Villeneuve’s Dune

When I reached home after seeing the Denis Villeneuve directed Dune I tweeted:

It was OK
I could go on.

Reader, I’ve decided to go on.

If you’ve not yet seen the film at this point you may decide not to read further, that’s fine.

I saw the film with my wife and we talked about the film all the way home, we talked about it in the evening, and more the next day. By that measure the film is a great success, and also by the measure of spectacle. Visually the film is grand, almost magnificent. Maybe not quite as magnificent as his Bladerunner 2049 because while it provided epic, sweeping landscapes, titanic vistas, and monstrous scale it was, in the end, very much what I was expecting from a film called Dune.

That’s no big deal. The film provides what it is supposed to provide in this respect, but elsewhere, for me, did it live up to those expectations? Not really.

Every actor felt as if they were, to the limit the direction allowed, deep into their character. Much to my surprise, Jason Momoa, hardly my favourite actor, did what I didn’t expect and gave me a nuanced and empathic performance. Josh Brolin, an actor I like, once again didn’t have the space to stretch and show himself and show his qualities, Dave Bautista was suitably, and entertainingly pantomime horrid.

But what was this story really about? Two enormously powerful,  rich, and martial  families fight for ascendancy over one another to gain more power and riches while exploiting an impoverished nation, one slightly less so than the other. And then there’s the white saviour thing. Hmm.

Despite its grand sweep, these are the fundamental limits of the story, but that’s all right, because the pleasure of the story is in the telling, and a good story teller will hook you with a detail here, a word there, reel you in, let you see the traps of wealth and power, in what is essentially a feudal society, that a good person can inextricably find themselves in.

Villeneuve’s Dune doesn’t do that. The Atreides seem by turns amazed and bemused that their sworn foes would leave them next to nothing to work with and fulfil their duties to the Emperor – to harvest the spice vital to keep the vast, space-faring empire running. ‘I’s are dotted and ‘T’s are crossed, the story unfolds, and it’s engaging, with moments of real drama, and, less often, true wonder.

Despite all this every character lacks profundity and emotional depth and I found myself engaging with the supporting cast such as Momoa, Brolin, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays the ecologist Liet-Kynes, rather than the leads. They do far more with less in a film that is emotionally cold from the universally brutalist architecture to the limited emotions each character expresses.

That said, I can’t criticise the actors or the acting, this is Villeneuve’s film through and through. Timothée Chalamet is an engaging, competent chip off the old block, keen to play his part as scion of House Atreides in his enthusiastically gamine way. And Duke Leto? As with so much here you cannot but help draw comparisons  with David Lynch’s 1984 film. These two Duke Letos could have been separated at birth, from personality to beard, and Lynch got there first.

This, for me, was a major problem, because so much of this well-acted, visually engaging but ultimately unsatisfying film felt like a retread.  For all its faults, Lynch’s film had a passion, humour, and grandeur that Villeneuve’s film somehow lacks, and pushed through the equivocal basic story with more flair.

When epic SF and Fantasy works well on the screen it can be astonishing. After seeing the first of Peter Jackson’s  Lord of the Rings trilogy my feet barely touched the ground; Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers blew my mind with sheer scale. Partly it was the story, the story in both of these films is one of existential struggle: lose and all is lost. And while Jackson beautifully and brilliantly stayed close to the mood and tone of Tolkien’s books, Verhoeven did something different and made a wry, clever, cynical and observant film that was all about Heinlein’s book and yet at the same time not.

My first thoughts on leaving the cinema was that Villeneuve, for all the spectacle, entertainment, and good acting of his film had, in the end, brought very little new to the party. One of the great gifts, and sometimes great flaws, of cinema, is the freedom to reimagine the source material into something else. To stay true to it but change perspective. Shakespeare’s plays have by turns both suffered and enjoyed this for centuries. This didn’t happen here.

Another thought was would I go to the cinema and see part two? After seeing The Fellowship of The Ring is seemed somehow cruel that I now had to wait a whole year to see the next film, but it was exciting to wait too. Dune part two, meh, we’ll see. Maybe.

My wife said she’d like to see Dune told from the point of view of the Fremen, how they approach the replacement of one oppressor by another, their lives and ambitions. The story of Dune as told by the people of Dune. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. That is a revisionist, alternative Dune I would pay to see.




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