Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction Dune saga was made into a film by David Lynch in 1984, which boasted a superb look but completely failed in storytelling terms. This week comes a highly anticipated new movie version of Dune, which also looks phenomenal and offers a much smoother storytelling experience. I walked away from it wanting more, in both good and bad ways.
The story picks up in the year 10191, when people have settled thousands of planets due to a mysterious commodity called “spice,” which allows for interstellar travel and is only available on the desert planet of Arrakis. The Harkonnen family has ruled Arrakis for almost a century and become wealthy off the spice trade, but the emperor suddenly hands over control to the Atreides family, whose duke (Oscar Isaac) vows to rule the natives more humanely than the brutal Harkonnens. When the Harkonnens return with an army to take back what was theirs, the duke’s wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) have to flee into the desert, hoping that the locals save them from the elements and the giant sandworms burrowing underneath.
Director Denis Villeneuve and his fellow writers have an elegant solution to the gobs of exposition that this story requires: Paul listens to a series of audio lectures about Arrakis while preparing to go there. The premise of a bunch of foreigners taking charge of a desert environment whose people practice strange customs and religions takes on a resonance that even Herbert couldn’t have foreseen. The author’s fans should know that the movie’s narrative stops well short of the end of the first book, which makes the environment feel more lived-in than it does in Lynch’s film but also keeps this from being a satisfying stand-alone experience. Say this for Marvel: They know how to make individual films that please general audiences while also advancing storylines for the diehards.
Still, if you want spectacular vistas on alien planets, Villeneuve gives you buckets full of those. The shots of soldiers lined up in formation recall Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi-glorifying films, which I think is intentional. We have sand hitting rocks like ocean waves amid sandworm attacks, airships with wings that vibrate like dragonfly wings, and Paul stepping into a hologram of a tree, its tendrils drawing lines across his face. Desert’s not the easiest landscape to make interesting, but cinematographer Greig Fraser finds sculptural lines in the sand dunes (the film was shot in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates), while Patrice Vermette’s sets contrast the outworlders’ brutalist interiors with the more natural ones of the Arrakis natives. No wonder the director was upset about Warner Bros. releasing this movie on streaming at the same time. The film needs the largest screen possible, as well as a theater’s floorboard-rattling sound during the action sequences. At its best, the movie is sublime in the old sense of making you feel small.
Too bad Villeneuve overdoes it, as every scene seems to underscore the epic quality of this 155-minute film. Whatever intimacy his approach doesn’t beat out of the film, Hans Zimmer’s music takes care of. Chalamet is handicapped by a character whose journey only truly begins at the film’s end. Even Javier Bardem is indistinct as the leader of the natives of Arrakis, and Zendaya spends so much time posing against desert backdrops in Paul’s dreams that you wonder whether she was shooting a fragrance commercial. The only actor who makes an impression is a forceful Charlotte Rampling as the high priestess of Lady Jessica’s order of psychic seers who seems to know what a hard time Paul’s in for.
I do appreciate how the casting here fixes the original film’s overwhelming whiteness. (You can’t ascribe that to the time Lynch’s Dune was made, either: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, and The Empire Strikes Back all came out before it, and they all had characters of color.) The content here may set up some more satisfying story beats later on. However, I’m obliged to review the film at hand, and, ultimately, this film is like a cleverly conceived and beautifully presented restaurant meal that makes you think about hitting the nearest McDonald’s.
Starring Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth. Rated PG-13.