Denis Villeneuve’s Dune

Timothée Chalamet in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021)

Read a few dozen reviews of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and you may be surprised by the number of critics noting off to the side that they still have a soft spot in their hearts for David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s popular and immeasurably influential novel. It’s “a great movie and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” insists David Jenkins in Little White Lies.

Lynch himself would disagree, or at least he did back in the ’80s when he claimed that interference from studio suits kept him from realizing his vision. Reviews were blistering and the $40 million movie bombed at the box office. Last week, the Atlantic’s David Sims put together a list of twenty-six movies unfairly dismissed by critics and audiences when they were released, and Lynch’s Dune is one of them. Sims grants that Lynch “packed far too much material into one feature, struggled to match the broad scope of Herbert’s world building, and made sometimes baffling narrative leaps to abridge his plot . . . But the 1984 version also has bold and exciting design choices, a hypnotic score by Toto, and brassy performances by a wild ensemble that includes Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, and Sting. Lynch has practically disowned the film, but some images in Dune are as unforgettable as those in his best-regarded works.”

Released in 1965, Herbert’s novel won Hugo and Nebula awards and has since become one of the bestselling science-fiction novels of all time. In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang wryly notes that “to the extent that Dune endures, it does so on the strengths of Herbert’s extraordinarily prescient work—its echoes of a real world ravaged by oil wars, climate change, and other consequences of human greed—rather than anything to do with its dubious cinematic legacy.”

The first stabs at an adaptation date back to the early 1970s, and the most outlandishly ambitious was surely Alejandro Jodorowsky’s. That both Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) and later Lynch (Eraserhead) had broken through on the midnight movie circuit suggests that a certain mindset is drawn to Dune. Jodorowsky envisioned a feature that would run anywhere between ten and fourteen hours, and he aimed to cast Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Alain Delon, and Mick Jagger. Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune chronicles the probably inevitable demise of the project. Producer Dino De Laurentiis picked up the rights in 1976 and worked with Ridley Scott on the project for a good while before turning to Lynch.

Besides the sheer sprawl of Herbert’s creation, one of the challenges facing any adaptation by this point is an overfamiliarity with elements of the narrative, setting, and themes. George Lucas famously drew on Dune to create Star Wars, and as Kyle Buchanan notes in the New York Times, James Cameron’s Avatar tracks “basically the same plot.” On a distant planet, colonizers mine a precious resource and oppress the natives who place their hopes in a white savior.

In Dune, the colonizers are two dueling houses. By imperial order, stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of a spice that can expand the mind and power interstellar travel, is taken from Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård in Villeneuve’s movie) and given over to Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac). It’s a trap. House Harkonnen, which has been cruelly tormenting the native Fremen for eighty years, does not intend to cede control. One young Fremen woman, Chani (Zendaya), has been reaching out to Leto’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) in his dreams.

David Jenkins is a fan not only of Lynch’s Dune but of Villeneuve’s as well. “From the reams of backroom intrigue, unscrupulous politicking, and densely-wrought pan-global mysticism he has produced a film which does justice to a hallowed text while retaining the slick formal shape of a pop movie,” he writes. “And that, in itself, is no small achievement.” For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, this is “science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling, and enveloping . . . When the Harkonnen-sponsored strike on the Atreides’ ziggurat-like stronghold comes, it isn’t tense so much as simply awe-striking. On a first encounter, this twelve-minute sequence feels like it could be one of the great sustained action set-pieces of twenty-first-century cinema, masterfully expanding then contracting in focus to overwhelming effect.”

Writing for the Ringer, Adam Nayman calls Dune “a relentless, propulsive chase movie.” He also admires the overall design. Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser “produce something weirdly timeless, all long horizon lines and cavernous rooms bisected by massive, sculptural shafts of natural light. While the story is set several thousand years in the future, the architecture is retro-Brutalist, suggesting a civilization that’s transcended the need for flashy gadgets or mass media of any kind.”

In the Notebook, Leonardo Goi points out that Villeneuve “spends ample time building characters as opposed to just sketching them, and that careful balance between grandiosity and characterization may well be the film’s greatest asset.” Not for everyone, though. “The draw is spectacle, yet it takes a long, dull time to get there,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. Screen’s Tim Grierson notes that Dune “can sometimes be almost suffocatingly solemn—the only thing rarer in this cosmos than spice is a joke—but the severity of its design quickly becomes seductive.”

Villeneuve and his cowriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth have split the novel into two parts, and this film, announced as Dune: Part One in an opening title, tells the first half of the story while teasing the second half with occasional flash-forwards. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calls this first part “the boring homework before the juicy stuff starts happening,” and for Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, it’s “a turgid preamble with little payoff.” IndieWire’s David Ehrlich finds it “hard to overstate how little actually happens in this Dune, which flows like an overture that’s stretched for the duration of an entire opera . . . Villeneuve’s seismic world-building is all tone and no melody.”

For the most part, critics do agree that the cast—which also features Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Chang Chen, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem—is outstanding, even if some reviewers wish they had been given more to work with. Chalamet, “always good at suggesting both youthful callowness and limitless potential, proves an inspired choice for the role of a young man who is both a coddled heir and an intriguingly unknown quantity,” writes Justin Chang. At Vulture, Alison Willmore finds that “Paul’s reluctance to fall into the role created for him isn’t the usual self-doubt, but the dread of someone who begins to believe he’s meant to initiate a holy war. Being the hero of the story has never looked so poisoned, and that alone is thrilling enough to hope Villeneuve gets to make part two of this impressively batshit venture.”

Having premiered in Venice, Dune screens in Toronto on Sunday and in New York on October 7 and 8 before opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on October 22.

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