“Desert power” is my new “Ocean Master” now.
It may be long from now before we ever see a movie as menacing in its size and presence as Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. The coined saying “you won’t believe it until you see it” gets thrown around a lot in the culture of film criticism, but never has it met its definition when referring to a visual “epic” as much as it has here, maybe since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy. The sound alone of Dune is assertive and penetrative enough to make it feel like you’re experiencing some form of celestial ascension. Villeneuve bounds the screen with an uncanny amount of noise to make his film seem like no other, and it works. There is a meditative intensity and even a surreal, dream-like hesitancy too with how he directs and edits many of the introductions to the world’s inventive visual structures, customs, and creatures. On top of that, from the shield fighting to every little VFX strand of hair-like features on those giant worms, the special effects are as close to perfect as cinematic sci-fi has come. The experience is truly worth every penny to see such optically and audibly coercing extravaganzas on the big screen.
And yet, despite such appraisal of these technical miracles… akin to Villeneuve’s last outing Blade Runner 2049 (2017), he finds himself stumbling regardless. His plots usually aren’t as clever as the thematic ideas he wants to coalesce in them, with Dune representing however those torn directly from the movie’s source material. Giant event by giant event almost happens immediately after the fact despite this movie wanting to seem like a lived-in reality, one with the potential to connect us more to a thrilling purpose in its creation.
To whether its blame is upon great Frank Herbert himself — have not read the book, sorry — or our adapter, the surrounding characters aren’t as sophisticated as their reason to the plot is, similar to once again 2049’s. Even Paul, the heart of the story, is barely interesting in his “chosen one” by the numbers conflict, saved thankfully enough nonetheless by the ambiguity he faces of knowing what exactly his destiny of being the artificial Christ really entails. Villeneuve will often use curious, unexplained yet intense lore, within the vein of the kooky randomness or fictional culture shocks you’d find in something like the original Star Wars (1977), to the point however where we’re enlightened to go back and see them again, regazing at these expositional attempts to lure us into a world centuries into further alienation from the humanity we know of that although… also wants to parallel ours. It’s a difficult task to pull off, this combination of worlds, and even more so if we are to rely on siding with or at least investing ourselves into these foreign people of Atreides; why should we care to view their fight aside from just obliviously basking in the explosive violence that encompasses it? The film almost certainly wants us to relate to their struggle, but it doesn’t necessarily put in the effort to make an excellent job of it.
Paul’s father Leto mentions a few times in the movie that their house is in favor of having peace with the inhabitants that they have claimed land from, something vital that could’ve been the very kinetic presence to get us emotionally wrapped up in these colonists’ journey, yet it seems wrongly underdeveloped in the nature of this movie. Villeneuve even makes Herbert’s famous “fear is the mind killer” appear more like a cameo here than a matured theme, and it doesn’t help the movie feel any less like just some long checklist of thematic introductions. It’s as if Villeneuve has stripped and mitigated messages and the characters’ intentions out more than ever for fast plot sequencing, which is such devastating judgement on his end in consideration of possibly having these specular visuals he’s created accompany something truly poignant and gripping that could match its own massively physical magnitude, therefore making Dune the bigger-than-us epic it yearns to be. Where there is a story of colonialism, religious manipulation, and organized duplicity happening right in front of us, it can occasionally be a shame to see Villeneuve abstaining any expansion to their composition, as if he’s holding off on his very provocative movie only for the second part; something though that is not yet a guarantee to eulogize this opening chapter.
That may be why I see this as my least favorite film Villeneuve has done so far, because his character interpretations of Herbert’s didn’t stick with me as much as any of his rather original designs did. His chi for captivating a foreign universe is in tip-top shape like never before and truly unparalleled to no other modern auteur, but it’s just not enough to make Dune a great movie when you cannot also captivate the people who embody that scope so long as the story begs of you too with its parallels to a relatively non-foreign political universe. Who knows though? Maybe part two will help enhance this adapted cinematic opener for one of sci-fi’s most renowned novels. But for now, the biggest drawback of Dune: Part One is that it’s just barely standing on its own two feet.
“Dune” is now playing in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max.