REVIEW: ‘Dune’

October 21, 2021

Dune does something I’ve never seen a movie do. It stops. It. Just. Stops. In the middle. It’s not a cliffhanger. It’s not a heart-swelling climactic moment that leaves you wanting more. You see a bunch of people walking through some rocks in a desert and then you see the words "Directed by Denis Villeneuve." And that’s it. It’s like Villeneuve is saying, "Hey, I know it’s been two-and-a-half hours already, and I’m guessing you probably need to go to the bathroom. And since it would take us at least another two-and-a-half hours to finish the story, we’re just going to shut it down right here. So throw your nacho box and your popcorn tub in the trash receptacles on your way to the exit."

And by the way, you’re only going to get the second half of the story if the movie is a hit and a sequel gets commissioned. That’s weird, because the movie keeps flashing forward to scenes from its nonexistent second half—and never gets around to explaining why we’re seeing them. It seems unlikely they will ever be explained. Unlike the three Lord of the Rings movies, which were all filmed at the same time, Villeneuve and his team didn’t make any more of Dune than the lavish $200 million picture that just opened at your local multiplex (and is available on HBO Max). And since people are likely going to walk out of this thing and say, "What the hell was that?" instead of "Hey, guys, you gotta go see this," I doubt it will generate the kind of receipts or HBO Max business that will lead to Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures spending another $200 million after Villeneuve (who also co-wrote and co-produced) bungled this one so badly.

I am not happy to call Dune a bungle. Villeneuve is a wildly talented director and five years ago made what might be the best science-fiction film of our time—the inventive, original, brilliantly told, and emotionally devastating Arrival, with Amy Adams. His work on Blade Runner 2049 was spectacular as well. But he is defeated here by demands imposed upon him as a storyteller by the extraordinarily complex epic tale told in Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 work of science fiction. Herbert’s novel is about royal families thousands of years in the future that govern planets in a loose imperium under the thumb of a distant emperor. Two of the families come into conflict over the management of an arid and sparsely inhabited planet called Arrakis but nicknamed Dune—which is the sole source of the most valuable substance in the universe. Think Saudi Arabia but with a hallucinogenic spice that makes interstellar travel possible instead of oil deposits that help make cars run.

There is intrigue. There are political plots within political plots. And a teenage prince named Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet (whom I just don’t get, I’m sorry), finds himself caught in the middle. His father Leto (a dull Oscar Isaac), who has been given control of the planet, is training him to be a wise king, aided by his trusty advisers (played by the delightfully scenery-chomping Jason Momoa, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Josh Brolin). Meanwhile, his mother (the terrific Rebecca Ferguson) is also training Paul—in her case, to use his latent supernatural abilities in hopes that he will reveal himself to be the messiah her mysterious all-female order of mind-controlling witches has been trying to create through experiments in genetic engineering.

Before his family relocates to Dune, Paul is beset by visions of life on the desert planet, which is home to a native population wrongly thought to be small in number and too primitive to be politically significant. And when a Machiavellian disaster strikes his father and his family, he and his mother must make their way to the desert and its native people to survive.

I was only able to write these three paragraphs of plot summary because I know the novel. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t read Dune would be able to make the slightest sense out of it. In the movie, Leto goes to Dune by order of the emperor and then almost immediately comes under attack by a gigantic military force that includes the emperor’s own elite army. The movie offers no real explanation for this bizarre turn of events. Why would the emperor send Leto to Dune only to try to get him out of Dune? In the book, Herbert makes it all clear in a painstaking account that takes hundreds of pages to set up and deliver.

I understand that Villeneuve didn’t have that kind of time. But then he either needed to simplify the plot—or not make the movie at all. Which probably would have been the wisest course. Dune has already been the source of a cinematic disaster, David Lynch’s risible 1984 version. But to give Lynch some credit, he labored mightily to make sure you understood what was happening. Villeneuve gave up trying to make Dune’s plot clear—and then gave up entirely by ending it when the money and the time ran out.

Published under: Movie Reviews