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Dune (Denis Villeneuve, 2021)

Marianne Moore described poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In his numbing adaptation of Frank Herbert’s mother of all sci-fi cult novels, Dune (1965), director Denis Villeneuve expends so much industrial force creating imaginary gardens and megalopolises that he grounds his real toads into dust.

Villeneuve’s Dune, his third over-deliberate sci-fi saga (after 2016’s Arrival and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049), typifies the current mania for world-building over character-building. In the first 155 minutes of a projected two-part adaptation, Villeneuve sweats to establish a realistic physicality for a tale about a Messiah-in-training, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), who uses amped-up powers of foresight and suggestion to bend foes to his command, liberate a desert planet called Arrakis, and control its all-important spice trade. This movie sets the table for the revolutionary war. It spends half the time on recon, as Paul, his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), get to know the lay of the sand, and the other half on what we’d call “palace intrigue” if there were anything intriguing about it. A family retainer betrays House Atreides before we grasp how the clan grew to trust him or why his villainy should come as a shock. Talented supporting actors like Stephen McKinley Henderson (Fences) become mere placeholders for key figures in the book.

Zealots may approve as they project missing emotions and meanings, but Villeneuve’s literalist compression of the book will be a thumping disappointment both for those new to Herbert’s sacred text and for longtime admirers of his futuristic-feudal milestone about ecology, colonialism, religion, addiction, and fanaticism.

After the David Lynch debacle nearly four decades ago, Herbert’s novel deserved a Dune Whisperer. Villeneuve has assembled a crack team to fill out his perversely naturalistic vision for a novel that includes two-mile-long carnivorous, territorial sandworms. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, production designer Patrice Vermette, and costume designers Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan pool their talents to conjure the look and feel of oceanic planet Caladan (actually, Norway’s rocky cliffs and waterways) and desert planet Arrakis (really, the sandy barrens of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates). They make us understand how we could breathe, walk, and dress for success in the eye-popping vistas of distant and exotic worlds.

Once the action stalls on arid Arrakis, though, you may feel like Monty Python’s dead parrot, “pining for the fjords.” Sound designers Mark Mangini and Theo Green sunk hydrophones into the sands to capture hypogeal moans, while composer Hans Zimmer used eccentric and insistent percussion, harshly thrumming strings, and a keening female chorus to create a clangorous score. Alas, put these virtuosos together and all you get is a synth-pop version of musique concrète. Villeneuve pours it on as if covering up a corpse.

Villeneuve boasts a Fritz Lang-grade talent for giant geometric imagery, and it does make his setups exciting. We anticipate thrills to come as Isaac’s honorable Duke Leto masses his forces to take charge of Arrakis from evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgärd), whose troops are so fascistic they do everything but goose-step. (The visual model for this bald Harkonnen must be Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now; the Baron emerges from a slimy bath just like Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard popping his head out of jungle waters.)

The story couldn’t be more trippy or majestic. As critic John Leonard put it, “Herbert had clearly dined on Joseph Campbell’s refried mythic beans, with lots of Rachel Carson for dessert, after which he hallucinated a space-operatic, eco-dystopian future that was part biblical, part Shakespearean, and extremely thirsty.” This mixture couldn’t be more pertinent today. The known universe runs on Arrakis’s sole natural resource, “the spice,” a tasty, addictive narcotic that heightens sensory awareness, prolongs life, and triggers the gift of prescience in some Very Important People. The empire’s shadowy transportation czars require spice to map safe interstellar courses through hyperspace—the foundation of imperial stability. An enlightened yet self-serving witchhood, the Bene Gesserit, uses it to catalyze visions of the future. The witches need their drug-fueled prophecies to plot out political breeding programs and plant messianic narratives in the hearts and minds of oppressed people like Arrakis’s Fremen natives.

Herbert makes outlandish cataclysms immediately accessible by filtering the action through the sensibilities of Paul, Leto, Jessica, and the Baron. Villeneuve pulls that off only when he’s introducing Paul’s cosmic coming-of-age drama. Chalamet’s arrested-adolescent volatility turns out to be ideal for the gifted yet inchoate Paul, and Ferguson’s mental toughness, supple emotionality, and balletic grace fit the profile of a rebel member of the Bene Gesserit. Ferguson has one signal advantage over the other actors: Jessica often uses secret sign language (and Villeneuve provides subtitled translations), so she doesn’t compete with the blaring soundtrack to get across her message. When Jessica tests Paul’s super-prowess with means as mundane as a pitcher of water, the two actors draw us into the fantasy of an emotional young man funneling teenage energy into skills that require calm and concentration. It’s fun to watch Paul turn self-control into mind control as he perfects “the Voice”—a mastery of tone, pitch, and mood that compels even dire enemies to obey him. That’s one instance when Villeneuve and his fellow screenwriters (John Spaights and Eric Roth) manage to unfold their story from the inside out. But Villeneuve can’t sustain that connection when others enter the picture. He flubs the showcase scene when Jessica’s Bene Gesserit boss (Charlotte Rampling) charges Paul to put his hand into a box filled with “pain.” The cutaways to Jessica—and to scorching flames—fail to match the tension and catharsis William Wyler and Audrey Hepburn achieved in Roman Holiday simply by placing Hepburn’s hand in “the Mouth of Truth.”

In one of the film’s (and book’s) blissfully ironic moments, Javier Bardem’s Stilgar spits on Duke Leto’s table as a mark of respect—a gift of moisture on a waterless planet. In a more sardonic vein, sulky Paul tells weapons master Gurney Halleck that he’s not “in the mood” to practice fighting. It’s even more piquant onscreen, when Josh Brolin turns Halleck’s can-do machismo into a satiric style and Chalamet temporarily falls into his emo-princeling mode (cf. The King). But Villeneuve fritters away what used to be called “entertainment value.” Audiences would laugh with the film if he acknowledged the peculiarity of Paul teaching Jessica an arrhythmic stutter-step undetectable by sandworms. It could have been a sly, amusing riff on Marty Feldman’s hunched and tilted Igor telling Gene Wilder’s compliant Dr. Frankenstein, “Walk this way.”

Dune covers 54% of the book and leaves us tangled in a dozen dangling plot lines. But for a few seconds after a crushing sandstorm, Villeneuve gets the serious whimsy and daunting scale just right. He takes down the noise so we can see and hear Arrakis’s kangaroo mouse, the sprightly muad’dib, skittering and squeaking in the desert drifts and dunes. In this vast and ponderous would-be epic, it’s the one lyrical moment.

Michael Sragow, a Film Comment contributing editor, wrote Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon, 2008), edited two volumes of James Agee’s prose for the Library of America in 2005, and wrote and co-produced the 2019 documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers.