Dune 2021 Review
“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”
From the poem Desert Places, by Robert Frost
Imagine this: a sweeping panorama of desert places, the camera scouring the curves of dunes like the sensuous contours of a lover’s body as she lay in the imitation of some elusive profundity both mysteriously silent and, ultimately, pointless. Which panorama is in question? Choose one at random within Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune and it will suffice, being that they are all indistinguishable from each other. This movie pretends to have something to say, and something to feel. It has neither. It is a vapid exercise in eco-fetishism; a lingering voyeuristic conceit of substance suffused with a director’s ego at the cost of plot and character. Lingering special effects shots and character reaction shots are abundant and shallow, reminding of the gawk-fests that riddle so many Shonen anime adaptations. Some scenes are iconic—scenes with figures and spaceships arrayed around them—but like the religious iconography of the Bene Gesserit it is planted superstition with little import except to impress gullible minds with eye-glazing rituals. Only, it is not so successfully manipulative as the Bene Gesserits. And the reason why is that the director is more concerned with making desktop backgrounds for fanboys than actually telling a compelling story.
There is a willful juxtaposition of the impersonal, hostile environments and gigantic technology with cosmically-dwarfed characters. This is commendable. The world of Dune is impersonal and hostile. The problem is that the movie fails in the attempt to anchor audience via empathy to the plight of the characters. There are characters in the dunes of Dune, but they are lost in the rumbling sandstorms like Fremen shadows. Few actors are characters in Dune. The only exception that demonstrates impressive range is Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. She is, by turns, motherly, defensive, capable, noble, powerless, powerful, and conflicted. She is the embodiment of the desert, though she is a Bene Gesserit witch that has never been on Arrakis before. She protects her son, but is also compromised by her Bene Gesserit loyalties. She makes for an interesting character, just as she does in the novel. The conflict on her face during the Gom Jabbar scene is excellent. It is too bad, then, that no other actor has the opportunity to demonstrate their acting range, mainly because the camera is obsessed with scenery more than the script and acting.
Paul Atreides is the presumptive protagonist of the movie. Timothee Chalamet is competent as the figure who will eventually become the god in a Fremen religion. He is scarcely believable as a warrior, however. For a young man trained by Duncan Idaho, Gurney Halleck, and trained in the Weirding Way by his mother, he should not be so slight of frame and bearing. It is difficult to suspend disbelief at his martial prowess. Being a martial artist myself, it is not unbelievable that someone such as Bruce Lee could generate extraordinary power (despite never weighing more than 150 lbs in his life), but Chalamet is not Bruce Lee. He is built more like Mick Jagger than Bruce Lee. While one might lend credence to his prowess via the Weirding Way and its advantages, there is nought in the film that recommends the Weirding Way as any substantial advantage except in use of the Voice. Within the novel the reader is at liberty with Paul’s thoughts and, so, can be familiarized with his character, his motivations, and his pain throughout the narrative. In the movie we have no such privilege. Chalamet attempts to convey Paul’s conflicts with self, his circumstance, and his enemies, but not so much as is needed for it to win over the audience. The problem with Paul is the problem with several characters: not enough screentime to develop them and to invest the audience into their plights. This is a terrible oversight when we consider that Paul is the protagonist of the film (insomuch as he is The One prophesied to lead the Fremen against their enemies). And what is more lamentable is the fact that there are character moments neglected by the director. For instance, when Paul kills Jamis, Paul does not cry as he does in the novel, something which signifies his loss of innocence as a 15 year old having to kill for the first time in his life. This is a conjuncture point where his character grows alongside his legend, for his tears are misinterpreted by the Fremen as a sign of honor for the dead Jamis. Offering water to the dead, by crying, is something the One would do. Fremen rarely afford the dead such extravagances. Thus, a needful character moment is excised at the detriment of the character. Lynch’s Dune movie attempted to avoid the chasm between character motivation and audience awareness with scenes narrated by the characters’ thoughts. While this has been derided by some, it may be the only way the characters’ motivations might be explained more fully in the cinematic format, however gaudy it seems. When the main character is diminished because his range is limited by the script, the film suffers by its director’s poor choices.
Another character that suffers from the script is the seemingly primary antagonist, the Baron Harkonnen. Played by Stellan Skarsgard, he is visually intimidating (at first), floating while draped with a long space muumuu tapestry, but his menace is soon squandered; or, at least, never fully realized. He should inspire dread—with his guttural vocalizations and his unearthly, almost phantasmal mobility, and his black oil (?) rehabilitation baths—but ultimately he is nowhere near as disturbing as the flamboyant Baron Harkonnen in Lynch’s version. The latter is outlandish and creepy, whereas Villeneuve’s Baron is aesthetically impressive, but ultimately shallow. Like Paul, Vlad is never given enough screentime to be menacing. We are supposed to be afraid of him because we are supposed to be afraid of him. The Harkonnen world is likewise interesting—from the scene of Aztec-like battle preparations and the throat-singing, to the plastic-veiled women-in-waiting and the Baron’s gimp-suited multi-limbed pet—but it passes by so quickly that it seems underdeveloped. While Feyd is not necessary to the narrative yet, it would have been nice to foreshadow him as a threat in some way. There is Bautista’s Glossu Rabban, but he is both over the top and, simultaneously, has such little actual screentime that he seems almost extraneous.
As for the other characters, they are cursory, superficially-glancing sketches taken from the novel. Stilgar, as played by Javier Bardem, is enigmatic and mysterious, and manages to make an impression despite little screentime. Oscar Isaac is fine as Leto Atreides, and the scene where he asks Lady Jessica—whom he starts to doubt after the Gom Jabbar trial—to protect their son is impactful, especially since he asks her not as Paul’s mother, but as a Bene Gesserit. The alienation and desperation within the scene is palpable. That said, Leto’s death seems hollow and does not resonate. Duncan Idaho does not impress. Jason Mamoa plays Jason Mamoa, much the same as in every film in which he appears. Some have said Mamoa brings “humanity” to the film, but he seems to bring only bad jokes and a cowabunga mentality. His death is hollow as well. No death seems impactful in the film. Josh Brolin should be a good Gurney Halleck, yet he also plays himself: a grumpy old warrior who does not seem to have any capacity to play music. The joke about Halleck’s inability to smile is overplayed and misplaced. Bathos and melodrama dog the film. The slow-motion dream sequences are overdone, overused, and bring the film to a lethargic halt too many times. The whole film swoons into an imbecilic stupor at these moments. The bagpipes scene is jarring and absurd. The scene concerning fig trees is needless. The lingering vista shots could have been halved, making for a leaner runtime and better pacing. The soundtrack is overbearing and histrionic. Either it blares with loud, distortion-pedal foghorns or it trills with melodramatic lamentations. The dirges ring hollow as they attempt to project the emotions which the characters fail to elicit. No one wants to be told how to feel when watching a movie. They want to feel it naturally as a consequence of the characters and the plot. The cues are, thus, try-hard and mishandled.
For all of the criticism leveled at Lynch’s Dune (and often rightfully so), the costumes of the Bene Gesserit witches and other characters are iconic and otherworldly. The Bene Gesserits of Villeneuve’s Dune are overtopped with boxes and fabric as if they are mobile tents. The still-suits are bland compared to the Lynchian version. The ninja helmets are laughable, as is Chalamet’s superimposed face on the stuntman’s head. The sets are sometimes impressive, such as the Harkonnen world, and sometimes bland (Caladan). The mural of the sandworm with a its maw arrayed with a halo is an excellent use of iconography to encapsulate the Fremen religion, as well as the themes of the film. The cgi is inconsistent. It oscillates between beautiful and lacking verisimilitude. It is nowhere near as bad as the SyFy series, but at least the SyFy series manages to convey the character drama competently. Villeneuve’s movie holds the characters at the distance, in the midground or the background, letting the backgrounds paradoxically assume prominence in the foreground. Space is an impersonal place, but the desert places need to be somewhat welcoming to their audience. The desert mouse is not convincing, especially since the camera lingers on it so closely. The director, therefore, is too in love with the special effects and aesthetics to ever be in love with the characters. It is the same problem plaguing Prometheus. Appropriately, one of the writers of Prometheus shares writing credit on Dune, alongside the director.
For being so reliant on slow-moving spectacle, one would hope that the action sequences would be riveting. They are not. The action sequences are few and far between. They are the crests of the dunes, whereas the rest of the plodding sequences are spent meandering through vales. And even the crescendos of action are fumbling, stumbling exercises for the actors. The fight choreography is inept, closer to the cartoonish acrobatics of the Power Rangers than the low standard of passable Hollywood mediocrity. The flipping and the spinning, the languid motions of the fighting (particularly Paul’s fight with Jamis), and Mamoa’s flying knee-strike on wires are all examples of underwhelming moments of action premised to quicken the blood only to leave the audience tepid, if not cold. There is no catharsis, like intended, but laughable turgidity that often is concealed in other Hollywood films (like the Dark Knight trilogy) by quick-cuts of the camera. Here, however, as always in this film, the catatonic camera lingers on the slow, clumsy movements as if they are of great import. Perhaps it is due to the limitations imposed by the actors and their inelegance with stunt work. Roger Yuan, the fight choreographer, has credits in many movies with impressive action set-pieces. The only logical conclusion to this is that a master craftsman can only accomplish so much with the material given to him.
Overall, the film could have benefitted from an editor, more competent screen-writers, and a voice in the room to tell Villeneuve that his shit does, in fact, stink (shit or get off the pot, Villeneuve). The runtime could have been halved and the characters could have been humanized more thoroughly. My wife said it was like looking at postcards for three hours while a woman occasionally screamed at you. I suppose that is how someone covers the hollowness of desert places: yell enough times and the echoes layer atop one another until it seems like there are many people in the hollows speaking to one another when, in fact, it is just a director in love with his own voice. As it so happens, no character really speaks to another, and the film never really speaks successfully to its audience. The sand settles slowly in the hourglass as the runtime winds down. The camera zooms in on each grain as if it is of great meaning, but it isn’t. When the hourglass runs out, what do we have? A single dune at the bottom and nothing loftier in the other half of the hourglass.