Denis Villeneuve directs Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson and Jason Momoa in this adaptation of just the first half of Frank Herbert sci-fi classic; following the House of Atreides as they take over the exploitation of a desert planet for a hostile empire.
I went into this with lowered expectations: Denis Villeneuve always directs a lovely looking feature but none of them have risen above a promising “very good” for me over the past two decades… and your Prisoners and Enemy have actually suffered from over inflated reputations when actually watched. Dune isn’t an IP I have any real affection for… but having revisited Lynch’s derided version again relatively recently I at least had my bearings on the plot and unwieldy form. And I’m never going to get excited about a marketing campaign that places the watery and wimpy Chalamet and Ferguson at the forefront…but more on those two a little lower down.
The first two hours blew me away. The clarity of the storytelling. The patience to let the impressively massive visuals work their magic. The marshalling of a potentially cumbersome cast of characters with a certain degree of straight faced presentation. Villeneuve understands just how hard work this is going to be for Spice virgins and admirably leans into the pomposity while blatantly just letting the characters speak in manageable chunks of exposition. If you’ve come for banter or emotion then you’ve come to the wrong shop. Equally for something so slavish to impenetrable nomenclature, clans and imagined sociology this Dune is never confusing say like Tenet or Interstellar or 1984’s Dune. Only the occasional vision of the future used to crowbar imagined action into the stiller sequences feels like it is extraneous, cheating the audience of a neat straight shooting through line.
And in all honesty this Shakespearean style works… you can either switch off from each spoken Wikipedia stub and just absorb the visuals (something I did often and happily) or you can try to fathom all that is going on. Narrative is given a minimal say in how this tale is told. You are either learning about these future societies or you are marvelling at the scope, scale and detail of them. Betrayals, revelations, connections happen in the edits. We are burying ourselves in the vision – an epic of minimalism where humans become stick figures in massive landscapes, weathered polygons glide through faded vistas.
It looks the utter tits. I’d quite happily watch a version where Hans Zimmer’s wailing, bullying score just dominates and the mouths move but are never heard. This is every painted sci-fi novel cover you’ve glimpsed at the mobile library rampaging off the cardboard. Warhammer 40,000 live and in concert. Chris Foss and MOEBIUS masterworks desaturated so that only the fewest colours can fill some previous inconceivable canvas. When we move to a wide shot, which is pleasingly often, Villeneuve’s regular editor Joe Walker knows to hold on that shot for an indulgently stately amount of time. This looks a piece with modern blockbuster from masters like Nolan or Reeves but made by someone has learned their pacing from Kubrick… there’s no confusion here or race to move onto the next piece of visual trickery. We wallow in the unabashed grandiosity of it all. None of it shows flaws or cheats. You never see the strings or joins. And I loved that.
Is it a little humourless? Sure. But messianic prophecies, genocide and future imperialism don’t really feel like the appropriate place for zings and sassy chat. Villeneuve’s has a nice running visual game of including an incongruous prop or gesture here or there. That produces as many chuckles as the “gag” heavy Shang-Chi movie did last month. And the support cast are so on point and game that you relish seeing anyone left standing at close of play getting just a little more screentime if Part Two does ever get before the cameras. Without revealing who survives to the credits Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem and especially Charlotte Rampling leave you wanting more from all of them despite a paucity of individual screentime.
And then we get to the trouble in paradise. While the first two hours are packed with BIG set-pieces the final act narrows down to following the bland Chalamet and Ferguson in a series of smaller perils. You can ignore how white bread and marge they are when smothered by all that world building and great ensemble. But when its just Peggy Hill and Bobby in the desert, your pulse slows and you wonder at what point in the grand arc Villeneuve will lower the curtain and declare the start of a two to three year interval. It is fair to say after gorging us with sci-if brilliance for a 110 minute the veal stops being fatted, the juice pipe is ripped from our greedy mouth. We end on an elongated comma rather than a full stop.
Yet… I do understand why Chalamet has been cast. There were far more teenage girls in our busy matinee screening than Dunkirk or The Last Duel could ever hope for. Would I prefer if someone young and charismatic and with a bit of oomph about them was cast in such a crucial role? Sure. But thinking about names; John Boyega is a little too old to play the callow boy prince, personal favourite Skyler Gisondo too quirky and Barry Keoghan a bit too dark a choice. A complete unknown wouldn’t have done the business. Having Timmy No Chest front and centre for the big finale does leave a bad taste in the mouth, hampers this entry’s genuine five star potential. So Dune ends on a whimper but hopefully if we return to Arrakis he’ll be back to being buffeted by that fantastic returning cast and seamless SFX. The hard slog when he’s carrying the story has now been endured… let’s get back to that grizzled and perfect ensemble as soon as possible.
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