Dune

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Chilly remote and majestic — the latest cinematic version of Frank Herbert’s Dune very much resembles the desert planet it depicts. The epic evolves like a visually profound mass of hot windswept dust to behold. The breadth and scale are impressive but the environment is dull. Even color is lacking. The production flaunts a monochromic palette that vacillates between dreary shades of blue to gray and on other occasions from orange to brown. I dare contend that if the film had been shot in black and white, it would’ve been more vibrant. The atmosphere weighs upon the audience. This lethargic mediation on race, culture, and colonialism is not a work to enjoy but to endure.

Dune is a tale fronted by a large cast of individuals in search of a personality. The saga details a feud between two families. The lush planet Caladan is ruled by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of the House of Atreides. He has a son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), with the official concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Paul could be “the one” — that is — the savior that might bring important change to the universe. Meanwhile, over on the planet Arrakis (informally known as Dune) live the native Fremen people. Long exposure to spice has given the Freemen glowing blue eyes — a welcome excuse to inject a little color, albiet through digital manipulation. They are ruled by Atreides’ mortal enemies, the Harkonnen. Arrakis is desolate terrain. However, the world is rich in “spice”, a powerful drug desired throughout the galaxy because it extends life and aids in interstellar travel among no doubt other glorious things. By order of an unseen Emperor, Duke Leto leaves for his new position as the governor of Arrakis. However, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård wearing a most unfortunate fat suit) has nefarious plans for Leto and the whole Atreides family. Dune portrays a complex society within a dystopian future. (Is there any other kind?).

As a captivating adventure this drama fails — but only in the most sensational way. The drama lacks vitality. The political machinations of the community within comprise the story but there’s nary a personality to be found in this emotionless drudge. Paul is surrounded by an Imperial Court of various mentors and advisors. Jason Momoa plays one, Duncan Idaho, a strapping warrior that exudes a modicum of the rakish charm we so desperately crave. Nearly everyone else delivers their lines with all the theatrics of a Shakespearean play. Their robotic declarations are so stilted, so deliberate they simulate the self-serious recitations of a poem, not human dialogue. Ecologist Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is arguably the most egregious offender. I honestly suspected she was suppressing a secret — that she was indeed a robot. Although that reveal never arrives so apparently my suspicions were incorrect? The various performances are augmented by an unfocused gaze or a solemn pause. These actorly devices can rightly intensify a scene, but they cannot replace genuine depth or meaning. I felt absolutely nothing for anyone or anything in this sweeping account. I’ve derived more humanity from the random influx of strangers coming and going inside an airport than I did in this movie. Dune is full of lives, but there is no life.

What the picture has going for it is scope. The grand and stately fantasy perfectly conveys the monumental sweep of another world. The production design continually impresses from aircraft called Thopters with wings that buzz like dragonflies to miniature flying robots the size of tadpoles designed to kill. And the sandworms — those colossal creatures on Arrakis — are as spectacular as I imagined. The visuals from DP Greig Fraser (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) would fulfill a nice retrospective in a museum dedicated to dazzling cinematography from sci-fi movies. I marveled at each individual segment as an artistic clip. But something happens when connecting one scene after another. Without any narrative thrust to propel them forward, they lack the emotional weight to keep the viewer enrapt. I tried to stay invested in this turgid drama. Oh, how I tried! Just before the credits roll, the chronicle ends with the intonations of Zendaya. (The actress’s brief appearance was greatly overstated in the marketing.) The mysterious Fremen girl who had been appearing in Paul’s dreams smiles playfully taunting the audience with “This is only the beginning.” That is correct. Director Denis Villeneuve’s ridiculously long 2-hour 35 minute adaptation only concerns the first half of the 1965 novel, which means it’s half an experience — a prologue to a sequel.

Without a single individual in which to root for or care, Dune is a torturous sit. The ceremonial dignity of soldiers marching in formation or the grandeur of awe-inspiring metal ships hovering in the sky can only take you so far. And yet there are flickers of liveliness. Within the first few minutes, Duke Leto playfully commands weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) to smile. As he sits there stone-faced, he declares, “I am smiling.” There are more examples. When Stilgar (Javier Bardem) greets Leto by spitting in his direction, the act is amusingly revealed to be a sign of respect. Or how about an evaluation from the Imperial Truthsayer (Charlotte Rampling) that puts Paul through a critical test. The intense ordeal is a compelling predicament. As the fable develops, much appreciated moments such as these would pop up occasionally. I savored each one. They broke up the monotony. Each reflection of this society aroused a response. Like an inhabitant of Arrakis for a precious glass of water, I happily relished these rare glimpses that reflected human emotion.

10-21-21

8 Responses to “Dune”

  1. I really look forward to reading your take when I get a chance to see this. The showings in my area have been sold out or close to it! Which is really great for the movie theaters, however I would like a bit of space. So I am looking forward to maybe a Tues/Wed matinee. The two stars has me a little concerned Mark!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I wasn’t a fan. Dune opened this weekend with $40.1 million in the U.S. which is decent but not spectacular. I’m surprised to hear theaters are selling out in your area especially with this being available on HBO Max.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was boring to me. I agree with your whole review. Actors were all drab. No joy at all. It was visually stunning. You shouldn’t have to read a book or see an original, to like a movie. It should be good on it’s merit. 2 stars

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. You’re referencing the fact that many (not all) adherents of this film seem to demand the viewer have a knowledge of the source material. I like movies that entertain independently on their own merits. 😉

      Like

  3. Mark,
    Given the nature of your review, I thought I’d offer the picture’s publicists a few tips.

    The slogan. “DUNE…it begins.” Uh-uh. Don’t do anything to encourage comparison with Remo Williams.

    The poster. Now where have I seen a cluster of actors staring back at their audience with grim determination before?! C’mon, guys, squander a few bucks on an artist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins told a complete story. A Dune sequel seems likely, but Warner Brothers has officially yet to confirm one.

      I wonder if the positive reviews would be as enthusiastic if the non-ending of this unfished story ultimately became the finished product.

      Like

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