Dune Review: Denis Villeneuve’s spice opera is a big disappointment

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Venice: Hype is the mind killer.

In the end, Denis Villeneuve was too right: your television isn’t big enough for the reach of his “Dune,” but that’s only because this lifeless spice opera is told on such a comically massive scale that ‘a screen of any size struggle to contain it. Likewise, no story – let alone the misshapen first half of a – could ever hope to support the enormity of what Villeneuve tries to build in those endless 155 minutes (someone mentions that time is measured differently on Arrakis), or the sheer weight of the serious omen he hammers in with every blow. For all of Villeneuve’s awe-inspiring vision, he loses sight of why Frank Herbert’s founding sci-fi opus is worthy of this epic spectacle in the first place. These are the pitfalls of making a film so big that even its director can’t see around the sets.

How big is “Dune”? We’re talking slabs on slabs of angular concrete as far as the eye can see, spaceships that seem to move entire oceans as they emerge from the seabed of Caladan, and worms of sands so big they could eat the Graboids of “Tremors.” “like hazelnut sea bass. Even harnessed kings Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista look like tabletop miniatures when placed against its backgrounds, as if cinematographer Greig Fraser had discovered a way to do deep focus and tilt in same time.

So why, for all of its unprecedented vastness, is watching “Dune” on the cinema like receiving a check the size of a six dollar novelty? Why is the scope of Villeneuve’s dream betrayed by the dull superficiality of his reality to the point where the most astonishing effects of his film – which are just as tactile and transporting as those of “Blade Runner 2049” – are more like optical illusions? Why does this “Dune” seem so small?

The first and most fundamental problem is a storyline (attributed to the heavyweight trio of Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Villeneuve himself) that pierces Herbert’s novel with all the thunder and calamity of a harvester. spices, but extracts little valuable substance below the surface. And while it’s not much of a shock that Denis Villeneuve hasn’t succeeded where David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky have failed before, his “Dune” is at least particularly disheartening, as a director of “Prisoners,” ” Incendies, ”and“ Arrival ”comes to this project with such a deep affinity for stories about the transcendence of cyclical violence.

Alas, that’s really all this adaptation is allowed to be, as the source material is cut in half in a way that puts all of Herbert’s most resonant (and psychedelically unstable) ideas about the braided relationship between the colonialism and selected narratives in a sequel that might never be made.

It’s hard to overstate how little goes on in this “Dune”, which flows like an overture that spans the duration of an entire opera. Unlike the Lynch version – which immediately unwraps the Emperor’s twisted plan to weaken House Atreides by giving it control of the spice planet Arrakis – Villeneuve’s film sees this story through the eyes of the young heir to the great family, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and embraces the boy’s stunned confusion at the thought of moving to a desert world and learning that he was raised to be the white savior of his native people. “Who will be our next oppressor? Zendaya asks in the introductory voiceover that Villeneuve gives her instead of a character to play, but the rest of the film completely betrays that hint of suspicion.

This much-debated aspect of “Dune” is complicated in the later episodes of Herbert’s series, but here it remains unchallenged; Paul is Jesus Christ as a eugenic experiment devised by space witch Charlotte Rampling, who paired Duke Atreides (a bearded, handsome Oscar Isaac, who shouts “power of the desert!” Multiple times) with a Very special concubine (the ever-capable Rebecca Ferguson), and the Bedouin coded Arrakis Fremen are happy to accept this alien twerp as their prophet.

It helps that Chalamet is a natural fit in the role. The actor himself is sort of an elected official – a gangly New York kid who leveraged his status as an internet boyfriend to become a legitimate celebrity – and Villeneuve is helping him move towards dislocation. a bird bone model from a lineage of sex mystics and Hemingways. Paul Atreides invented the void that Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter would later inherit, but Chalamet spices things up by making the character palpable out of his depth.

“Dune”

Warner Bros.

As you would expect from a movie that features around 50 percent of the world’s famous actors, casting isn’t an issue here. “Dune” only falters when it comes to giving its cast something to do. Josh Brolin is all pugnaciously charming as a beefy mentor with a heart of gold, but he is reduced to the water of the mill as soon as the action moves to Arrakis, leaving behind only the shield technology he uses in his training fights with Paul; the red and blue Rock ‘Em Sock’ Em Robots effect is a big improvement over how Lynch rendered the shields in 1984, but Villeneuve’s disastrous choice to dub it throughout the film robs every footage of it. subsequent action of any beauty or credible sense of danger.

Momoa is just as likeable as sword master Duncan Idaho, but spends most of “Dune” trapped in Paul’s unbearable dreams of the future, which are scattered throughout the story like ransom notes from a more exciting cut from the movie. Characters with less screen time have more impact, especially the greedy thief baron Harkonnens who relinquishes control of Arrakis to become stronger in the shadows. Bautista serves a very high energy as a grown-up son as a second in command, David Dastmalchian is all scary as a grand vizier, and Stellan Skargård is the undisputed MVP as Baron Harkonnen himself, whose performance finally meets the question: “What if Marlon Brando from the era of Dr. Moreau could fly?” “

But “Dune”, basically, is a movie that eagerly flattens great actors like Chang Chen and Stephen McKinley Henderson into the wallpaper, because he knows the scenery will have to do the heavy lifting. Patrice Vermette’s stunning and cavernous production design complements (or enables) the stagnant ultra-formalism that Villeneuve has pursued since “Incendies”, and anyone who thought “Blade Runner 2049” could use 100 percent more takes from aerial view of ships flying over an unlivable future. -scape will feel like they’re dead and gone to heaven.

But the construction of the seismic world of Villeneuve is only tonality and without melody. He spends precious minutes detailing the topography of Arrakis and the costumes that allow people to survive his deserts, but does not devote a moment to Duke Atreides’ private concerns about the intergalactic feudalism that shapes his destiny, or the inner conflict. nebulous of Paul to leave his old world. behind. That “Star Wars” and its blockbusters burned Herbert’s sci-fi tropes into the collective subconscious should be an opportunity for a 21st century film like this, not an excuse. And yet Villeneuve’s only gesture is to crank up the volume until the distortion feels like you’re experiencing something new, a tactic that has its advantages (for example, the Bene Gesserit’s voice seems to come from inside your soul), but also leads Hans Zimmer to fall back on the ethnographic groans of his scores from the “Gladiator” era. Few songwriters would have been able to match the double punch of Brian Eno and Toto’s Lynch version, but Zimmer just bangs in the sand like he wants the worms to eat us all.

Fear not: the sand worms are coming. They’re big and spiky, and they’re responsible for the one scene in which the film’s biblical drone is brought to life by even the tiniest dollop of dramatic tension. Villeneuve is in love with the scale of these subterranean beasts, each of which is half the length of the RMS Titanic, and he frames them with awe so palpable that you almost expect the “Jurassic Park” theme to play every time. that they raise their heads asshole. But a single glance at the sand worms is enough to rob them of their mystery. They are soon reduced to sound and earthquakes, signifying nothing but your growing desire to watch “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” instead.

And this literalness, or at least this abject lack of associative thought, is what damns this “Dune” beyond salvation. Here’s a movie devoured with dreams before it even starts (you’ll see what I mean), but also a movie so stooped and full of empty spectacle that it holds your imagination on a tight leash, which becomes all the more so. more unnerving as Paul and his mother find themselves being chased through the desert by sandworms in the final act. In the end, “Dune” only resembles a dream in that it stands out on a note so flat and unresolved that you can’t believe someone chose it on purpose.

“This is just the beginning,” threatens the last line, and yet it undeniably looks like the end of something, too. Not the end of watching movies on the big screen, but maybe the end of making movies that are too big to fit.

Grade: C-

“Dune” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Warner Bros. releases it in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, October 22.

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