The New Dune Is Too Somber for Its Own Good

I can’t help but wonder what Denis Villeneuve's new Dune movie might have been had it chucked those handsome but cold visuals and embraced a wilder approach.

If you can’t get wild and crazy with a nearly thousand-page yarn about tripping on space peyote while riding giant worms in the desert, what can you get wild and crazy about? (Chia Bella James / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Hey, Dune-iacs! I realize the new film adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve is a long-awaited dream come true for you. So I urge you to enthuse amongst yourselves while I talk to the other moviegoers who might casually walk in — or tune in — to see Dune without having in any way prepared for the big event.

Because I didn’t study for this exam, and I feel a bit self-conscious about it now. See, I just read a piece on the film that traced the Dune lineage from Frank Herbert’s original 1965 sci-fi novel to the aborted early 1970s film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, to the completed but much reviled 1984 film by David Lynch, to the 1990s television miniseries, to the new film directed by Denis Villeneuve, currently out in theaters and on HBO Max. It concluded, “With all of this cinema history behind it, trying to view the newest film solely on its own terms as an isolated work of art is absurd.”

And this is probably true. But things happen, people forget to study, and before they know it, the movie’s out and it’s time to go see it. And, luckily, I’m an old hand at the absurdity of cold-watching films with rich media histories, and don’t mind taking the plunge. How else could I have seen about 9 million films from all different eras, made in all different countries, often in languages I don’t speak, while knowing full well that even with an obsessive commitment to cinema, I was missing oceans of nuance and context in so many of them? What am I supposed to do, get a life instead of watching 9 million movies?

Ha! Too late now!

Besides, I saw so many people online solemnly declaring of Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One, “This film is good,” and it’s doing so well in general that I thought it wasn’t too much of a risk watching it as a regular, untutored human being wandering into the multiplex hungry for a movie might.

But I have to admit, this film probably requires real fan expertise to make it a powerful viewing experience. Either that or it’s just another one of these slow, bloated, ponderous, solemn, handsomely shot, Hans Zimmered epics that other people seem to like for reasons that escape me.

If it hadn’t been for the presence of a few of my favorite actors, who are always worth watching — shout-out to Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem especially, and Charlotte Rampling doing nicely sinister work as the veiled Reverend Mother of the mind-controlling sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit — I don’t think I could’ve made it through this thing, especially with Timothée Chalamet in the lead as Paul Atreides, son and heir of Duke Leto of the House Atreides (Oscar Isaac), struggling with being the One, messianically speaking. Chalamet’s in everything now — next up, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch! — and, in my view, he’s wrong for everything that doesn’t require a twee, weedy, sullen, fashionably dressed, perpetually teenage-looking poser with a mop of dark hair and big, liquid doe eyes like Audrey Hepburn.

Actually, what am I saying? He’ll be perfect for The French Dispatch.

Anyway, here’s an example of how Dune plays in my experience. An early scene features Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto solemnly welcoming a visiting delegation from the emperor with all pomp and ceremony, and signing the emperor’s order to take control of his new fiefdom of Arrakis, a scorching desert planet. When the signing ritual is finished, Duke Leto turns to the emperor’s incredibly handsome Herald of the Change (Benjamin Clementine).

Duke Leto: So it’s done.

Emperor’s Herald: Yes, it’s done.

Me [starting to froth a bit]: Yes, I know it’s done, I just watched it being done at some considerable length, with the general air of gloomy court intrigue, and the many significant glances, and the fancy signet ring getting pushed into the gold wax in a slow, ominous way, as if to say, “Whoa, we’ve really done it now! The die is cast! Hope the whole deal doesn’t go horribly wrong or anything!”

I presume it’s not a spoiler to note that it all does go wrong. The whole imperial project to colonize Arrakis and mine it for its vital “spice” resource while oppressing its indigenous people, the Fremen, is riddled with corruption, betrayal, and incompetent misjudgments among the power players at the top. Imagine that.

The way Frank Herbert did imagine that back in 1965 is highly contested content politically, as demonstrated by the many think pieces published in response to the movie. On the one hand, Herbert builds his novel around the totalitarian trap centered around the mythologized hero figure:

Herbert claims that “the original spark” of the novel was his conviction that “superheroes are disastrous for mankind,” and a desire to dramatise how the mythmaking impulse that crowns a Hero inevitably conjures a toxic, totalitarian social system of “demagogues, fanatics, con-game artists . . . [and] innocent and not so innocent bystanders.”

But on the other hand, while Herbert is writing a critique about “Western man . . . who uses this ‘messianic impulse’ to control other societies and further inflict himself on the environment,” he’s also accused of writing an orientalist white-savior narrative:

Even when the savior fails, destroys everything, and becomes a monster, his agency overrides that of everyone else and reduces them to side stories who are swept away in the terrific power of his myth. Everyone else who could have spoken but wasn’t allowed to becomes a mere accessory to a tragic coming-of-age story.

Certainly, up through the end of part one, Dune is looking like a potentially tragic coming-of-age story centered on Paul as the One. It’s heartening to know it’s going to become something else entirely; something else entirely is exactly what I’d like to see.

Take the visuals — Wasn’t Dune supposed to be the book that, if truly realized in film, promised to have the most hallucinatory, viscerally thrilling visuals ever? All of Paul’s dreams, which are actually portents — Couldn’t something have been done with those? I mean, slow-motion and golden light and Zendaya as a Fremen woman are all pleasant looking, but they don’t make for the most mind-blowing visuals, cinematically speaking.

Given all this dullness, I was really looking forward to the sandworms. Sadly, it’s very telling that, in this film, the sandworms are dull too. They tunnel along in a very literal way, creating long sand tubes like gophers in cartoons, only gigantic. And when one finally appears, the most that can be said for it is, it’s quite large. Yep. A large, staid, dignified-looking sandworm comes up out of the sand, looming over Paul and his dull mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). It then holds its pose photogenically, like a head of state getting one of those enormous magisterial portraits done to hang in the marble hall.

This is in keeping with the film’s stately “suitable for framing” aesthetic. But I can’t help but wonder what this Dune might have been had it chucked those handsome but cold visuals out the window and embraced a wilder look — the kind promised by Jodorowsky and delivered, apparently, by Lynch decades ago.

Because if you can’t get wild and crazy with a nearly thousand-page yarn about tripping on space peyote while riding giant worms in the desert, what can you get wild and crazy about?