Director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) takes a stab at delivering Frank Herbert’s dense, complicated science-fiction novel to the big screen. Dune centers around a teenaged royal named Paul Atreides (Call Me By Your Name‘s Timothée Chalamet) whose family is chosen by the galactic emperor to oversee production of the universe’s most valuable substance, the spice melange, on the desert planet Arrakis, nicknamed ‘Dune’. But the planet’s previous custodians, the greedy Harkonnens, want their cash cow back and have planted a traitor in the Atreides’ midst to help them destroy Paul’s family and regain control of spice production. Against this political backdrop, Paul is having dreams that start coming true — that he’s a messiah destined to lead Dune’s native population, the Fremen, in a holy war to reclaim their planet from the Harkonnens and the Emperor.
Dune was adapted by David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.) in 1984, and as a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in 2000. Both versions are mixed bags, leaving room for a more perfect Dune to be made. Dune: Part One is obviously not the complete story, but at the mid-point of Villeneuve’s interpretation, it appears his version, too, is problematic.
First the good: The cast is incredible. There are a lot of characters in Dune, and Villeneuve has made excellent casting choices for most of them. Chalamet has the chops to play anything, and he’s the first actor cast age-appropriately in the role of Paul Atreides. Rebecca Ferguson has the next-meatiest role as Paul’s mother, Jessica — a woman torn between her maternal bond to Paul and her allegiance to a manipulative sisterhood of witches who have their own designs for her and her son. The supporting cast includes Oscar Isaac filling the shoes of Paul’s doomed father, Leto; Stellan Skarsgård as the vile Baron Harkonnen; and Javier Bardem as Stilgar, a leader among the Fremen. Charlotte Rampling is creepy as the Reverend Mother Mohiam, who tests Paul’s willpower in one of the movies scarier moments.
Villeneuve also succeeds at spectacle. While ‘Part One’ is limited in visceral highlights, the Atreides’ rescue of an abandoned spice harvest crew from a giant sandworm is an exciting one. The Harkonnen attack on the Atreides’ Dune stronghold is also, literally, explosive. Both of these sequences, and a few others, are done better here than in either the 1984 or 2000 versions.
But then we have the bad. And it’s pretty bad: This Dune lacks emotion. For its considerable run-time of two hours and thirty-five minutes, we never really get to know any characters or begin to care about them. There’s more time for character development than Dune‘s ever had before, but Villeneuve’s screenplay is nearly devoid of humor, levity, or personality. Actors like Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa, as Paul’s teachers Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, seem cast for their charm, but their contributions are anemic. Villeneuve’s adaptation largely sidesteps the problems of exposition that mired David Lynch’s version, but it still ends up the loser in a test of emotional engagement. And without that engagement, this two-hour, thirty-five minute movies feels as ponderously long as it is.
Composer Hans Zimmer’s music does the film no favors. Save a few inspired moments (one including bagpipes), Zimmer’s combination of percussion, vocal screams, dissonance, and noise only serves to highlight the film’s exoticism and the story’s machinery — not its heart, nor its soul. This score does the opposite of what John Williams did to humanize and dramatize Star Wars. I’m also disappointed in the overall production design and art direction. I should be impressed that Villeneuve did not rely on green-screens, but actually built full sets. Too bad they are all of such enormous scale, that you never get to see any detail. Most of the sets appear as just black voids or color variants over actors’ shoulders — as though we’re specks of dust on the over-sized sets of The Incredible Shrinking Man. (In terms of music, production design, and costumes, Lynch’s Dune is unbeatable.)
As someone who read and enjoyed Dune as a child, I’ve looked forward to every iteration of the story. I think fans of the book will enjoy seeing this new version (and every version), even if it doesn’t fulfill on every level. But Villeneuve’s movie isn’t likely to attract any new fans. It’s just too long of a sandy slog without an emotional hook.
Academy Awards: Best Sound, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Score, Visual Effects
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Makeup & Hairstyling, Costume Design, Adapted Screenplay