DUNE: Denis Villeneuve throws sand in our eyes

“We’re gonna need a bigger bo…ttle of lube.”

When director Denis Villeneuve announced he was making Dune, he said he wanted it to be a “Star Wars for adults”. First of all, fuck you, Denice. Millions of adults love Star Wars. Secondly, we all know the real reason Villeneuve made this movie. Not because Jodorowski never realized his grand vision. Not because David Lynch was too campy.

The real reason is Timothee Chalamet’s hair. Just as Adele’s five-foot-long hands create gale-force winds for her videos and help propel her songs up the charts, Chalamet’s head of bouncy waves is already a movie star, so why not build a movie around it?

The first Dune novel sets the stage for the world-building of Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles series, and Villeneuve felt this novel involves so many characters and intricate politics that it would require two 3-hour films to relate, so cuts this story in half leaving us no narrative satisfaction. We adults had no problem deciphering the Republic/Separatist/Empire politics and character allegiances in Star Wars and could have handled all of Dune in one film. But it seems Villeneuve wanted to fill his movie with Apple TV+ screen-savers. Ok, he does them artsier, but we came for Hair Chalamet!

Hair is dour and pouting (as usual) when we first meet his character Paul Atreides. His mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is making him take the SATs with a harsh professor, and it doesn’t get harsher than Charlotte Rampling. Instead of penciling in ovals, Paul has to put his hand into a box of pain. I’m guessing it’s like putting your foot into a slipper that a cockroach has crawled into, so yikes! Jessica helps her son by telepathically filling his mind with pleasant thoughts, like sex with (pre-cannibal) Army Hammer.

Paul passes the test (he is the King of Pain, which Sting was in the 1984 Dune! That’s an Easter egg I squeezed out myself, you’re welcome.) and Jessica is told he could very well be the savior prophesized to free the Fremen, who aren’t currently free men, or women, or non-binary. Their desert planet Arakis has been occupied for ages by one of the Houses under the Empire because it contains the most valuable commodity in all the galaxy, something called Spice, which enables people to endure trips into deep space. If you’re thinking acid, wrong analogy.

Arakis is styled after the Middle East, so spice is clearly analogous to oil. Arakis natives are brown-skinned with names that sound like exotic, uh, spices (Chani). The occupiers are from royal houses with European names. So whatever Fates rule the Dune world have chosen Paul to save the brown people. Dune’s unfortunate white savior narrative is baked into the original, but let’s be real. The Fate that rules this Dune is Villeneuve, and what does the high-minded, Star Wars-for-adults director do about the story’s poorly-aged trope? He casts pale-as-a-sheet, adolescent girl-magnet Chalamet as the savior.

But hey, even Jason Mamoa can’t resist Hair’s body and shine. When his character Duncan Idaho returns from some spicy trip, Paul and he dash into an embrace that makes you think they’ll be biting into peaches and kreem for lunch. But even though Paul enjoys intimacy with hunks, wears great outfits, is attached to his mother, and obsessed with a female pop star, he’s straight. That’s GenZ for ya!

Duncan and Paul don’t have long to ‘reminisce’ before Paul’s father, Duke Atreides (Oscar Isaac) moves the whole family to Arakis on the Empire’s orders, to take over control of the spice from House Harkonnen. This is all orchestrated by the Emperor to cause a war between the houses that will weaken both. That’s the ‘complex’ political intrigue that Villeneuve needs six hours to explain, even though everything from Succession to Survivor does it in an hour-long episode.

Before all that happens, though, we have to meet a sand worm, touted as one of the grand inventions of Dune. Considering Villeneuve’s declaration that Star Wars got everything from Dune, we expect he’ll make his sand worm look different – more spectacular or menacing or at least weirder – than the sarlacc in Return of the Jedi. Nope. It’s just another gaping sinkhole ringed with spiky teeth. We see more of the worm later, but again, meh. I’ve seen scarier sphincters.

As the Emperor planned, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard, not half as frightening as the actor Lynch used) attacks the Atreides on Arakis, killing them all except Paul and his mother, who escape to the desert, where we are treated to endless beauty shots of the empty dunes. The incredible cinematography in Dune does give Chalemet’s hair a run for it’s money.

Paul and Jessica are saved by a group of Fremen, one of whom is Zendaya. Like the uninspired sand worm, Villeneuve gives us the gaping hole of a YA meet-cute. She pretends not to like him, he persists, she takes a furtive glance, he catches her, no she didn’t!, ugh. But nevermind, it’s time for Hair’s big scene!

In order to save himself and his mother from being murdered, Paul must win a knife fight with a Fremen assassin. Cue Hair. She throws herself over Paul’s eyes, and we think, this is a fight for his life, and his mother’s. How is he going to fight with hair in his eyes? Is he not allowed to use a scrunchie? Zendaya surely has one, probably in a fun leopard print. But Hair must have her moment. She bounces around, letting Paul see past her in crucial moments. She knows what she’s doing. She’s not a ridiculous oversight that went from mildly annoying to ruining what should be the film’s climactic scene. She is a challenge our hero must overcome in order to prevail. A challenge not just for Paul, but for Timothee.

And then the movie ends. Just like that. We’ll get the second half in what, three or four years? So this film version of a single book in a fantasy series will have taken 7-8 years. Peter Jackson took all three Lord of the Rings books from initial development to the third film in that same amount of time. Is the first Dune novel that much more complex a narrative than Tolkien’s entire LOTR epic? Of course not. The difference is that Jackson gave each film in the trilogy a big, satisfying story of its own, and as much charm and humor as striking visuals and iconic villains. Villeneuve made half a film, took years and hundreds of millions of dollars to obsess over visual details, and couldn’t get his star a $30 haircut.

Being self-serious about science fiction is fine, and Villeneuve did that great in Arrival. The novel Dune, though, has some truly f’ed up characters and scenes. David Lynch doubled down on the gross and weird. Villeneuve decided to clean it all up, putting a more tasteful lens on even the ugliest parts, and using the latest in effects to smooth away the steam punk trappings. Maybe Lynch’s version was clumsy and crazy (Sean Young was the love interest…), but this one keeps everything and everyone at an elegant distance. For a story that’s all about ‘the spice’, this movie has a surprising lack of it.

Sure, from Villeneuve’s lofty view, Dune is striking. But if you like to experience movies from down where the characters are, you just see a hill of sand.  

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