There have been science fiction books that were so epic that people either tried to adapt them to the big screen and failed or wouldn’t even attempt it. This very year we have already seen two such epics make it to the big and small (or “not quite as big” for those with large screen televisions). In the category of epics that no one had ever bothered to film, we have Foundation for the Apple TV. In the category of previously failed attempts, we have the recent remake Dune by Denis Villeneuve.
By its very nature Dune is an extremely difficult novel to adapt. The book, written by Frank Herbert, is 80% world-building (more like info dump) with 20% story and character action. This usually creates the problem for past filmmakers of having to add content to give it a better narrative flow for theater-going audiences. However, Villeneuve, who has loved this book since he was a child, chose to apply his artistic vision and directorial style in creating his adaptation that many people hoped would finally do honor to the beloved novel. But does it work?
Villeneuve is a big believer in capturing as much as possible on camera. This means using big sets and taking advantage of using wide landscapes. In doing this he has created scenes that felt both beautiful and empty at the same time. Many interior scenes utilize large settings that are disproportionately empty. Large rooms have little furniture creating an odd sense of minimalism throughout the film. What we get is strikingly beautiful and yet entirely alien. Even scenes of combat are done with an artistic touch making them compelling to watch, and yet I found them to be strangely unsatisfying.
Villeneuve has assembled what appears to be a remarkable cast, starting with Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the would-be-hero for the planet Arrakis and its people, the Fremen. Young Chalamet has already proven himself to be a strong actor but here he feels miscast. He comes across as moping throughout much of the film. He does have moments where a strong performance shines through suggesting we might see an emotionally strong Paul Muad’Dib. However, many scenes where we need to see a strong Paul end up failing by instead giving us someone who continues to act as if he’s entitled, even after House Atreides has been brought down.
On the flip side, we have Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto, Paul’s father. Isaac has come into his own as an actor and he does an admirable job of taking the role of the beloved Duke, but ultimately there isn’t much there as the Duke doesn’t have that much to do. On the other hand, there is Rebecca Ferguson as the Lady Jessica, mother of Paul, the bound concubine of Duke Leto, and part of the Bene Gessert sisterhood. Ferguson shows an enormous amount of strength, power, as well as a vulnerability when it comes to her family. She has been magnificent.
There are plenty of secondary characters who make decent impressions, most notably Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, and Dave Bautista as the Beast Rabban. They were all good in their performances, but there wasn’t anything there that would make people sit up and take notice of what they did. This then takes me to the creepiest character in the series, that of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen as played by Stellan Skarsgård. Here we see the morbid and even sick-minded Baron Harkonnen that makes him one of the vilest villains in all of science fiction literature. We don’t see much of him, but when he is on screen his presence makes viewers wish for him to come to a sticky end.
This brings up something that I found to be peculiar. For a movie that is 2 hours and 35 minutes long, aided by scenes that felt painfully too long, there were several missing story elements from early in the film. Dune is partly a political drama with the feuding houses that make up the Landsraad and the Imperium. Placing the House Atreides on Arrakis is an enormous political ploy on the part of the Emperor. With all that, there is very little mention of the structure of this Empire, especially in regards to the role the Bene Gesserit have along with Space Guild. Villeneuve has effectively reduced this element to a single line spoken by Chani during a narrative voiceover. Almost no mention is made of the Guild Navigators, especially in their ability to fold space. We never see the House Atreides go through the act of relocating. We see them pack as they prepare to leave their home of Caladan, and then we see their ships land on Arrakis. With all of the expansive scenes Villeneuve gives, especially during the second half of the film, I found it almost egregious to eliminate such basic story points that set the stage for what is to come.
Ultimately, Dune is a very beautiful-looking art film. The visuals are at times breathtaking, which is a tribute to how far CGI effects have come. The level of photorealism is so incredible that I found myself wondering if Villeneuve had his production team build large spice harvesters. However, as beautiful as Dune is the final result is something that feels hollow. I don’t feel as if I’m watching characters moving along in a real-world setting. Instead, many of the scenes feel as they were walking around in a museum. Dune is an achievement in creating a piece of stylish art but ends up being rather sterile in how dry the story and characters are treated. After all, even the tastiest steak sauce works better when poured on a delicious steak.
In the end, while I enjoyed watching Dune, I didn’t actually enjoy Dune.
I give Dune 3 out of 5 crysknives.
A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, DUNE tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence-a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential-only those who can conquer their fear will survive. DUNE is currently playing in theaters and is streaming on HBO Max through November 21, 2021.
ONE-LINER: Feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, about the son of a noble family entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy.