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Dune (2021)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Saint Muad'Dib"
3 stars

Before getting into any discussion of “Dune,” the long-awaited new screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel that has been tantalizing readers and frustrating potential adaptors ever since it was first published in 1965, I suppose I should first offer up my own prior interactions with it over the years. Although science-fiction is a literary genre that I have never really gone for in a big way, I have made it a point to read at least some of the key works and therefore sat down and plowed my way through it when I was about 12 or so. Truth be told, I wasn’t especially overwhelmed by it. While Herbert certainly knew how to conjure up fascinating new worlds and creatures, he didn’t seem to have much of an idea of how to populate them or tell a story that didn’t bog down into pseudo-mystical gobbledygook at least once every couple of pages—Harlan Ellison once described it as being nothing more than “King of Kings” with giant worms and that pretty much sums it up perfectly in my book. The other reason I read the book then was because, after a number of false starts, it was coming to the big screen in a hugely expensive and highly anticipated screen adaptation from David Lynch, then hot off his Oscar-nominated hit “The Elephant Man,” that magazines like “Starlog” and “Twilight Zone” assured me would result in an epic cinematic event whose size and scope would make even the “Star Wars” films look puny by comparison.

When that movie came out at Christmastime 1984, I was there opening weekend, clutching the double-side handout of terminology used in the film to serve as a handy guide to newcomers (at least those with the ability to read in the dark), and watched what I believed at the time to be one of the most bewildering films I had ever seen—God only knows what it must have been like to those who hadn’t actually read the book—filled with clearly confused actors standing on elaborate sets wearing uncomfortable costumes and uttering dialogue that had the kind of poetic cadence rarely experienced outside of stereo instructions. The result was an ungodly flop whose most significant contribution to film culture was that Lynch got producer Dino De Laurentis to agree to finance his next film as part of his deal and that turned out to be a little thing called “Blue Velvet.” However, a few years later, after having seen both “Blue Velvet” and Lynch’s audacious debut feature, the indescribable cult favorite “Eraserhead,” I decided to give it another chance and found myself kind of liking it more the second time around. To be certain, as an adaptation of the book, it is pretty much a disaster—a largely impenetrable jumble of moments from the book that probably should have been more accurately called “Highlights from Dune.” However, if you can put the book out of your mind and approach it in the way that Lynch presumably did when he signed on—as a excuse to create an “Eraserhead”-style freakout with $50 million dollars of other people’s money (back when $50 million was considered an astronomical sum for a single movie)—it is undeniably fascinating and contains some of the most extraordinary visuals that I have ever seen in a sci-fi film, from the ghastly Third Stage Navigator to the home planet of the loathsome Harkonnen (which looked like Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” album somehow brought to life). Lest you think that I am being deliberately contrary here, it should be known that while Lynch himself has disavowed the film since practically the moment that it opened, it has undergone a considerable critical reevaluation over the years that has elevated it from the ranking of outright bomb to fascinating misfire.

My guess is that with the release of this new film version of the book (well, some of it at least) from Denis Villeneuve, the largely overrated auteur whose last film, the undeniably effective “Blade Runner 2049,” saw him reviving another cult favorite that faced critical confusion and audience indifference when it first hit theaters decades earlier, the reputation of Lynch’s film will soar even higher than before. That is not to say that it is a bad film by any means, just one that is lacking a certain degree of magic at its center. It is the kind of movie that one imagines that the executives at Universal were hoping to get from Lynch all those years ago—a straightforward (or at least as straightforward as possible, given the source material) adaptation that has been told in a clean and reasonably efficient manner without getting mired in the weirdness and ugliness that Lynch seemed to gravitate to throughout. The result is a perfectly adequate film and that should serve as some kind of indication of its ultimate failure of imagination—this is the kind of project that should inspire hosannas or tomatoes hurled at the screen, not merely an “Eh—its okay.”

For those still unfamiliar with “Dune,” it is set in the year 10,191 and deals with an interplanetary skirmish with potential galaxy-wide repercussions over Arrakis, a barren and hostile desert planet that is the only known source for “spice,” a drug-like substance that allows for instantaneous space travel and gives those exposed to it quasi-mystical powers. For decades, the spice harvesting has been in the hands of the repulsive House Harkonnen, who have ravaged the lands and waged constant war against the natives, known as Fremen. However, in a surprise move, the Harkonnen have been removed from power by the Emperor of the universe and replaced with Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the benevolent ruler of the lush forest planet of Caladan, who will relocate to Arrakis with his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) to take charge of the spice production and forge an alliance with the Fremen. Although everything seems to be going as planned, Paul is troubled by dreams that he has been having of Arrakis, mostly involving visions of a beautiful young Fremen woman, and his mind is not put at ease when the leader of the quasi-religious group Jessica is a part of (one that is only supposed to bear daughters) comes by to force Paul to take a test that involves him putting his hand in a box. (No snickering.) What is in this box? “Pain” is the reply and since the person saying that is none other than that eternal symbol of cinematic kink, Charlotte Rampling, you have to assume she means business.

Even though it often seems as if nearly all of the characters in “Dune” harbor some form of psychic powers, no one in House Atreides can apparently see an obvious double-cross in the making and they have barely landed on Arrakis when they discover that they have been betrayed by the Emperor, who has arranged for Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) to launch an attack on his mortal enemy to wipe out House Atreides once and for all and reclaim the spice production. The coup goes off as planned but Paul and Jessica manage to escape their fates and escape into the desert, where they eventually are taken in by a clan of Fremen led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem). Luckily for them, Paul seems to embody enough vague prophecies to suggest that he may indeed be the messiah-like figure who has been foretold as the one who will lead a revolution that will free the Fremen from tyranny at last, or something like that. (I told you it was vague.) Luckily for Paul, one of the members of the tribe, Chani, is the very same person from his dreams and, even better, is played by none other than Zendaya, in what seems to be a cheeky homage to Lynch including a then-hot one-named pop icon, Sting, in the cast of his film. Alas, unlike Mr. Sumner, we do not get to see Zendaya parading around in rubber underwear but then again, there is always the chance that they are saving that for the sequel.

Which brings us to one very important aspect of the film that is being underplayed by the massive promotional campaign—the fact that what plays out over the course of the 155-minute running time covers roughly the first half of the book before the end credits kick in and indeed, it announces itself right off the bat as “Dune: Part One.” Back when Lynch made his version, he was reportedly contractually required to turn in a film no longer than 137 minutes—supposedly as long as a film could be back then without losing an additional showing per day—and even defenders of his attempt concede that to try to condense Herbert’s sprawling saga into such a comparatively reduced running time probably doomed the entire project from the start by forcing it to rush so quickly from incident to incident that even those who knew it inside out found themselves struggling to get their bearings. Here, Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts have been given fifteen more minutes to cover half the material and end up with the exact opposite problem that Lynch had—every scene seems to go on way too long for its own good. What’s worse, this half of the story is all setup and while this version certainly does a more coherent job of easing viewers into the world and its intrigues, things begin to drag considerably once the world-setting has concluded and the narrative bogs down into political machinations, prophecies, betrayals and the occasional battle sequence without any kind of dramatic payoff to help take away the sting that you are only getting half a movie. Whatever its flaws, and they were numerous, at least the equally gargantuan two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” was structured in a way that gave viewers some sort of resolution at the end of the first part to help tide them over until the second. Obviously, this is a narrative that doesn’t quite lend itself to such an approach but considering how chancy “Dune” has proven itself to be as a mass appeal endeavor, at least cinematically, over the years as well as the fact that the existence of “Part Two” is presumably dependent on how well this one does, it seems exceptionally nervy to end it the way that it does and run the risk of receiving the same response that Ralph Bashki’s ambitious animated take on “The Lord of the Rings” faced when audiences turned out to see that long-awaited project and did not learn until the end that it too was only the first half of the story, causing such terrible word-of-mouth that the second part was cancelled altogether.

Perhaps Villeneuve assumed that viewers would be so blown away by the awe-inspiring visuals that he planned to unleash that they would be willing to overlook the fact that they would have to wait at least a couple of years for any resolution to the narrative. To a certain extent, the film does deliver in that regard as it is fairly spectacular from a visual perspective, aided in no small part by the decision to shoot it in the IMAX format. And yet, as impressive as all of it is from a technical perspective, very little of the eye candy on display sticks in the mind afterwards in the way that Lynch’s truly hallucinogenic imagery did. Even the saga’s most famous creation—the enormous sandworms that wreak havoc on Arrakis—are depicted here in a manner that is as lavish as can be but which turns out to be just another visual effect in a film full of them. Now granted, part of the problem may be that Herbert’s book has had such a profound effect on the genre over the decades since its publication that its best bits have been cherry-picked by others who have included them in their own projects as a form of homage. (Tatooine, anyone?) One of the reasons why Lynch proved to be such an inspired pick for director—and why Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott probably would have proven to be equally inspired if their proposed versions had taken off—if because he had a distinct visual style that would not be limited solely to recreating Herbert’s vision. By comparison, Villeneuve has little in the way of a unique cinematic style (even the undeniable accomplishments of “Blade Runner 2049” saw him building upon the already-established visual style set by Scott on the original film) and is content to simply replicate without really bringing anything to life.

One thing that this version does have in common with its predecessor is a sprawling cast of actors and personalities from all around the world who have chosen to sign on despite the fact that the story is, at its heart, essentially a parable and parables are not exactly famous for their complex characters. Typically, those assigned the heroic parts comes off the least well of the bunch. The role of Paul, as written, is virtually unplayable and so it was a miracle that Lynch managed to find, in then-unknown Kyle MacLachlan, the perfect embodiment of the character—a seemingly clean-cut hero type harboring weirdness just beneath his blandly handsome good looks. By comparison, Chalamet is kind of a bore—with his borderline monotone and his tendency to stand amidst the scenery as if he was posing for a magazine layout, he gives off the kind of stiff turn that one used to regularly encounter back in the day when Biblical epics were all the rage. Most of the other members of the cast—which also includes the likes of Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin and Dave Bautista—tend to get swallowed up by the immensity of the production with only the more colorful ones (such as Skarsgard, who portrays the Baron as a cross between a malevolent version of the Starchild from “2001” and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”) standing out. My favorite of the bunch is probably Rampling, partly because there is no movie that could not benefit from her considerable presence and partly because of the realization that she is perhaps the one actress in the world who could have plausibly been included in pretty much every screen iteration of the book over the years, including the ones that never got off the ground, and have it seem like an example of pinpoint casting at its finest.

I know I may be sounding a bit harsh towards “Dune” but I suppose that is the problem with trying to review only half a movie and being forced to wait at least a couple more years to see if any of it ends up paying off. As it is, “Dune” is a perfectly staid and sensible cinematic translation of a book that has seemingly defied such a thing for decades now and if that is all that you are looking for it to be, then you will probably like it. Personally, I wanted something more. Say what you will about Lynch’s film, it was the work of a true original willing to take plenty of chances with a property that many had regarded as sacrosanct for so many years that they began to believe in its sense of self-importance. Villeneuve’s film, by comparison, is the work of someone who understands that he has been handed the keys to a valuable piece of intellectual property and is clearly loathe to do anything to jeopardize that position by straying too far off base. That may be fine for some—especially those working in the corridors of power at Warner Brothers—but I know that when I close my eyes and dream of “Dune,” it will be Lynch’s take that comes to mind. Well, maybe Charlotte Rampling as well to add a bit of spice.

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originally posted: 10/19/21 13:46:04
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