‘Dune’ review: A hero in the making, on shifting sands

The New York Times
Washington, USWritten By: Manohla Dargis c.2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Oct 21, 2021, 05:24 PM IST


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Timothee Chalamet looks young enough for the role (Paul is 15 when the novel opens) and can certainly strike a Byronic pose, complete with black coat and anguished hair. 

In a galaxy far, far away, a young man in a sea of sand faces a foreboding destiny. The threat of war hangs in the air. At the brink of a crisis, he navigates a feudalistic world with an evil emperor, noble houses and subjugated peoples, a tale right out of mythology and right at home in George Lucas’ brainpan. But this is “Dune,” baby, Frank Herbert’s science-fiction opus, which is making another run at global box-office domination even as it heads toward controversy about what it and its messianic protagonist signify.

The movie is a herculean endeavor from the director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”), a starry, sumptuous take on the novel’s first half. Published in 1965, Herbert’s book is a beautiful behemoth (my copy runs almost 900 pages) crowded with rulers and rebels, witches and warriors. Herbert had a lot to say — about religion, ecology, the fate of humanity — and drew from an astonishment of sources, from Greek mythology to Indigenous cultures.

Inspired by government efforts to keep sand dunes at bay, he dreamed up a desert planet where water was the new petroleum. The result is a future-shock epic that reads like a cautionary tale for our environmentally ravaged world.

Villeneuve likes to work on a large scale, but has a miniaturist’s attention to fine-grained detail, which fits for a story as equally sweeping and intricate as “Dune.” Like the novel, the movie is set thousands of years in the future and centers on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the scion of a noble family. With his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul is about to depart for his new home on a desert planet called Arrakis, aka Dune. The Duke, on orders from the Emperor, is to take charge of the planet, which is home to monstrous sandworms, enigmatic Bedouin-like inhabitants and an addictive, highly valuable resource called spice.

Much ensues. There are complicated intrigues along with sword fights, heroic deaths and many inserts of a mystery woman (Zendaya) throwing come-hither glances at the camera, a Malickian vision in flowing robes and liquid slow motion. She’s one piece of the multifaceted puzzle of Paul’s destiny, as is a mystical sisterhood (led by Charlotte Rampling in severe mistress mode) of psychic power brokers who share a collective consciousness. They’re playing the long game while the story’s most flamboyant villain, the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), schemes and slays, floating above terrified minions and enemies like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon devised by Clive Barker.

The movie leans on a lot of exposition, partly to help guide viewers through the story’s denser thickets, but Villeneuve also uses his visuals to advance and clarify the narrative. The designs and textures of the movie’s various worlds and their inhabitants are arresting, filigreed and meaningful, with characters and their environments in sync.

At times, though, Villeneuve lingers too long over his creations, as if he wanted you to check out his cool new line of dragonfly-style choppers and bleeding corpses. (This isn’t a funny movie but there are mordantly humorous flourishes, notably with the Baron, whose bald head and oily bath indicate that Villeneuve is a fan of “Apocalypse Now.”)
That impulse to linger is understandable given the monumentality of Villeneuve’s world building (and its price tag). But the movie’s spectacular scale combined with Herbert’s complex mythmaking also creates a not entirely productive tension between stasis and movement.

Not long after he lands on Dune, Paul is ushered into the new world of its tribal people, the Fremen, a transitional passage leading from dark rooms to bright desert, from heavy machinery and vaulted spaces with friezes to gauzy robes and the meringue peaks of the dunes. Paul is on a journey filled with heavy deeds and thoughts, but en route he can seem caught in all this beauty, like a fly in fast-hardening sap.

Chalamet looks young enough for the role (Paul is 15 when the novel opens) and can certainly strike a Byronic pose, complete with black coat and anguished hair. The actor has his moments in “Dune,” including in an early scene with Rampling’s Reverend Mother, who puts Paul through a painful test; Chalamet excels at imparting a sense of confused woundedness, psychic and physical. But he doesn’t move with the coiled grace of the warrior that Paul is meant to be, which undermines both his training sessions with the family “warmaster” (Josh Brolin) and in his later role as a messianic figure, one who is considerably less complicated and conflicted on screen than he is on the page.

Written by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, the screenplay has taken predictable liberties. The movie retains the overall arc of the book despite having jettisoned characters and swaths of plot. There have been felicitous changes, as with the character Dr. Liet Kynes, an ecologist who’s a man in the book but is now a woman. Played by a formidably striking Sharon Duncan-Brewster, the character doesn’t receive nearly enough screen time, particularly given Kynes’ weighty patrimony and narrative function. But Duncan-Brewster — like so many of the other well-cast supporting performers — makes enough of an impression that she helps fill in the script’s ellipses.

Throughout “Dune,” you can feel Villeneuve caught and sometimes struggling between his fidelity to the source material and the demands of big-ticket mainstream moviemaking and selling. It’s easy to imagine that he owns several copies of the novel, each copiously dog-eared and heavily outlined. (The movie is relatively free of holiday-ready merch opportunities, outside of a cute desert mouse with saucer-sized ears.) At the same time, Villeneuve is making a movie in a Marvel-dominated industry that foregrounds obviousness and blunt action sequences over ambiguity and introspection. There’s talk and stillness here, true, but also plenty of fights, explosions and hardware.

The trickiest challenge is presented by the movie’s commercial imperatives and, by extension, the entire historical thrust of Hollywood with its demand for heroes and happy endings. This presents a problem that Villeneuve can’t or won’t solve. Paul is burdened by prophetic visions he doesn’t yet fully understand, and while he’s an appealing figure in the novel, he is also menacing. Herbert was interested in problematizing the figure of the classic champion, including the superhero, and he weaves his critique into the very fabric of his multilayered tale. “No more terrible disaster could befall your people,” a character warns, “than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

There’s little overt menace to this Paul, who mostly registers as a sincere, sensitive, if callow hero-in-the-making. Mostly, the danger he telegraphs exists on a representational level and the dubiously romanticized image presented by a pale, white noble who’s hailed as a messiah by the planet’s darker-complexioned native population.

Whether Paul is white in the novel is, I think, open to debate. Herbert’s focus is on the human race, which, as the writer Jordan S. Carroll notes in a fascinating essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, hasn’t prevented white supremacists from embracing the book. “Fascists love ‘Dune,’” Carroll writes, though he sees this love as a self-serving misreading.

One of Herbert’s talents was his ability to blend his promiscuous borrowings — from Navajo, Aztec, Turkish, Persian and myriad other sources — into a smoothly unified future world that, as befits science fiction, is at once familiar and strange. The shadow of Lawrence of Arabia and colonialist fantasies does loom large, particularly because the Fremen and their language are drawn from Arabic origins. Still, the book gives you room to cast Paul in your head in whatever image you choose. But movies tend to visually lock in meaning, and, like David Lynch’s much-maligned 1984 adaptation with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul, this “Dune” is also about a white man leading a fateful charge.

That doesn’t make Villeneuve’s “Dune” a white-savior story or not exactly or maybe just not yet. The movie ends before everything wraps up too neatly or uncomfortably, which injects it with some welcome uncertainty.

Herbert wrote five sequels, and Duneworld continued to expand after his death; if the movie hits the box-office sweet spot, the story can presumably continue, which would be a gift for a franchise-hungry industry. Whether it will become the kind of gift that keeps on giving is up to the audience. Villeneuve has made a serious, stately opus, and while he doesn’t have a pop bone in his body, he knows how to put on a show as he fans a timely argument about who gets to play the hero now.