I was thinking about the difficult job of teaching recently.
I'd be a lousy teacher. I mean, it would absolutely break my heart to have to fail a child who had poured their heart and soul into a project or a class or an assignment. I would find myself wanting to pass Johnny or Suzie simply because they tried really, really hard and even though they didn't quite get there with the finished product I'd want to give them an "A" for "Awesome Effort!"
But, you know. And I know. That's not how life works. We need teachers with integrity who grade honestly and with critical insight and, yes, still with some degree of compassion. Because, in the end, the big picture demands that the long-term benefits of critical evaluation are far more important than the short-term feel goods of an undeserved "A."
Now then, this is not leading down the road toward some bold and wildly inaccurate proclamation that Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has somehow failed in his long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, a film that may, at the very least, allow us to finally put David Lynch's bold yet misguided 1984 effort into its deserved place in the darkest recesses of our mind.
Villeneuve's Dune is not a failure. In fact, any film journalist who declares so should be immediately dismissed.
However, neither is Dune the visionary masterpiece that some will passionately declare it to be as they eat Little Debbie snackcakes from the basement of their mama's basement.
Instead, Villeneuve's Dune is a visual and aural curiosity, a wannabe masterpiece that will be declared a masterpiece by some based almost solely upon Villeneuve's street cred as a sci-fi worldbuilder and because there are legions of Herbert fans who've waited for decades for something resembling a decent Dune adaptation.
Dune is, perhaps if I were to stretch my critical opinion just a tad, a semi-decent adaptation that excels at worldbuilding and falls woefully short in other matters of importance including character-building, cohesive fluidity, and not making it perfectly obvious that Villeneuve has taken an unexpected detour down the road toward cinematic narcissism practically owned by James Cameron.
Opening wide in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend, Dune is somewhat unexpectedly framed as "Part One," a fact that desert nomad Chani (Zendaya) reminds us of just in case we didn't get the fact that this movie actually only covers about half of Herbert's several-hundred pages of writing (of which, for the record, I've never made my way through and never plan to do so). Dune is a part one with a part two that has never been announced, though perhaps Villeneuve has attained enough success to ensure his vision comes to completion regardless of the box-office outcome for this nearly $200 million epic being released into a pandemic-influenced world.
I kind of doubt it.
Dune centers around two families - the Harkonnens and the Atreideses - fighting for control of the planet Arrakis (I like to pretend this is where filmmaker Gregg Araki was born), a land with the only known presence of the valued substance known as melange, or spice. For the record, this is not the "spice" you can get from the weird house with boarded up windows a few doors down from me in my neighborhood. In this case, the "spice" is a necessary ingredient for interstellar travel. Much like our earthbound "spice," it's also a bit of a performance enhancer. The Fremen people (subtlety wasn't Herbert's strong point), who reside on Arrakis, benefit greatly from the substance including a pretty cool blue glow about their eyes.
Duke Leto Atreides, fortunately not played by Jared Leto but Oscar Isaac, is tasked with leading the forces that will attempt colonization of Arrakis despite the Harkonnens having controlled the planet for nearly a century. Their leader, Stellan Skarsgard's Baron, is possessing of the obligatory sci-fi cartoonish lunacy required of a universal baddie. Atreides's son is Paul, here played with more youthfulness and coming-of-age qualities than in Lynch's version of Dune by Timothee Chalamet, whom this story is largely centered around and whom we meet as he's beginning to learn the ways of the Bene Gesserit from his mysteriously gifted mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).
Dune essentially centers around this battle, or series of battles, and given the fact that Villeneuve only tackles about half of Herbert's original source material it should go without saying that this Dune will and does feel incomplete even at its sloggish 155-minute running time.
Where Villeneuve excels is in world-building and, indeed, it is in world-building where Dune is nearly a masterpiece. Patrice Vermette's enveloping and immersive production design practically swallows you up, especially in the movie theater. I will confess, however, that more than once I thought of Tremors as I watched Chalamet's Paul practically swallowed up by so much sand you could practically create an Indiana lakeshore. Chalamet, unquestionably one of this generation's up-and-comers, nonetheless more than once feels like that trenchcoat-wearing goth kid who is either going to shoot up his local high school or go out and build another world.
Fortunately for us, Paul chooses to build another world.
There's a weird tension in this dynamic, essentially an almost "white savior" element given the Fremen are a mostly darker-skinned people. Villeneuve doesn't explore this fully, perhaps fortunately, but I'll be curious to see where this goes assuming part two manifests.
Mark Mangini's sound design is similarly enveloping, though somewhat overwhelmingly so and those pre-disposed to sensory overload would do well to take notice that even those not pre-disposed to sensory overload may find their senses overloaded by Dune. I found myself growing tired of Hans Zimmer's powerful yet far too often thunderous original score and felt a similar feeling with Greig Fraser's impressive yet somewhat redundant lensing.
While Villeneuve's world-building is impressive, Dune's character-building is less so.
First off, while I respect the re-imagining of Paul Timothee Chalamet is simply miscast despite giving it his best go. It doesn't help that both Ferguson and Isaac are playing with about 1.5 notes and only a handful of supporting players are truly impressive here including, I say somewhat unexpectedly, Jason Momoa as a soldier with tremendous loyalty to the Atreides family. Momoa gives the film much needed heart and humor and he nails the tone that others simply never find. Josh Brolin uses his trademark gruffness to tremendous effect here while Sharon Duncan-Brewster is also a stand-out. Zendaya is fine here, though her scenes with Chalamet lack the necessary tension and grit.
It's arguable, of course, that Dune isn't necessarily about its characters. Heck, it could even be said that plot is secondary to its world-building. However, with a world so beautifully built it's more than a little disappointing that there's so little to actually care about here. With so much awe-inspiring wonder to be found in Dune, the word apathy should never enter the occasion and yet it does time and again.
Dune isn't a failure. It truly isn't. I'd dare say that Herbert purists may find themselves among the most satisfied from Villeneuve's effort here and his attention to the world-building and ecological and spiritual themes prevalent throughout the Dune series. For non-purists and those less familiar with the source material, Villeneuve tries hard with Dune to create a remarkable universe but ultimately fails to make it a place where we'd want to be and to create characters with whom we'd want to engage.
I'd give Villeneuve an "A" for effort, but that wouldn't really be fair to the rest of the class.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic