Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of one-half of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel comes thirty-seven years after David Lynch’s take on the material failed to become a blockbuster – and twenty years on from the SyFy Channel miniseries few remember. The gap between the two auteur versions of the book is one year less than the gap between Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Hammer’s Dracula (1958) … and yet the two Dunes share maybe 75% DNA, while the two Stoker movies barely seem to come from the same medium. Yes, CGI has replaced modelwork effects and the decision to follow It by just chopping the book in two in theory means less of the rush that undid Lynch’s film … but there are so many points of visual and narrative similarity, even beyond the films being based on the same work. Dave Bautista and Rebecca Ferguson have exactly the same screen weight as Paul L. Smith and Francesca Annis, for instance.
Villeneuve — who co-wrote with a couple of approved-to-work-on-huge-budget-movies-no-matter-how-dreadful-their-track-record-has-been hacks, Eric Roth (The Concorde … Airport ’79, Forrest Gump, The Postman) and John Spaihts (The Darkest Hour, Prometheus, Passengers, The Mummy) – has rigorously excluded camp from the recipe, though that tends to make a dour experience – aptly for a desert film, it’s dry and beautiful and (frankly) hard to get through without imagining mirages. As a hedge against Dune Chapter Two not getting greenlit, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) has prophetic visions which sketch in the story to come – though at least one of them is merely a potential future, since things don’t work out the way he foresees. Elements that would pass in something as colourful and space opera-ish as Star Wars or Flash Gordon seem ridiculous in the ultra-serious context of this debate on imperial politicking and exploitation of natural resources – when a cadre of the emperor’s greatest warriors pursue Paul and his mother down a corridor, it’s hard not to notice that the guy who brings up the laser cutting tool to get through a door is more dangerous than all the sword-wielding badasses. And it’s established that Paul and his mother have the super-power of being able to tell people to do things they are unable not to do – but only use it in one escape sequence, when a mere ‘don’t challenge my son to a duel’ would save lives and trouble.
Zendaya is seen mostly in the prophecies until the finale when the refugees fall in with the desert tribe, and the treatment of female characters here – contrast with those in the Dune-influenced Game of Thrones – seems to force them onto the sidelines of Paul’s hero’s journey. Charlotte Rampling’s ominous Mother Superior and Benjamine Clémentine’s non-interventionist imperial observer both wield theoretically enormous power but do little with it. Various other huffy, dignified macho guys are on the side of good – Oscar Isaac as a kindly, tactful imperial oppressor, Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa as grizzled grunts, Javier Bardem as a desert chieftain – while evil is represented by Stellan Skarsgaard as a fat Baron who quotes Brando’s bald bonce-washing gesture from Apocalypse Now (just as Villeneuve can’t resist throwing in the burning trees from Rollerball), Bautista as your basic goon, and the likes of David Dastalmachian as Brad Dourif.
What it does have is spectacle – the ornithopters (here, dragonflies rather than birds) are terrific, the land battles in the leas of giant ships aptly epic, and the sandworms given a properly huge build-up. But, you know, maybe have a go at The Stars My Destination or The Left Hand of Darkness or Neuromancer rather than take a third punt at this doorstop.