In the end, Denis Villeneuve was all too right: Your television isn’t big enough for the scope of his “Dune,” but that’s only because this lifeless spice opera is told on such a comically massive scale that a screen of any size would struggle to contain it. Likewise, no story — let alone the misshapen first half of one — could ever hope to support the enormity of what Villeneuve tries to build over the course of these interminable 155 minutes (someone mentions that time is measured differently on Arrakis), or the sheer weight of the self-serious portent that he pounds into every shot. For all of Villeneuve’s awe-inducing vision, he loses sight of why Frank Herbert’s foundational sci-fi opus is worthy of this epic spectacle in the first place. Such are the pitfalls of making a movie so large that not even its director can see around the sets.
How big is “Dune”? We’re talkin’ slabs upon slabs of angular concrete as far as the eye can see, spaceships that seem to displace entire oceans when they emerge from the seabeds of Caladan, and sandworms so large they could eat the Graboids from “Tremors” like bar nuts. Even yoked kings Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista look like tabletop miniatures when placed against its backdrops, as if cinematographer Greig Fraser discovered a way to shoot deep focus and tilt-shift at the same time.
So why, for all of its unparalleled immensity, does watching “Dune” amount to the cinematic equivalent of being handed a novelty-sized check made out for six dollars? Why is the scope of Villeneuve’s dream betrayed by the dull shallowness of its reality to the point that his film’s most astounding effects — which are every bit as tactile and transportive as those in “Blade Runner 2049” — feel more like optical illusions? Why does this “Dune” feel so small?
The first and most fundamental problem is a screenplay (credited to the heavyweight trio of Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Villeneuve himself) that drills into Herbert’s novel with all the thunder and calamity of a spice harvester, but mines precious little substance from underneath the surface. And while it’s not much of a shock that Denis Villeneuve hasn’t succeeded where the likes of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky have already failed, his “Dune” is at least uniquely dispiriting, as the director of “Prisoners,” “Incendies,” and “Arrival” comes to this project with such a deep affinity for stories about transcending cyclical violence.
Alas, that’s really all this adaptation is allowed to be, as the source material is bisected in a way that punts all of Herbert’s most resonant (and psychedelically unstable) ideas about the braided relationship between colonialism and chosen one narratives into a sequel that may never be made.
It’s hard to overstate how little actually happens in this “Dune,” which flows like an overture that’s stretched for the duration of an entire opera. In stark contrast to the Lynch version — which immediately unpacks the Emperor’s twisted scheme to weaken house Atreides by giving it control of the spice planet Arrakis — Villeneuve’s film sees this story through the eyes of the great family’s young heir, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and embraces the boy’s awestruck confusion at moving to a desert world and learning that he was bred to be the white savior of its native people. “Who will our next oppressor be?” Zendaya asks in the introductory voiceover that Villeneuve gives her in lieu of a character to play, but the rest of the movie completely betrays that sting of suspicion.
This much-debated aspect of “Dune” is complicated in later installments of Herbert’s series, but here it remains unchallenged; Paul is Jesus Christ as a eugenics experiment designed by space witch Charlotte Rampling, who paired Duke Atreides (a bearded and winsome Oscar Isaac, who gets to yell “Desert power!” several times) with a very special concubine (the ever-capable Rebecca Ferguson), and the Bedouin-coded Fremen of Arrakis are happy to accept this foreign twerp as their prophet.
It helps that Chalamet is a natural fit in the role. The actor is something of a chosen one himself — a gawky New York kid who leveraged his internet boyfriend status into legitimate stardom — and Villeneuve helps steer him toward the dislocation of a bird-boned model descended from a line of sex mystics and Hemingways. Paul Atreides invented the blankness that Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter would later inherit, but Chalamet spices things up by making the character palpably out of his depth.
As you would expect from a movie that features approximately 50 percent of the world’s famous actors, casting isn’t a problem here. “Dune” only falters when it comes to giving its cast something to do. Josh Brolin is all pugnacious charm as the beefy mentor with a heart of gold, but he’s reduced to grist for the mill as soon as the action relocates to Arrakis, leaving only the shield technology he uses in his sparring matches with Paul as a legacy; the red and blue Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots effect is a big upgrade from how Lynch rendered the shields back in 1984, but Villeneuve’s disastrous choice to double down on it throughout the rest of the movie robs every subsequent action sequence of any beauty or believable sense of danger.
Momoa is similarly likable as swordmaster Duncan Idaho, but spends most of “Dune” trapped in Paul’s insufferable dreams of the future, which are scattered throughout the story like ransom notes from a more exciting cut of the film. The characters with less screen time make more of an impact, especially the gluttonous robber-baron Harkonnens who cede control of Arrakis only to grow stronger in the shadows. Bautista serves up some very large adult son energy as the second-in-command, David Dastmalchian is all sniveling creepiness as the grand vizier, and Stellan Skargård is the undisputed MVP as Baron Harkonnen himself, whose performance finally answers the question: “What if ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’-era Marlon Brando could fly?”
But “Dune,” at heart, is a film that eagerly flattens great actors like Chang Chen and Stephen McKinley Henderson into the wallpaper because it knows the scenery will have to do most of the heavy lifting. Patrice Vermette’s astonishing and cavernous production design complements (or enables) the stagnant ultra-formalism that Villeneuve has pursued since “Incendies,” and anyone who felt that “Blade Runner 2049” could use 100 percent more aerial shots of ships flying above some unlivable future-scape will feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven.
But Villeneuve’s seismic world-building is all tone and no melody. He spends precious minutes detailing the topography of Arrakis and the suits that allow people to survive its deserts, but devotes nary a moment to Duke Atreides’ private concerns about the intergalactic feudalism that shapes his fate, or Paul’s nebulous inner conflict over leaving his old world behind. That “Star Wars” and its blockbuster ilk have burned Herbert’s sci-fi tropes into the collective unconscious should be an opportunity for a 21st century film like this, not an excuse. And yet Villeneuve’s only move is to crank up the volume until the distortion makes it sound like you’re experiencing something new, a tactic that has its upsides (e.g. the Bene Gesserit’s voice seems like it’s coming from inside your soul), but also leads Hans Zimmer to fall back on the ethnographic wailing of his “Gladiator”-era scores. Few composers would have been able to match the Lynch version’s one-two punch of Brian Eno and Toto, but Zimmer just thumps around in the sand as if he wants the worms to eat us all.
Fear not: The sandworms do come. They are big and bristly and they’re responsible for the only scene in which the film’s biblical drone is enlivened by even the tiniest dollop of dramatic tension. Villeneuve is in love with the scale of these subterranean beasties, each of which is half as long as the R.M.S. Titanic, and he frames them with such palpable awe that you almost expect the “Jurassic Park” theme to play every time they rear their butthole heads. But one look at the sandworms is enough to rob them of their mystery. They’re soon reduced to sound and earthquakes, signifying nothing but your growing desire to be watching “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” instead.
And that literalness, or at least that abject lack of associative thought, is what damns this “Dune” beyond salvation. Here is a film consumed by dreams from even before the moment it starts (you’ll see what I mean), but also one so arch and full of empty spectacle that it keeps your imagination on a tight leash, which grows all the more enervating as Paul and his mother find themselves being chased through the desert by sandworms in the final act. Eventually, “Dune” only resembles a dream in that it cuts out on a note so flat and unresolved that you can’t believe anyone would have chosen it on purpose.
“This is only the beginning,” the last line threatens, and yet it unmistakably feels like the end of something too. Not the end of watching movies on the big screen, but perhaps the end of making movies that are too big to fit on it.
“Dune” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, October 22.
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