kessel) 3. Planet of sand (Tatooine) 4. Massive worms (Sarlacc pit, or Jabba) 5. Walking a certain way (Sand people) 6. Wear special garb (Sand people) 7. Hero’s journey (Luke) 8. A Young boy(Luke/Anakin) 9. Destiny (Luke/Anakin) 10. Not giving in to fear (Jedi) 11. High council (Jedi)12. Superpowers (the Force) 13. Imperium (Empire). I could go on. Before seeing this version of Dune, I knew nothing about it. I had never read the books or seen the previous movies, so I walked into the theater with no pre-knowledge or conceptions. However, after only a few minutes into the film, I was beyond irritated.
This irritation was because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much George Lucas poached from Frank Herbert. Not drew on as inspiration, full-on stole. George Lucas released the first of his Star Wars films, A New Hope, twelve years after Dune was published. Yes, the troupes of a young hero’s journey, saving one’s family, and the notion of destiny are all well used throughout cinema and literary works; but this is something else.
My urge to slap George Lucas aside, Villeneuve’s Dune isn’t worth the hype. It’s dull, cold, and wastes its runtime with lackluster performances. This film should have had gravitas and more substance, considering the vast source material available. I saw the trailer like millions of others, but I was unimpressed. The movie, like the trailer, left me with no investment in the plot or the characters. Dune’s filmmaker expects the audience to care and follow along with this story, though there’s no satisfaction at the end.
Why is there no satisfaction or excitement to find out what happens next? Imagine the following: you wake to strangers in your home, there’s shooting, fire, and death. Therefore you flee for your life through dangerous parts of town to seek shelter and help from people you barely know. All while not disturbing the gigantic sandworms and daydreaming about a girl. These people agree to help you- end film. Without actual spoilers, I just summed up Dune.
Villeneuve cuts Dune off after two-and-a-half hours with no actual climax/resolution. Walking through worm-infested dunes isn’t a proper climax. It’s a bloody boring letdown. As an avid reader and fan of films, I know that movies rarely do their sourcebooks justice. Even though I haven’t read Dune, I don’t believe the first novel ended the way the film did. Please correct me if I’m wrong because Dune is one of the top 100 books of all time.
How does such a popular novel make it to the silver screen with lackluster cast performance, pace, and lack of details? The most energy any character provides is Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, discounting Brolin and Bautista’s roles as gruff, angry soldiers. That’s not a stretch for them, so I hardly call it acting.
Stellan Skarsgård’s depiction of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen was said to be terrifying. I’m a big fan of Mr. Skarsgård’s work, and terrifying isn’t the word I would use to describe him in this film. Authoritative, vengeful, physically imposing (he’s a tall man in real life) who flies, which I find to be a weird ability, but not terrifying. Again I haven’t read the books; maybe he’s amazingly terrific as his literary counterpart description.
The Lady Jessica is credited as Atreides but is referred to as the Dukes’ concubine in the film. If she’s his concubine, she’s not his wife. Either way, she is the mother of the Dukes’ son, Paul. The Lady Jessica is part of the Bene Gesserit, a political shadow group of sorceress with a breeding program. Again, I have that Star Wars connection in my mind. Breeding, cloning. Female sorceress’s, the Nightsisters of Dathomir. By and large, Ferguson’s emotional range is that of a brick wall.
Ferguson is a brick wall, and Timothée Chalamet is a wet mop. Why is there hype around this kid? Harry Potter had more emotional responses about his dead parents, whom he’d never met than Paul does about any of the stuff happening around him. And Paul is a lot older than an eleven-year-old. For that matter, Harry’s dead parents in memory form or in moving magical photos conveyed more emotion for their son than Lady Jessica.
It’s not fair that all I can think about is Star Wars when watching this; Frank Herbert really should have sued George Lucas at some point. Star Wars has plenty of other things that separate it from Dune. Still, so many of the broad strokes are not original, leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth about the franchise. Herbert crafted a sci-fi series in novel form, and had George Lucas never come along with Star Wars, who knows how popular the Dune series cinematically could have been long term. All it needed was a studio, cast, and director, along with an excellent screenplay to bring it all to life- a few decades too late. Instead, now, Dune is left seeming like recycled content.
The script and direction should be solid when watching a big-budget film with a solid cast based on a classic novel. The passage of too much time and George Lucas robbed Dune of its full potential. Try as Denis Villeneuve did to make a better version of the 1984 attempt of Dune; it still falls flat. The devil is in the details, and there were not enough of them for Dune to resonate as the larger-than-life story it’s branded to be.
Hopefully, the next attempt at Dune on the big screen will better incorporate details about the Houses in general, the interpersonal connections, and the mystical components that were played up but meant nothing. The story isn’t compelling enough without energetic performances and more complete pictures of characters and story arcs.
When plot mechanics are the backbone of a film with little emotional resonance (story), it shouldn’t be on anyone’s watchlist. That’s not a film worth anyone’s time.
-A Pen Lady