Like humanity’s search for the missing link or the cure for cancer, movie studios have unsuccessfully tried and failed to adapt Frank Herbert’s daunting 1965 science fiction novel, which laid the framework for several subsequent entries in the genre such as Star Wars and Blade Runner.
Cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried in the early 1970s, but financial troubles stopped him from getting past pre-production, a story which has now become immortalized in the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Over a decade later, David Lynch, armed with the mega millions of super-producer Dino De Laurentis, was utterly crushed by the weight of the material, which was forcibly squeezed into a two-hour runtime. Years went on as names such as Ridley Scott and Peter Berg were attached to the project, but nothing ever came to fruition. Now in 2021, it’s time for Denis Villeneuve – director of Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 – to attempt what has been thought to be impossible.
To prevent the mistake of Lynch’s adaptation, the 412-page novel has been split into two parts. Despite not bearing that moniker in the official title, the phrase “part one” does flash underneath the main title in the opening sequence.
This comes as a warning to those expecting a complete narrative. Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Dune is here to establish the major events that will come in the sequel, which has yet to be officially confirmed. But rather than faring like those two examples, Dune falls more in line with The Divergent Series: Allegiant, which shuddered the series before the conclusion could be filmed.
Now, that’s not to say that Dune shares all the same qualities as that cinematic failure. Villeneuve is one of the most financially efficient directors working today, as he gets maximum value out of every dollar within his budget.
With $165 million at his disposal, Villeneuve has crafted a universe of mythological proportions. From desert landscapes crawling with sandworms to interstellar cruisers, the scale that Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser work with is something to behold. Seeing this in IMAX brings a reward worth far more than the ticket price.
But for all its grandiosity on a technical level, what’s at the heart and soul of Dune is shockingly small. Taking place in the year 10191, the story centers on Paul Atreides, prince of the great house who rules over Caladan. Soon, the family is ordered by the unseen Emperor to govern Arrakis, which overflows with the precious mineral known as “spice.” The natives of the planet called the Fremen, resent their colonial oppressors, a feeling that Paul slowly begins to understand. After imperial betrayal, Paul’s loyalty and place within the universe begin to be tested as he is led down an unfamiliar path.
That plot description may be admittedly light, but a proper one would require much more precious margin space. Villeneuve (his first writing credit since coming to Hollywood) along with veteran Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts seem to have punted all the interesting material for the latter edition. What’s left is a shallow plot with dangling thoughts on colonialism, the chosen one and religious allegories. Ironically, the groundbreaking material within the novel has been mined so many times by other properties that this film adaptation feels like a carbon copy of others.
That feeling of emptiness stretches into the cast as well, despite it being filled with a roster of immense international talent. Boiling down to being described as space Jesus, the character of Paul Atreides is one of awkwardness and enlightenment. Timothée Chalamet is fitting in the role, working his gawky frame and soft voice past the limitations of the script.
Through no fault of their own, the rest of the cast aren’t able to shine as much as they should, with interesting actors such as Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skargård, Jason Momoan and Charlotte Rampling being brushed aside for umpteen amounts of landscape shots. At some point, those beautiful vistas begin to feel empty, as the human element has been restricted to a minimum.
Dune is an odd case of style over substance, in that the substance is there but was intentionally left out for another time. It’s a gamble that may pay off once Part 2 is released, but until then it leaves this first part as a desert-sized disappointment.