Dune (2021)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Sharon Duncan-Brewster

Spoilers follow. I mean, there’s not that much that happens in this sucker, but it’s a recent release, so…spoilers.

Friends,

Prestige television has been affected by a powerful and terrible scourge in the years since I gave up on it. Presumably guided by the perspective that a text’s length is a better signifier of its meaningfulness than what it contains, or perhaps assuming fallaciously that the dragged out solving of a puzzle box is more addicting than the taut solving of it, showrunners and networks have built slogs for television. How much of a slog a television program is hardly even seems to register anymore. Everyone sort of goes along with the basic point of view of, “Well, so the first four hours of this show you’ll watch with your phone out for three and a half hours aren’t that interesting, but it builds backstory or lore or character or something.” It’s a pernicious trend, and while movies are hardly immune from the foibles of TV (and have been fighting a losing battle against the tube since we wondered if success would spoil Rock Hunter), Dune was the first time I felt like I saw the prestige TV vibe sneak into a motion picture of this magnitude. There was a lot of plot that was laid out, certainly, but how much story was there? Which characters can we say are more interesting than the archetypes they’re fashioned after, and which actors are giving charismatic performances or playing their parts like there’s some personality in the characters? Will any of the action sequences live on, or can any of the wide shots in this picture do more than festoon a desktop?

The answer, from the moment that Denis Villeneuve took on this project, was going to be “Certainly not.” I just had no idea that it was going to feel like this as it happened, somewhere between half-interesting and interminable. I want to like this story of intergalactic backstabbing and fateful prophecy and sandworms. (I haven’t been attached to a mode of transportation in a movie like this since I saw Speed.) But Dune does not give me much to like, not when I’ve been “spoiled” with epics who could use every minute of their runtimes to fill the screen with beautiful, unforgettable images in concert with wonderful characters leading a riveting story. Dune is 155 minutes. David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai is 161. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is 162. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is 142. Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, as it’s restored, is 133 minutes. And honestly, this is the last word: George Lucas, often-maligned but never replicated, brought in Star Wars at a cool 121. I love a long movie quite a bit more than the next guy, but I don’t love the lollygagging that comes with the prestige TV mindset. Dune lollygags, so sure that its parade of exposition is absolutely necessary to understanding what comes later in the movie, or, barring that, what might come in the inevitable sequel.

Like a football team that just fired their defensively-minded head coach and searched for an offensive guru, you can see the fear of the David Lynch Dune in the screenwriters, practically hear them murmuring not to make this too convoluted, lest it be compared to the infamous booklets in theaters naming the characters in Lynch’s picture. To their credit, there’s nothing confusing about Dune, which, even as someone who hasn’t read the book(s), I’m sure is terribly impressive. But it also means that this entire movie is filled with plot, plot, plot, and the film aches for moments. Deaths of major characters are plot points and not moments in this film. Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) gets a nice final scene where he pulls a sword out of his midsection and flails around with it for a sec so he can give Paul and his mother Jessica (Ferguson) a few more moments to run; it’s a plot point, not a moment. Paul cannot rely on Duncan any longer. Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) takes an age to die, and when he tries to take Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) with him, it’s a checkmark. The Duke is dead, the Baron is incapacitated, check, check. For Paul to lose his father and then his best adult friend in such rapid succession ought to be a pair of enormous emotional body blows. The fact that nothing actually happens with Paul in this movie until Leto and Duncan are killed is the problem with the film itself. Dune needs Paul to be cast out, friendless except for his mother, so that he may begin this journey to become the prophesied figure that the Fremen will (in Part 2, presumably) begin to believe he is. He must not be able to rely on anyone for help, least of all his powerful, noble, and doomed father, and certainly not his intensely loyal friend who is also a brilliant soldier. Thus they must be gotten rid of, with some nods as to what power works against them. The film nods at what these deaths mean to Paul and Jessica, and does little more than that. Destiny has its claws in Paul, and they have a lobotomizing effect on the part of his brain that might feel loss. The point was to get through this part of the story, not to feel it. Four episodes are down and now the story can actually start.

I worry that the basically positive response to Dune is going to doom us to years more of the film industry’s attempt to convince us that Timothee Chalamet is a leading man. In two Greta Gerwig features, he has been tremendous, first as the nihilistic wealthy stereotyped jerk from Lady Bird, and then as the sensitive and aching Laurie from Little Women. When he is not meant to be the focus of the film, he is so good. He is a character actor, with a face like a dolorous puppy and hair like floppy ears. But as a true lead, the person at the center of the picture, Chalamet is an empty space. In Call Me by Your Name, another languorous movie where the production design overwhelms the story, he is so distant and ambivalent, and the film recklessly decides to make this alien figure the center of what is supposedly a torrid romance. Here in Dune, I cannot name a single scene where Chalamet holds his own. Josh Brolin is giving the performance he seems to save especially for his Villeneuve pictures—gruff, no-nonsense, whatever signifies toughness to people who play Call of Duty—as Gurney Halleck, and Brolin’s force eliminates Chalamet from the screen. Momoa is giving the MCU performance here, a quippy part that feels very out of place compared to the basic stoicism of the picture, but the camera loves him more than Chalamet. Charlotte Rampling’s Bene Gesserit abbess is the absolute center of her scenes with Paul, an accomplishment of costuming but also of Rampling’s diction and slightly withered physical presence. Oscar Isaac, the man who is a little too noble for his ignoble imperium, is containing worlds that I don’t think anyone else is. Go down the line all the way to Zendaya, who’s in here for five minutes, and just about everyone is doing something that just catches the eye, stirs the heart, grabs the attention more than the stony-faced Chalamet. Cynically, one wonders if the point is to make the wannabe white saviors watching the picture place themselves on this bland countenance in much the same way fanboys have plastered themselves on Luke Skywalker for decades. Practically, I think this is a choice, a decision for mystery or confusion that comes off as something more like apathy. It’s not an insuperable decision, because if the story is compelling enough or the action is strong enough, then a wooden performance at the center is not necessarily fatal. But…I mean, you read everything else I said already.

The look of Dune is a saving grace, or at least it manages to salvage a film which feels fairly pointless. It’s hard to be impressed or awed by a landscape which primarily came from a computer, but Dune has actually achieved something here. This is an attractive movie, and the settings created for it look about as genuine as can be hoped for. There’s a suggestion of a culture in the way that Paul watches and learns from his filmbooks, the military costumes that the members of House Atreides wear, the ritual and feudal symbolism of a universe dominated by lineages, combat dictated by melee weapons because of the use of personal shielding. (The look of the shields is, frankly, pretty ugly compared to the rest of what these people are walking and talking through; it looks like 2000s tech compared to the stone walls and keeps of the living spaces and corridors.) Villeneuve has continued to adapt the Zaha Hadid influence in his spacecraft like what we saw in Arrival, bringing it to Arrakis and Caladan, and that sleekness and those curves could, in the hands of a much better storyteller, amplify ideas and build thrills rather than act as eyewash.

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