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Timothée Chalamet as as Paul Atreides crouches on the floor and clutches a knife in Dune Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

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Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is all world-building and no world-living

As visually rich and emotional as Part One gets, it’s still just setup for Part Two

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When David Lynch’s Dune was released in 1984, a specific pattern developed among the mostly negative reviews. Lynch’s compressed adaptation, which shoved the 400-plus pages of Frank Herbert’s novel 1965 Dune into 137 minutes, was visually striking, but practically impossible to follow. A theory spread: Perhaps Herbert’s iconic sci-fi work was impossible to adapt into movie form. Nearly 40 years later, Denis Villeneuve’s attempt at Dune is earning the exact same reactions. Time is a flat circle, and Dune is as strikingly shot and impenetrably conceived as ever.

The sand? Everywhere! (Dune was filmed partially in Jordan and Abu Dhabi.) Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s angles? Extremely wide! The sound design? Challenging! The dialogue? Partially lost, in said challenging sound design! The flirting-with-Orientalism vibe of Herbert’s text? Amped all the way up, even as practically all of Herbert’s incorporations of the complex and varied Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) culture and the Muslim religion are either blunted or excised! Jason Momoa? The only person who genuinely seems to be having fun amid this deep ensemble, and a bright spot amid so much dourness!

It would be sneeringly easy to ask, “Who is this Dune for?” Certainly one of the most formative sci-fi texts of the 20th century has retained a core fanbase. It’s a recognizable IP with a long history. And big-budget space operas continue to draw curious eyes. (Look at the never-ending sprawl of Star Wars.) To be fair, Villeneuve’s Dune is staggeringly gorgeous, and was clearly expensive as hell to make. The Arrival director leans into the contrast between brutalist design and the natural world, with unyielding angles and harsh materials bumping up against the rough bark of an improbably grown date palm tree, the riotous red of a hand dipped in blood, or the bubbling viscosity of pitch-black oil. (In case you didn’t grasp what the fought-over natural resource “spice” is standing in for.)

Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, wielding two blades and surrounded by collapsed or collapsing soldiers in grey armor in Dune Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

Fraser, no stranger to this genre after working on Rogue One and The Mandalorian, makes use of every inch of every frame. Gigantic, unusually shaped ships traveling through space are as compellingly imagined as a group of Bene Gesserit witches, clad head to toe in black, emerging through the murky grey of a nighttime fog. And a lengthy mid-film battle sequence is well-edited by Joe Walker — the vicious hand-to-hand combat between various factions is blissfully easy to follow.

If you can get lost in the cocoon of production, costume, and art-design opulence, and sink into the Big Event angle of it all — which is why people go to the movies, isn’t it? — the film, styled as Dune: Part One, can be overwhelmingly evocative. The problem, though, is the film’s pervasive emotional emptiness. Villeneuve and his co-writers, Jon Spaihts (of Passengers and Prometheus) and Eric Roth, rush through character journeys, and shortchange ostensible hero Paul Atreides (wild-hair-haver Timothée Chalamet). They skip over explaining most of the dense mythology of this world, instead collapsing entire communities into thinly rendered versions of other recognizable pop-culture figures. (The Fremen more or less become Tusken Raiders; the Bene Gesserit are Macbeth’s witches.) And the result of all that streamlining is that the connective thread linking all these disparate elements into a cohesive whole is nowhere to be found. The film is a splendid, threadbare tapestry that unravels as you’re watching it.

Dune: Part One is set in the year 10191, when the galaxy is under imperial rule. (The Persian word “padishah,” pervasively used throughout Herbert’s novel to describe the emperor, is used only once in the film, and pronounced horribly incorrectly; the same goes for how various actors in the film butcher the Arabic “al-Mahdi.”) A number of ancient, established families rule over planets as fiefdoms, and fight among themselves. The heir of House Atreides is Paul (Chalamet), a young man whose father is Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and mother is the Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Leto is training Paul to be a strong leader and military strategist, while Jessica is training Paul in the secret Bene Gesserit ways of mind control and persuasion, among other things. Paul, meanwhile, dreams about a young woman with blue eyes (Zendaya), guiding him forward on a desert planet.

Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) touches Paul (Timothée Chalamet) on the cheek in a dark room in Dune Photo: Warner Bros.

Could Paul be seeing the future? Maybe, because House Atreides learns that at the emperor’s behest, they’ve been assigned to take over the planet Arrakis. For decades, House Atreides’s enemies, House Harkonnen, have been in charge of Arrakis, and have have mined the planet for spice, a natural resource that powers space travel. By assigning Arrakis to House Atreides, the emperor is knowingly increasing tensions — and maybe even trying to start a war.

So House Atreides travels to Arrakis: Leto, Paul, Jessica, weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Momoa), and the computer-like Mentat Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Can they befriend the Fremen, the planet’s original inhabitants, who are led by proud, principled men like Stilgar (Javier Bardem, miscast and underused)? Or will House Harkonnen, led by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) and his bloodthirsty nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), not let their loss of Arrakis slide? And what role does the young woman from Paul’s dreams have to play?

This is a lot to take in, and because Dune: Part One frontloads on palace intrigue and exposition (including Zendaya’s narrated introduction to Arrakis, with the question “Who will our next oppressors be?”), its first hour drags. The script offers up broad story beats (House Atreides, good; House Harkonnen, bad) that the ensemble then has to make real through their performances. Some are better at it than others. Isaac makes a principled, honorable Leto; Ferguson a conflicted, protective Jessica. Momoa is the film’s standout as the loyal, empathetic bro Duncan. A scene of him picking up Chalamet’s Paul and spinning him around will either launch a thousand ships, or an array of gifs. But the most inconsistencies are found in Chalamet and the Fremen, which is particularly distracting given their centrality to this film, and the potential Dune: Part Two.

Chalamet tries to embody Paul’s fragile strengths, and he looks the part in his all-black space-Goth outfits. His duality of rawness and control makes the “Fear is the mind killer” scene, one of the film’s best, pulse with propulsive anxiety and royal haughtiness. Paul asks pointed questions about outsider meddling in Arrakis, and Chalamet imbues those queries with freshman-poli-sci-major brattiness. But the larger issue is that Paul is theoretically on an inward-looking journey that the film does not fully explain, and his frantic concern about what his fate on Arrakis might be is condensed into one in-tent freakout. Between the muffled line deliveries and the script’s dampening of the religious elements that made this moment so important in the book, this turning point isn’t nearly as defining as it should be.

Oscar Isaac in armor as Duke Leto Atreides locks eyes with the camera in Dune Photo: Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

For their part, the Fremen exist in an uneasy space as a result of Villeneuve removing many of their defining MENA and Muslim characteristics from Herbert’s novel, perhaps fearing that viewers would see people wearing robes, living in the desert, and saying the word “jihad,” and immediately pigeonhole them as terrorists. That isn’t an entirely baseless worry, given how the novel Dune progresses, and how Islamophobia has so pervaded Hollywood. And to be sure, Dune: Part One is otherwise appreciably racially and ethnically inclusive, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s gender-swapped Dr. Liet Kynes, Momoa’s Duncan, Babs Olusanmokun’s Jamis, and Chang Chen’s Dr. Wellington Yueh speaking Mandarin with Paul.

But overall, the Fremen characters in Dune: Part One lack the interiority they need to come across as something other than stock types. And so the film, through erasure, still ends up engaging in the Orientalism Villeneuve seemed to be trying to avoid. The motivations of Stilgar, Zendaya’s Chani, and Golda Rosheuvel’s Shadout Mapes are all murky, and their relationships with Paul aren’t narratively clear because so much of their belief system and identity is left nebulous. They are noble, exoticized others, and it’s unintentionally telling that Hans Zimmer’s score loads up on MENA folk music traditions (so many women ululating!), but that no actors of MENA heritage have speaking roles among the Fremen. This is a culture used for atmosphere and aesthetics, but approached with no deeper curiosity.

That statement could arguably be applied to the entirety of Dune: Part One. Villeneuve has spent his career merging intellectual and philosophical queries with striking otherworldly images, but that duality is frustratingly imbalanced in his vision for Dune. The visuals are mesmerizing, but the world-building is flat. The ensemble is committed, but the storytelling is liminal. Whether Dune: Part Two will ever be made is a question mark, and standing on its own, Dune: Part One is all setup with very little payoff.

Dune: Part One premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22, 2021.