Director Denis Villeneuve takes his sci-fi seriously. While most mainstream, studio sci-fi goes for something more in the vein of Star Wars with dashing adventure, a healthy dose of humor, and not worrying about explaining anything too much, Villeneuve gets in the weeds. While his previous science fiction movies, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, were able to embrace a deadly serious tone while never losing their emotional core, his latest film, half an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic Dune (the movie states that it’s “Part One” although a second part has yet to receive a green light as of mid-October 2021), is a distant affair despite its exquisite craftsmanship. Despite having more time than the 1984 David Lynch film to tell the story, Villeneuve’s Dune never manages to dive deeper into the character relationship, instead getting down in the plotting issues of intergalactic colonial mining operations between royal houses and how it intersects with a rising messiah figure. These are heady concepts, but they lack any kind of emotional weight because we don’t care about the people in this vast tapestry. Instead, despite its outstanding cast, they’re all absorbed into the rich milieu of this sci-fi epic without ever making the case about why we should be invested. The spice may flow, but this narrative doesn’t.
The planet of Arrakis is the location of “spice”, a substance that is of religious significance to the local population, the Freman, but is highly coveted by the rest of the galaxy because it’s what makes space travel possible. Arrakis was previously occupied by the ruthless House Harkonnen, but the Emperor has decided to now give the license to House Atreides in the hopes that they will fail since their rising power is a threat to the Imperium. Against this backdrop is Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the prince of House Atreides, who’s the son of its ruler Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine Lady Jessica (Jessica Ferguson), who is also a member of the all-female Bene Gesserit, a religious order pulling the strings. As Paul begins to have visions of Arrakis and its Freman, especially a young woman named Chani (Zendaya), he also becomes part of a prophecy that could see him rise to a messiah figure for the Freman and someone who could change the order of the galaxy.
You’ll note character relationships didn’t factor a lot into that synopsis, and that’s because they don’t really matter. Almost all the relationships in Dune are perfunctory and designed to prop up the plotting and world-building rather than the other way around. We know Duke Leto loves Paul because he tells him. We know that Lady Jessica loves Paul because she looks distraught when he’s tested by the Bene Gesserit. But the texture and nuance of these relationships are non-existent. They exist only in the realm of archetype and devoid of much shading. Even when we’re given a glimpse of a history between two characters—like the camaraderie between Paul and soldier Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, the only person in this movie who seems like he’s happy to be there)—they have just a handful of scenes together, so there’s no chance to build anything. Dune is a movie where Paul grows and changes not because of his interactions with other people, but because he’s “destined” and so the plot is sporadically marked by various awakenings and mystical happenings, but nothing that derives from Paul being particularly interesting despite Chalamet giving it his all.
The problem isn’t that Villeneuve treats this big sci-fi story with a stone-faced resolve. If anything, the total lack of irony makes it easier to invest in a plot that’s taking numerous big swings and counting on the audience to follow along. This isn’t Star Wars (even though at one point Paul basically has to use the Force to fly through a sandstorm), and Villeneuve expects you to keep up with terms like “Bene Gesserit” “Gom Jabbar”, and “Lisan al-Gaib” (there’s also a heavy Orientalist slant that the film never wrestles with or addresses). Villeneuve is also counting on the audience to accept only half the story, which makes Dune feel not only anticlimactic, but uncertain about if it’s building into anything in particular. For a movie where “fear is the mindkiller” is a repeated mantra, it takes almost the entire 150-minute runtime to find out what exactly Paul fears. That we gleam so little insight from our protagonist makes Dune like a magnificently ornate, empty box.
I don’t want to diminish that craftsmanship because what cinematographer Grieg Fraser and composer Hans Zimmer contribute here is truly astounding. Dune is a triumph of world-building, and other sci-fi features would be wise to take notes from how much Villenueve is able to convey just through the costumes and settings. It’s hard to make sci-fi that feels both new and familiar, and Dune dances on that tightrope. We know that House Atreides is a bit more ambiguous than the clearly evil House Harkonnen because while Duke Leto says he wants to forge an alliance with the Freman, the Atreides’ style is still militaristic and spartan. For a movie that tells you a lot and expects you to keep up, you can still sit back and marvel at this world that Villeneuve has crafted.
But for all its beauty and sand-shaking score (if you do see Dune, the theatrical experience is the way to go), I couldn’t shake the hollowness of the whole endeavor. Perhaps it will all come together if “Part Two” ever happens (although I’m skeptical given that this isn’t a particularly entertaining movie, so I’m dubious about the audience’s appetite for deadly serious epic science fiction, especially after the poor box office returns on Blade Runner 2049), but for now Dune is a lot of “what” without ever bothering to give a reason about why the audience should care. Perhaps some will be riveted by the political and religious intrigue brewing in the background, but that provides scant reason to care about these characters. I love that Villeneuve is fully invested in crafting the world of Dune, but I wish that care and craft had been equally applied to the people that inhabit it.
Dune arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on October 21st.
KEEP READING: ‘Dune’ Final Trailer Goes Deep Into the Story of Denis Villeneuve’s Sci-Fi Epic