Virtually all of Dune is scene-setting, world-building, setup. It may be the longest prologue ever made.
Watching Denis Villeneuve’s film of Frank Herbert’s Dune filled me with admiration — not for Villeneuve or Herbert, but for George Lucas. Of the three big-name directors who immersed themselves in Herbert’s sci-fi tale, Lucas was the one who understood exactly what to do with it: strip it for parts, combine those parts with some other burgled bits (from Flash Gordon), and add plenty of whimsy and lightheartedness. Villeneuve’s Dune is light as lead.
It’s well worth seeing (in a theater, as I’ll explain) and I certainly hope the second half gets made. But it’s a slog. Gorgeous and eerie, it drifts along when it should be charging ahead. It’s a film of painterly vistas, haunting music, and woozy reveries, defined by stiff dialogue.
I love beautiful reveries and I kind of like stiff dialogue, especially if it sounds like it came from a 1950s Bible epic or Lawrence of Arabia: “Here I stand,” that sort of thing. Always slays me. However, the guy who delivers a line like that, in a crucial moment, kind of mumbles it, so I’m not exactly sure what he said, which is part and parcel of what’s wrong with this movie. The moments that have to deliver, to knock you out with their awesomeness, instead just hang there. There’s also an interlude where a massively endangered young hero with a supernatural gift turns off his instruments while piloting his futuristic flying machine (sound familiar, at all?) so he can tune in with mysterious forces, and that scene is approximately 0.02 percent as good as the climax of Star Wars.
Dune, which is showing at the New York Film Festival ahead of an October 22 release in theaters and on HBO Max, is the kind of item about which people say, “You must see it in a theater because theater screens are large.” That’s not why you should see it in a theater. You should see it in a theater because it’s really slow, and if you watch it at home you’ll probably fall asleep or get distracted by whatever’s happening on your phone. Movie theaters are the one place left where anybody ever focuses on one thing anymore. A theater provides your best shot at savoring Villeneuve’s red-and-orange tableaux and Hans Zimmer’s typically eerie and otherworldly score.
What you won’t be able to do is savor the plot, because there isn’t much of that. A plot means somebody wants something, or some question has to be answered. In Dune, we meet a prince named Paul (Timothée Chalamet). He is a sorcerer in the making, thanks to his maternal ancestry (mom is Rebecca Ferguson), and also a ruler/warrior in the making thanks to his dad the Duke (Oscar Isaac). He is also a slightly confused young man. He’s trying to make sense of his dreams while learning some skills and generally finding himself. But that’s not a sci-fi epic. That’s just college.
Paul’s noble and wise dynasty, House Atreides, has been tapped by the emperor of the known universe to take over management and mining at the colonial outpost of Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune), the sand planet whose invaluable export is the Spice — a drug/health supplement/navigational aide/dessert topping/floor wax. Coached by two great warriors (Jason Mamoa and Josh Brolin), Paul goes along with Dad to the desert planet to learn how to rule it now that the emperor has removed Dune’s previous governing dynasty, House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens are fairly evil, which you can tell because they look like they got all their fitness, styling, and dietary coaching from Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.
Since we open with Paul Atreides, it’s pretty obvious he’s the main character, which can only mean his dad is going to get pushed out of the story. But it takes far too long for this to happen, and yet the movie never establishes a bond between the two to rival the one between Luke and Obi-Wan. Paul has visions of the future thanks to his witchy side, and he knows there’s a native girl (Zendaya) on the sand planet who will become an ally, but we don’t meet her until 135 minutes into the thing. 135 minutes into Star Wars, you’re in your car driving home. Zendaya is the only love interest in the movie, and she gets maybe half a page of dialogue.
Virtually all of Dune is scene-setting, world-building, setup; it may be the longest prologue ever made. In the rare moments when it gets down to action scenes (mainly sword fights, plus one brief Lord of the Rings–style infantry clash), Villeneuve proves that he’s not really that interested in action scenes. Where are the sudden reversals, the surprise revelations of skill, the pointed one-liners? George Lucas knew how to do thrills; Villeneuve does not. And when a character is in extremis, he starts to glitch out, a pointless and cringey effect that reminded me of the corny 1982 effects in the original Tron.
Bleary, bleak, hallucinatory imagery: Yes. Villeneuve excels at all of that, and I’m there for it. But you can’t do it for 155 minutes, or rather you really shouldn’t, if you want to earn back the million-bucks-a-minute you’re spending. The inevitable losses on this production make me worry that the second half of it won’t get made, and that’d be a shame.
David Lynch, in his 1984 disasterpiece version of Dune, famously got bogged down in the definitions and proper names and backstory, which is why the movie was as exciting as an operator’s manual for a car you wouldn’t want to learn how to drive. Villeneuve is aware of that trap, and so he is much better about spreading things out so that you never get hit with a huge dump of made-up words at the same time. The new Dune is at least clear enough. But it lacks narrative momentum, the characters are mostly two-dimensional, and there is very little dramatic impact: When one guy double-crosses another, the traitor is such a minor figure that the betrayal carries no sting. And at the end of it all, what do we get? “This is only the beginning.” That statement is so painfully true that it amounts to trolling the audience: After two and a half hours, this thing is just getting warmed up.