There’s a real sense of “been there, dune that” to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune
Lethargically paced and inertly beautiful, Dennis Villeneuve’s DUNE arrives in cinemas frustratingly incomplete, disappointingly hollow and surprisingly hesitant in vision and execution.
Threatened by the growing power of House Atreides, the galactic Emperor awards Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) stewardship of the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune and the only source of the most valuable substance in the universe, the spice Melange. The Emperor is seeking to pit House Harkonnen, the previous stewards of Arrakis, against House Atreides and rid himself of a threat to the throne. While Leto, aware of the trap being set, seeks an alliance with the mysterious Fremen natives of Arrakis, his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) finds himself confronting a very different destiny.
Frank Herbert’s epic, sweeping novel of intergalactic faith, war and politics has long thwarted the cinema but hopes were justifiably high when it fell to visionary director Denis Villeneuve to reimagine it for 21st Century movie-going audiences but sadly it appears that the task was no easier for him than those who went before him. Avante-Garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried and failed to adapt Herbert’s 1965 novel in the late seventies but it would be nearly twenty years after the novel was published before it would finally make it to the screen in David Lynch’s highly ambitious but deeply flawed 1984 adaptation. It’s therefore something of a surprise, then, that Villeneuve’s version, for a large portion of its run time, offers little more than a modern polish on the visuals that Lynch originated. Of course, the effects and production values are more polished but minor tweaks and variations aside, it’s surprising how familiar the big visual moments feel.
Even in the costumes – exquisite tailoring alone does not a sci-fi epic make – there’s a timidity to the aesthetic, a sense of restraint that undermines the movie at every turn. Jodorowsky wanted to make it too weird. Lynch, in his own inimitable style, embraced the weirdness and made a movie that’s simultaneously gorgeous to look at and gruesomely ugly – the Bene Gesserit are bald and austere and freaky looking, Baron Harkonnen is a loathsome, bubonic monster but Villeneuve’s DUNE feels too safely stylish. Fear may be the mind-killer, the little death that brings total oblivion, but it’s also corrosive to creative courage.
The starry cast is decent enough, although hardly anyone gets enough screen time to flesh out their characters beyond Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, who seems to be the only person in the cosmos unaware of his imminent messianic actualisation. The galactic high political manoeuvring feels remote and poorly articulated and despite his best efforts, Villeneuve hasn’t found a way to deliver the heavy load of exposition required by the story that’s any more elegant than Lynch’s attempt and at least Lynch’s compressed version of the story rattles along at a fair pace whereas this languid film, over-enamoured with its own hardware, strays too often into dusty dullness rather than dream-heavy destiny.
Of course, it’s difficult for any artist to go all out when tasked with filming a borderline unfilmable novel with no guarantee that you’ll be given the chance to complete the story and for that, Warner Bros must shoulder almost all the blame for the incomplete and unsatisfying film that is 2021’s DUNE. The decision not to film the entire thing back-to-back or, at the very least, firmly commit to filming both movies in advance has done more damage to this ambitious but overly-cautious adaptation than any flights of creative indulgence could ever have done.