Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Dune’ Filled With Arid Spectacle

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Dune is a big movie filled with big ideas and breathtaking imagery and all of it hollow. Rarely has a film looked so good, felt so dry and empty like the desert planet it takes place on. Denis Villeneuve has crafted a science-fiction epic that tackles the myths of saviors and comments on the violence of colonialism, somehow finds the time to include a character named Duncan Idaho, and yet never inspires so much as a whoop from me.

Villeneuve is a director I have loved and admired in the past but who also has irritated and bored me. Unfortunately, his latest, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved classic, is a spectacle-laden humdrum piece of cinema. He co-adapted the book with John Spaihts and Eric Roth, and while I haven’t read the book, I suspect this version is more faithful than the infamous 1984 version. But faithful Villeneuve’s Dune may be, it doesn’t have a tenth of the personality that David Lynch’s version.

Left to right: Tomothee Chalamet, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Josh Brolin

But that was always going to be the case. 

Dune isn’t a bad movie. It’s too well crafted, too expansive, too filled with Greg Fraser’s gorgeous shot compositions and Herbert’s heady ideas for it to be a bad movie. However, it is an aggressively okay movie. However, there are moments where people like Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat or Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho liven up the film. Perhaps it’s a bit of flair thrown into how they say a line or how they walk into a room-but hidden throughout the dense tome of science-fiction are little moments of delightful acting. 

Unfortunately, those moments are rare. They are all but swallowed by the largess of the spectacle. For a movie about the importance of Spice, it is at times a passionless and bland film.

The Spice is the prime mover in Dune. It is the thing that makes interstellar travel possible. Unfortunately, the Spice can only be found on the desert planet of Arrakis. In a way, it’s comforting to know that even in the future, nothing changes that much.

Dune is a film with a character named Duncan Idaho-seriously I love that name, and Momoa is just perfect as the swaggering comrade in arms – but simultaneously is ashamed it has a character named Duncan Idaho. Villeneuve has crafted a universe of obtuse seriousness. He wallows in the grandiosity of Herbert’s world but seems embarrassed or unconcerned by its more extravagant imagination.

Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho

Villeneuve and his talented cast mostly spend the sprawling runtime being dour and grim as the heat of the Arkais sun beats down upon them. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), head of the House of Atreides, has been handed a chance of a lifetime rife with pitfalls and harbingers of doom. Isaac’s bearded face is set in a sort of perpetual stoicism that when he does show emotion, it’s like a cool desert breeze. It is a refreshing and a reminder of the harshness of his position. 

The House of Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard), waits in the wings for Leto’s failure. But he does not wait idly as he and the Emperor, along with an order of clandestine space witches, the Bene Gesserit, plot their downfall. Yet, they do not know the Duke’s wife, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the Bene Gesserit, has her own plans for her family and her son Paul (Timothee Chalamet).

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica along with Chalamet as Paul

Here we come to the weakest part of Dune, Chalamet’s performance. Paul is a child lost and confused who finds himself the center of not only his mother’s machinations but also others. Yet, all the while, he feels the pull of something greater, something outside anyone’s destiny for him. Amidst all of this is Paul’s dawning realization that the people of Arrakis, the Fremen, are much more intelligent, capable, and resourceful than either his father, the Harkonnen, or the Emperor believe.

But I never bought Chalamet as Paul. He is too waxen, his cheekbones are nice, but his youth makes him look silly as he tries to fit into Herbert and Villeneuve’s world. Since the bulk of the film is either observing young Paul or getting inside his psychic visions, part of my problem was finding the energy to care. Chalamet’s not bad, but he is overwhelmed by the scope and magnitude of Villeneuve’s vision and the presence of the other actors. 


Granted, the lack of emotion isn’t just on Chalamet’s shoulders. Villeneuve and his script are more concerned with palace intrigue than such petty things as human emotion. But, to the film’s credit is an absorbing bit of palace intrigue. I enjoyed seeing how Villeneuve cleverly and subtly shows us all the different and contrasting machinations to seize power and then stand back and watch how they all fall apart and succeed in varying ways.

But my enjoyment was almost an intellectual curiosity rather than being moved by any moment of realization. Take the design of the ships, for example. They are breathtaking and refreshingly original. I especially liked the ones called ornithopters, helicopters with the design of what looks to be a giant dragonfly. Ships in sci-fi movies all tend to follow the same design, but here, Villeneuve and his production team have found an exciting and new aesthetic for them. All the ships feel as if they have weight; they feel heavy as if they might rip the screen apart by their immense force.

Fraser’s camera moves seamlessly and composes his frames with almost Shakespearean dramatic staging. The way Skarsgard’s Baron’s fat suit glistens in the steam, or how he frames Leto collapsed, leaning against the wall, surrounded by the darkness, all of it is haunting. But Villeneuve and Fraser’s staging robs these scenes of any resonance, it’s all technically proficient and immaculate, but there’s no underlying hum of humanity, no tragedy, grief, or desire, just simple clandestine ideas.

I would say Dune evoked Stanley Kubrick, but if you watch Kubric films, you’ll notice a barely restrained passion at the edges of the frame. His movies seem cold to the casual eye, but if you pay careful attention, you can see the sea of emotion just under the surface. But Fraser and Villeneuve give us images in which underneath it all is nothing but still shallow waters.

Dune is a vast universe of a film. Well-known actors come and go in big and small parts. I’ve already mentioned him, but I was thrilled to see Stephen McKinley Henderson. He is a character actor who says so much by how he enters a room. Every character he plays is richer and better in his hands. In one scene, as Henderson’s Thufir escorts Lady Jessica and Paul into an ornithopter, he tells them not to be fooled by the crowds. “That’s Harkonnen love out there.” Henderson’s delivery is one of my favorites from the film.

Stephen McKinely Henderson as Thufir Hawat

Everyone from Ferguson to Sharon Duncan-Brewster is so good that it all comes to a halt when Chalamet comes on screen. Zendaya, who is barely in the movie, suffers the same problem; she seems ill-fit. She and Chalamet never shake their freshly scrubbed personas. However, Zendaya fares better purely because most of her time in the film is spent as part of Paul’s visions.

Weirdly, for all my quibbles, the fall of the house of Atreides doesn’t drag until the end. Villeneuve’s epic doesn’t have much narrative drag to it, which is all the more impressive when you consider how empty the characters are and how little we know of their inner lives. It never flat out bores, but I never felt moved by it either.

Dune is a cinematic curiosity in how vast and detailed the world and the imagery is, yet, contrasted by how little I cared about any of it. Villeneuve and the other filmmakers have made a really good movie, but it lacks the human vitality that would make it great.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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