Cinema Dispatch: Dune

Dune and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Dune is just one of those things that I’ve only ever known from the outside looking in; like modern art trends or Homestuck.  I never read the book but I have seen the David Lynch movie which is… well it’s certainly in the ballpark of what I’d imagine a David Lynch space opera to be, but it still took me two or three viewings before I could even grasp what was going on; especially when the second half just sped through years of its plot in a few quick montages.   Eventually though, I got the gist of it and there are things about the world that I did like even if I found quite a bit of it to be rather flawed and overly convoluted.  Perhaps Warner Bros had the same idea when they greenlit this remake as I doubt they’d put as much money as they did into a project as esoteric as David Lynch’s weird little sci-fi epic.  Then again, with the way Warner Bros has been acting recently, it’s hard to tell where their head is at and what we can expect from anything they put out anymore.  Is this a worthwhile adaptation of one of Science Fiction’s most esoteric classics?  Let’s find out!!

If you’re still in the dark as to what this whole DUNE thing is about, then brace yourselves as this will be a bit much to take in and yet still only scratching the surface!  At its core, it’s the story of two great houses IN SPACE; The Harkonnens and the Atreides.  The Harkonnens have been running a Spice plant on the planet Arrakis for generations on behalf of the Galactic Empire, but since Galactic Empires can’t help themselves from stirring the pot now and again, they’ve decreed that the Harkonnens will no longer run Arrakis and that Atreides will run the Spice plant instead; a task that involves managing very tense relationships with the native people of the planet known as the Fremen.  Spice by the way is… a lot to get into; just imagine that it’s Space Oil and also Peyote as it allows ships to fly across the galaxy while ALSO getting you super high!  What it ultimately serves as is for the plot is a resource that the two families are fighting over that they only partially understand, and the young prince of the Atreides family Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is your typical sci-fi and Fantasy hero who bears the burden of his family’s name and has a greater destiny that he is not truly aware of yet.  To go much further than that would be getting into the second half of Dune while this movie only covers the first half, so essentially it’s a power dispute between two great houses over control of this planet that ends up being the starting point for a greater journey that Paul has to take that could shake the Galactic Empire to its core!  Will the Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), be able to fill in the shoes left by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and produce enough Spice on the harsh desert planet of Arrakis?  What threats must they face on the planet, and are some of them coming from much closer than they expect?  I know it’s a different sci-fi universe, but do you think we can just call Paul a Jedi and be done with it?  I mean we can beat around the bush with names like Kwisatz Haderach and groups like the Bene Gesserit, but frankly, I’m giving Lucas a point here for keeping his sci-fi buzzwords short and punchy.

“Kwisatz Haderach.” “The Quiz-art Hader-act?” “Kwisatz Haderach.” “The Quick-sat Hatter-axe?” “Kwisatz Haderach!” “The Knick-knack Paddy-wack?” “Okay, close enough.”

The parts of Dune that appeal to me are the simplest elements of it and I think Villeneuve made the right call by focusing on those while letting the bigger stuff kind of just sneak into the margins.  I guess you could argue that the cinematic landscape, especially for Big-Budget Science Fiction, has been becoming more and more focused on straightforward hero narratives which are found at the heart of Dune’s story so it was the right time to try this project again, and while I’ll try not to make this entire review about comparing it to the Lynch film, it definitely improves upon its more egregious flaws to make a move that you could say is downright accessible!  Certainly no more convoluted than your average Star Wars movie, albeit leaning heavier on the darker side of them like Empire and Rogue One, and yet with all the refinements to the script, the more seamless special effects, and (if we’re being frank here) the MUCH superior acting, I can’t help but feel that maybe a little bit of the magic got lost along the way and that there are also just some elements of Dune that aren’t going to work no matter how big the budget or more sensible the direction is.  It’s a little cold and drab in places and the politics of oversized blockbusters rears its ugly head with the studio’s indecisiveness on whether they were even gonna FINISHING the darn thing, so it’s not without moments that made me yearn ever so slightly for the David Lynch film.  Still, there’s no denying that Villeneuve gave us an exceptional and unique interpretation of the source material (the first half, anyway) that is sure to please fans and MIGHT just sway a few newcomers to the party as well!  They’re probably gonna need a glossary while watching it, but still!

“The Weirding Way? Is that like ‘The Electric Slide’?” “Eh… more like Space Karate.” “Okay… And the Weirding Module?” “Brain Gun.” “As opposed to just… a regular gun?”

The biggest praise that I can give to Villeneuve about this movie is that it ACTUALLY feels like a story about characters and their internal struggles feel much more relatable.  As I said I haven’t read the novel so I can’t say how well it reads there, but the David Lynch movie can feel pretty stilted and stoic in terms of its dialogue and ESPECIALLY its exposition.  Yes, internal monologues; I’m calling you out and I don’t care who knows it!  This one however is much more focused on letting the actors become the characters with interpersonal relationships taking up a lot more screen time (Oscar Isaac in particular brings a lot of humanity to the Duke) and leaving the exposition to a minimum; relatively speaking at least.  You’re still gonna have to learn a bunch of new words and quickly grasps who is aligned with what organization for what end, but where the last movie tried too hard to introduce concepts that only raised more questions (space folding fetus psychics), this leaves a lot of the nitty-gritty up to the audience to figure out while focusing more on the core drama.  The use and functionality of Spice isn’t as detailed here as it was in the Lynch movie, but the weight of it is definitely felt, from the growing tension between the two houses to the Colonialism undertones as they fight over a planet that belongs to the Fremen.  It’s easier to relate this conflict with real-world issues like oil and diamonds when we don’t have floating space fetuses from the SPACING GUILD thrown into the mix as well, and even some of the more inscrutable elements that did still find their way in here are much easier to digest. 

His name is Duncan Idaho? Sure! Why not?

On top of a much more engaging script, the film also does a great job of conveying the BIGNESS of the story through its visual landscapes and strong art direction.  The Lynch movie certainly wasn’t lacking in spectacle, but where that one leaned into the strange and fantastical, this one goes for a much more grounded aesthetic that’s easier to immerse yourself into and therefore be surprised and amazing when the film makes good on the sheer scope of its settings.  There’s weight to it as the machinery creaks and groans under the strain of its tasks while the harsh sun over Arrakis blazes with a menacing fury; A world so hostile to outsiders trying to colonize it that it requires gigantic and bulky machinery just to keep the squishy humans inside from succumbing to its environment.  Systems big and complex enough to take on such a vast undertaking as harvesting Spice on a planet with deadly heat and even more deadly sandworms, yet completely useless without the flawed humans behind the controls.  The astounding technology that allows us to travel space and colonize planets like Arrakis is still at the whims of politics, blood feuds, and religious fervor which are just as potent motivators in this future as they are in our time.  That’s not to say that the film is ENTIRELY meditative with its special effects as there are some fun action scenes like the sandworm attack after arriving on Arrakis and a later chase scene that’s straight out of a Star Wars movie, but the visuals do paint a picture a stark yet beautiful portrait of such a hostile world as well as the hostile forces that are scrambling for control over it.  It can feel a bit bland and washed out at times, and I’m honestly still unsure of which version had the better sandworms, but it’s a lovingly indulgent spectacle where every dollar they spent is clearly being put to good use on screen!

“OM-NOM-NOM-NOM!!”

Where the movie started to lose me though is where Dune itself started to lose me, and that’s everything involving Paul’s destiny and the long proper nouns that accompany it.  Perhaps my negativity towards the latter half of the Lynch film is coloring my opinion here, but this movie definitely alludes to THAT part of this story alt more than Lynch did, and it’s just not very interesting.  Paul has flash-forwards where maybe ONE of them provides any significant plot details or insight into what may happen in the future with the rest of them being repetitive and vague allusions; most of which have Zendaya standing around looking ethereal but not much else.  It’s not even just relegated to Paul’s head as we have these great scenes that are taking place and informing us of what’s going on IN THE MOMENT, and then right at the end someone makes a comment or gives a meaningful look that foreshadows Paul’s great destiny which I just found hard to care about as things were still going on RIGHT NOW that felt important.  Oh yeah, Paul is psychic too; just another thing to add on top of the already convoluted nature of this story.  I do stand by the fact that this movie does a darn good job of streamlining the various aspects of Dune into something more human, relatable, and cohesive, but it can’t escape every weird concept from the source material.  The Voice is a good example of something just there to solve a plot problem by raising more questions, and while I’m sure you can point me to every instance this movie makes mention of it and its significance in denoting Paul as a male Bene Gesserit (this is probably white noise to most of you, but allow me this momentary aside), that fact just never feels as relevant as it should.  Unlike say The Force and the Jedi Order which feel integral to the narrative of Star Wars, the Bene Gesserit and his ability to wield their powers don’t feel any more significant than anything of the other notable aspects of Paul; the visions, the way he reacts to Spice, even Paul’s status as the next in line to a powerful family, it all feels like trying to give us a bunch of semi-plausible reasons for him to be THE ONE instead of just giving us a clear and defined arc as to how he becomes THE ONE.  To an extent I guess that’s part of Paul’s struggle, that destiny is FOISTED on this guy from every angle, but it never really coalesces for me into anything TRULY significant; well at least not in this one movie taken in isolation which is the OTHER major problem here.  The fact that the movie is split in half isn’t in and of itself an issue as there are plenty of two-part movies that make it work and they certainly chose the right spot to make the cut here, but the problem is that Warner Bros simply didn’t commit to making a second film while this was in production so it feels like a lot of this movie and a lot of the decisions made were in service of hedging their bets on there not being a sequel while also making a case for it.  All those future visions that bothered me were probably there to at least give audiences an idea of what happens next if they never get to see it, and there’s an action scene that takes place during one of these visions that feels almost like a demo reel to convince Warner Bros that audiences will love the action if they greenlight the sequel.  In exchange though, it feels like certain aspects of THIS movie were short-changed because resources had to be devoted towards what happened next; particularly the Harkonnens who don’t get enough screen time despite being the villains of the piece.  Seriously, you get Dave Bautista for a movie and only give him TWO SCENES!?  We’re only just getting word now that the second film has been greenlit and is scheduled for 2023 (hopefully with even more Bautista), but they didn’t know that at the time they were making it, so the film feels like it’s in limbo as we head closer and close to the end without a satisfying conclusion in sight.

“What happened to my screen time!?” “Uh… a sandworm ate it?”

This movie is certainly an interesting beast with so many disparate parts straining at its margins.  The challenges of trying to adapt something like this to the big screen while dealing with the modern realities of making a movie of this scope were not to be tackled lightly and I think that Villeneuve succeeded a heck of a lot more than he didn’t.  Still, I can’t help but pine for the scenario in which the studio had enough faith in this to make both movies back to back as the uncertainty of the sequel’s future definitely affected this movie in the long run.  Perhaps my complaints about this are moot since we WILL get to see what happened and maybe they’ll release a special FIVE HOUR CUT of both movies that will be the most complete telling of this story.  Even putting that issue aside, there are still flaws with the source material that no filmmaker can get around and that’s going to affect my opinion on it regardless of the skill in which it’s brought to the big screen.  Still, there’s no denying that Villeneuve did a remarkable job wrangling it into something coherent and engaging and I would recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of science fiction movies.  Maybe it’s a bit dense and dour if your taste falls in line with Guardians of the Galaxy or the new Star Wars trilogy, but unlike previous versions of the story, it’s not impenetrable to the layperson and is quite rewarding if you put in the effort to understand it.  Maybe not as rewarding as it COULD have been, but you’ll have to bring that one up with WB.  In any case, Villeneuve is now up to TWO sci-fi films aimed at impossible to please audiences and he came out the other side pretty well on both!  At this point let’s just have him do a Highlander movie and see if he can wrangle that into something respectable again!  Go big or go home!

4 out of 5

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