Timothée Chalamet Leads a Star-filled Cast Into a Dense Otherworldly Desert
DIRECTED BY DENIS VILLENEUVE/2021
Despite at least three notable previous attempts, two of which made it to completion, Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic science fiction novel Dune has hovered in the public consciousness as being long overdue for proper cinematic treatment. This fact was not lost on ascending filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. The very moment he attained the degree of clout necessary to land such a gig, he wasted no time in working to remedy the situation.
After a few years of anticipation and a long pandemic delay, Villeneuve has made good with what the title graphic informs us is “Dune: Part One”. Not unlike his previous two films, Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), both of which belong to the loftier end of the science fiction genre and refuse to lead the viewer by the hand, the film is tremendously formidable, something that must be classified as purely experiential. (More so than with most movies, this one warrants a trip to the theater. Do mask up). Also, however, Dune bears every bit of its realized gargantuan aspirations on its shoulders.
On one hand, the end result is a majestically massive accomplishment of pure far-flung magnificence. The film’s aesthetic, demonstrating Islam-inspired iconography, all beautifully lit and rendered, is rightly wholly absorbing. That is… until it’s not. Somewhere around the midway point of the film’s unwieldy 155-minute running time, Dune settles into a decidedly lower gear, and remains there. Lumbering and draggy when it should be building up to something, the climax commits the cardinal sin of contemporary franchise filmmaking: it doesn’t leave us hungry for more, nor desperate for resolution.
That said, it would simply be a sin if Villeneuve and company are unable to regather and redouble their efforts for creation of the second half. It’s true that many early viewers are majorly put off by the absolute self-serious tone of the whole affair. More bothersome, though, is the shoehorned-in quippy humor of ever-bulked Jason Mamoa’s Duncan Idaho, seen (also, tellingly, in the film’s trailer) near the beginning, giving good-natured crap to Timothée Chalamet’s scrawny young Paul. The momentary conceit to contemporary humor is simply jarring in this otherworldly context.
Chalk it up to the “Who’s in it?” factor. It is more likely than not that Warner Bros. demanded certain star power in its own justification of such a major project. With such talent, however, comes an expected amount of previously established personality. Actors like Oscar Issac (Star Wars; playing Duke Leto Atreides), Jason Mamoa (Aquaman), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy; playing Beast Rabban Harkonnen), Zendaya (Spider-Man; playing the small role of bright-eyed Chani), and even Chalamet (Greta Gerwig movies; starring as Paul Atreides), among others, are not only widely recognizable but have also managed to amass a great deal of audience good will. To see these very familiar faces planted into the otherwise completely removed year of 10,191 can’t help but shatter the illusion, at least a little bit. More successfully integrating into their roles (recognizable though not as distracting) are Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling. Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays the formidable part of Dr. Liet Kynes, gender-swapped from the source material.
It turns out that the Dune Sea of Star Wars was far more than just a tossed-off geographical reference. As Herbert fans have known for decades, Star Wars itself is a veritable sea of Dune. Back in 1977 of course, there was only the novel(s). (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary grandiose 10+-hour adaptation, a project that got surprisingly deep into pre-production despite its far-flung bloat, had by then been cancelled). The novel might’ve been a zeitgeist sensation by 1960s publication standards, but for all intents and purposes, George Lucas managed to abscond with the sand-planet & spice-economy iconography wholesale.
For Star Wars fans who’ve been looking for a handy way into the oblique and seemingly impenetrable world of Dune, Villeneuve’s dry, awestruck reverence can’t help but slowly close that door. The through lines of space travel, central sand planets, rebellions, evil empires, political allegory, and even Chosen Ones are all indeed present, though it altogether lacks any aspect of character magnetism or dash. It’s hard to become invested in the plight of young royal subject Paul Atreides (Chalamet) and his loving mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson of Mission: Impossible fame) when they are kept at such arm’s length and decked out in Teflon.
For a movie that’s only the first half of something and that moves not unlike one of its own hulking, gargantuan sandworms through a planet’s worth of sand, Villeneuve’s Dune wields more than enough overpowering spice to warrant a visit. Whether anyone will be inclined to return remains to be seen.