I am not a huge Dune fan, let’s start there. Not like some people are fans. I was first introduced to the sci-fi saga through the Syfy mini-series (way back when it was still the Sci-Fi Channel). Immediately, I enjoyed the story and the characters and wanted to know more… but not enough to read the books. Not when I had a shortcut in a friend who told me it wasn’t worth it because the series was long and went a little sideways.
Then Syfy (still Sci-Fi) came out with the Children of Dune mini-series and I loved that even more. Mostly for James McAvoy who was a brilliant Leto Atreides and who I recognized straight away was a fabulous actor. I still didn’t read the books, but I did wikipedia the series (and agreed with my friend that it went sideways).
Finally, I read the book as part of a book club. Mostly I thought the mini-series did a good job of capturing the story. But I was disappointed that Irulan wasn’t a bigger character in the book. The mini-series did an extremely good job of handling her character and despite a bit of cheesiness, a limited budget and simplistic directing it remains my favorite version simply for how interesting Irulan is and how active she is in the political machinations.
So, I brought all of that into this latest adaptation of Dune. And while it’s big and grand, it still leaves me with the perpetual question Dune has plagued filmmakers with, “Is it impossible to make a great adaptation?” Because for all its appeal, this wasn’t it.
The biggest problem is that I hoped Denis Villeneuve wouldn’t make a Villeneuve film (I know! but I hoped). Dune couldn’t possibly be shot like Arrival with it’s slow pans, long shots holding on the actors and its silence. And yet… he found a way. And I get it. There is a certain cerebral aspect to the book which also takes its time telling the story. But there’s also action and danger and assassinations. This is one area where the film could have innovated on the book, amping up the action and balancing the intellectual and character moments with fast-paced excitement. That’s a great Dune.
That’s what the trailer suggests. It’s sweeping and kinetic. And yet the glimpses of action given in the trailer play like slow-motion suspense moments in the film. Fights are cut away from, covered in dust or blocked by fireballs. It’s a good character study and a terrible action film because the action sequences are so brief and not well shot they barely feel like action and have no energy. It needed a dose of Michael Bay–not throughout the whole thing but to balance what Villeneuve does do well, which are the character moments.
And the character moments are really good, in part because it’s a strong cast. Timothée Chalamet is rather fantastic. He’s open and strong and vulnerable all at the same time. He commands the screen in a way that works so well in this movie. Villeneuve knows how to shoot Chalamet; how to let the camera be captivated by the subtlest of expressions and the resonance of power Chalamet is able to summon. The quiet moments work well when they’re focused on Chalamet as Paul.
Jason Momoa lightens the heaviness of the story by making Duncan Idaho jovial without losing any of the loyalty or solidarity of the character.
Rebecca Ferguson captures the complications of Lady Jessica, but she isn’t given much to do. The character may have been a player in the world, choosing to have a son and navigating the volatile waters of the Bene Gesserit and house politics. But in this film she doesn’t move the story in any way.
In the mini-series there’s a clearer picture of her driving Paul along the Bene Gesserit ways. It’s a huge part of the story so her role is more active than simply being a trainer, as she comes across in this new version. She’s the one who leverages the superstitions laid into the Fremen culture, against Paul’s protest, and initially secures their survival in the desert. That’s how I remember it in the book. In this latest version, however, it’s Paul who claims the role of Mahdi and offers to make Arrakis into a paradise. This version of Jessica is powerful and complicated, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes its when characters are powerful that we miss how they’re not making choices and as a result moved along by the story rather than moving it.
Villeneuve is credited as one of the writers and he gets decent marks for that (along with the other writers). Like the mini-series the story captures the book well. The characters are still there and the political wrangling and betrayals come through, even though we don’t meet the emperor (or Irulan). It doesn’t lose anything in translation but it also doesn’t innovate on the story or bring anything new to the table.
Villeneuve’s directing also lacks something in the cinematography and costumes. There’s too much contrast in some scenes that comes across as an 80s sci-fi film more than something modern. And a good bit of the costumes and makeup play more like campy sci-fi that’s trying too hard to be weird rather than the sort of realistic otherworldliness offered in like the Marvel films. I know that’s probably a terrible comparison, but I balked less at a talking racoon than I did at plastic covered characters with black marks on their lips. I don’t know if it’s intentional, as like a nod to the first adaptation in the 80s, or perhaps even the 60s of the books origins. Either way, it didn’t work for me.
Neither did the music which is also a bit weird. I much prefer Brian Tyler’s score for Children of Dune. I mean, the Inama Nushif montage alone is fantastic.
We’ll see in a few years what the second movie brings. At least now we know we can expect it to be slow and methodical. I’m sure it will capture Paul well, probably Chani, perhaps even Irulan and Lady Jessica. They will be well portrayed though it’s still to be seen if they will be players in the story. I’m sure the next film will also deliver a visual interpretation of the book without bringing anything new to the telling.