Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth, and Denis Villeneuve
They say Frank Herbert's Dune is unfilmable, and I guess I can't really speak to that, as I've never read Frank Herbert's Dune—the book series had sprawled by the time I would've been able to get into it, and something about that soured me on the prospect at the age when other young nerds would've been reading Dune—but simply by being around sci-fi fans, I don't think I can remember a time when I didn't know, in broad strokes, what Dune is "about." And while they say it's long and it's dense and it's digressive, as far as I can tell only about eight things happen in its plot.
It basically goes like this: in the far future, there's a galactic empire arranged in a neo-feudal order, comprised of various human polities, and amongst these are House Harkonnen and House Atreides, the former of whom are full-on malevolent and have, for a long time, been the holders of the exclusive concession to extract the valuable spice from the sands of Arrakis—the spice being a hallucinogen that also permits interstellar travel in this world, though I'm not sure the latter fact ever winds up mattering beyond a motivation for the powers-that-be to keep their boot on Arrakis's throat. This desert planet is occasionally fancifully referred to as "Dune" (in the most recent adaptation, it's referred to as such once, in a line laced with sound distortion). Recently Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been awarded the stewardship of Arrakis in the stead of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), but this is but a manipulation by the Emperor, who aims to set Harkonnen and Atreides against one another. And indeed an internecine conflict breaks out almost immediately, with the Harkonnens returning in force to reclaim their planet. This means that Leto's son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), and Paul's mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), are forced to flee into the wilderness of Arrakis to seek the aid of the mysterious Fremen, who have historically resented their Imperial occupiers, but Paul is a special case. His mother hails from the esoteric order of the Bene Gesserit, a band of psychic women who may be the most powerful single institution in the Empire, and who have spent the past dozen or more generations arranging marriages with the great houses to breed the so-called Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah, or, if you must, a Jedi, but in any event a male embodying the greatest powers of the Bene Gesserit. Jessica's son comes one generation early but could be that messiah, and Paul's prophetic dreams suggest exactly such a thing; focused upon the Fremen and Dune—and upon a young Fremen woman, Chani (Zendaya), though Paul doesn't know that yet—some great destiny beckons Paul. The Fremen's own myth of a deliverer aligns with his arrival and he rides out at the head of a fanatic Fremen army, destroying the Harkonnens, freeing Arrakis, and bringing low the Emperor himself, but Paul fears he has unleashed a fire upon the universe he cannot control. Oh, right, also, there are sandworms.
That's a long paragraph, but that's also the whole book (the very short version is "Space Muhammad vs. Space Byzantium"), and Dune Part One doesn't even do the whole book, which means that even with two hours and thirty-five minutes to work with—which becomes three hours in a theater, and as theaters struggle for survival these days, perhaps it would behoove them to conduct a consumer satisfaction survey regarding whether audiences like sitting around for twenty-five fucking minutes before the movie begins—director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve gets us up to "Jessica and Paul meet the Fremen." The book, of course, is famous for its tangential world-building, taking time-outs to elucidate this thing, that thing, and the other thing. (It seems to never explain the biggest questions I have about Dune: the first two are silly nitpicks that arise because Herbert wasn't thinking in terms of plausible ecologies or militaries—"Where does the oxygen come from on Arrakis?" and "Boy, there sure does seem to be a lot of infantry combat in this story about an interstellar empire, huh?"—and the third is slightly more serious—"Given its vital importance, and the fact the Emperor can decide who gets to be its caretaker on a whim, why isn't Arrakis a direct imperial possession?") But the book explains a lot otherwise, and even has frequent interjections from a slightly further future, where all this is just history, coming from Princess Not-Appearing-In-This-Film, the daughter of the Emperor whose floating head equally-famously gives an entire lecture about galactic politics and economics in David Lynch's ill-starred 1984 adaptation. And that's the "unfilmable" part, I take it, though it really depends on what you mean by "filmable" and I've seen moving-picture adaptations of things that are discursive and narration-heavy that still work albeit unconventionally (the BBC Hitchhiker's Guide series is an aggressively literal adaptation, bordering on a recitation, and is kind-of perfect regardless). Shit, I like David Lynch's Dune. Either way, the plot is absolutely not unfilmable.
In its 155 minutes—to which shall be added, presumably, 155 more—Villeneuve's Dune is a monument to Herbert's Dune as much as it is an adaptation. But it's a monument to its plot as much as it is a monument to its world. That makes 155 minutes to not even finish this plot a little more aggravating than it should be, since there is an arrogance to a Dune Part One that runs this long, and stops rather than satisfactorily concludes, and was made under no guarantee that there would be a Dune Part Two. (It seems there will be a Part Two, so I can't rightfully get too mad at it for this, though many things can go awry between 2021 and 2023. Plus if it actually manages to get released in 2023 I'll eat my hat.) But it would be slightly aggravating regardless, because Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters split the difference and not entirely well between an assumption that you already know this crap going in and a perception (perhaps a studio mandate from Legendary and/or Warners) to explain it to people who didn't read the book or pick it up by osmosis. And a lot of it isn't even, like, lore, which would be interesting; it is insistent above everything about really making sure you "get" the political plot of Dune. It's laborious in setting up its five factions (the empire is more felt than seen, but the Sardaukar appear), under the misapprehension that this is actually complex—the empire is effectively "Harkonnens who wear white armor" and the only faction that truly comes at a right-angle to another, rather than slamming into them head-on, good-guy/bad-buy style, is the Bene Gesserit—and otherwise the film doesn't manage to afford them much of any personality beyond their faction's positions on a moral scale, whereas the characters that populate each are more like figurines in an expository Dune-themed diorama.
And so it takes a cast of luminaries and rising stars and almost exclusively traps them in airless rooms (sometimes, somehow, airless deserts) seen through airless compositions, poseable imagery representing people caught in the sweep of an enormous future history. Every actor in the film is good at being poseable imagery, and there's barely even one who expands their role beyond that, so while I wouldn't argue with you if you said Isaac does, the only one I can say for sure does is the reliably extraordinary Ferguson, and even then probably only because Jessica has actual conflicted loyalties rather than riding down the straight lines presented for e.g. Jason Mamoa's matinee hero, Duncan Idaho, or the ravenous angry-boredom of Skarsgard's Baron; likewise, Jessica's circumstances also give her the opportunity to work with the film's rawest emotions.
And, you know... that's the point? It's a lot like Villeneue's previous go at a foundational sci-fi work, Blade Runner 2049, to the extent that cinematographer Greig Fraser was obviously instructed "do a Roger Deakins," and he and Villeneuve perform some neat tricks with practical light, and we're just generally situated, visually, in an old and mean-spirited world. But there's little of the textural or even of the particularly human here; you never get a hint of the soul that slipped through the cracks in BR2049. In the 127th century (give or take), I suppose there are no cracks.
What we get instead is a long series of unreasonably huge audiovisual blocks, perfectly fitted together like the limestone facade of a pyramid, and while what we're left with is something cold and even chilly—I know I bitch about modern photography a lot, but it's somewhat sadly hilarious that Fraser can't make a nearly-uninhabitably arid desert planet feel hot—it also does work in the sense that it feels like that PLOT really is slowly running over every person in its way and grinding them into dust. And hence crushing establishing shot after crushing establishing shot, with a crushing score courtesy Hans Zimmer, half astoundingly full-throated Hollywood orientalism and half a return to the Vangelis riffs of BR2049 and half just noise (yes, it's 150% of a score). Somehow it's overriden by an even more crushing sound design effort, concerned with bringing to ear-shredding life the overwhelming clamor of spaceships plunging through a plaintive sky and voices emerging like the words of demons from characters' mouths and sandworms rising like slumbering gods from the abyssal depths beneath.
Its director's reverence only compounds that impression: Villeneuve's treatment of the material is in awe of the material, constantly, whether it's actually awesome or only silly, and he attends to the blood rituals of the Sardaukar and divine presence of sandworms with the same exact gravity he attends to the nonsense of ornithopters and color-coded shield-suits that only stop things when they're too fast. Villeneuve and production designer Patrice Vermette aim for a world imposing in its maximalist minimalism—everything is as big, and as humbling, and as underdetailed as a desert dune. The technology is unadorned and utilitarian; even the costumes are usually a single shade, down to the makeup design that often makes itself felt through its nonexistence (the shifting corpulence of the Baron and the low-key freakishness of the whole Harkonnen court is the exception, but it's a future where women have been gender-segregated and returned almost to medieval levels of agency outside of the Bene Gesserit, but also don't wear makeup). There is a distancing effect to this, a profound sense of falling through time, a feeling that 10,191 A.G. is as alien to us as 10,191 B.C. would be.
It is a repetitive movie, aesthetically, and extremely so; but that's the point too, the featureless extravagance of it, the magisterial pace across a long-ass runtime engineered to weigh on your senses. I don't mean that in a bad way—I mean most of this in a complimentary way—though the charge of being confronted with nearly-abstracted vistas of scale and scope peters out about twenty minutes before the end, which tries to conjure a "climax" that doesn't land even though it is, hypothetically, both emotionally powerful and a critical juncture of the plot; it feels very much like a scene in the middle of a bigger movie, because that's precisely what it is, and there's some indication it's drawn out a little in order to make it feel "bigger" when what it does is make it feel emptier. Before this, Dune has managed the novelty of being an adventure with a boy and his mom, and kept your interest, but it slips as it tries to grip you with the lifestyles of the Fremen without contemplating that it has twenty minutes to make some guys who live in caves or something really compelling, perhaps assuming Paul's visions have done the heavy lifting for that, and it's not succeeding. There's a deadened literalism to the more mystical aspects of the story anyway, that the sound design manages to make effective, but the visuals don't—slightly-more-saturated premonitions of Zendaya are not, in fact, that trippy or interesting, and the plot (as it stands in Part One) doesn't really do much more than present a desaturated Zendaya in the end.
That's not the smallest complaint, but when Dune is able to bring its full power to bear upon you, it's kind of amazing. It's more than a little oppressive, but a sense of wonder that borders on religious zeal is such a startling rarity in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking these days that even the weaknesses—the dead-eyed humorlessness, the mechanical performances, the insistence upon itself and the almost-absurd seriousness with which it takes worm cum (I may not be remembering that correctly)—can be read as actual strengths, and I don't want to take those strengths away from a movie that at least distinguishes itself from Quip Special Effects Comedy No. 451. I would never put it past, say, Avatar, let alone Villeneueve's BR2049 or the recent Reminiscence (the film that deserves all of Dune's accolades and more), in the top tier of 21st century cinematic world-building sci-fi. Partly that's because for all it feels "cinematic," it has the stretched-out spirit of a television show—tune in next time, on Dune!—and more importantly, because those movies had heart to spare, even if a certain heartlessness here was the goal.