Adapting a novel is hard. How faithful do you remain without compromising the cinematic potential of the material? Merely copying plot beats verbatim so as to not lose the essence of the original work while also appealing to fans of the book? Back in 1984, writer/director David Lynch wrestled with this dilemma when adapting Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. A story that requires the unrestricted nature of a book in order to fully comprehend proved to be too large a scope for the filmmaker who had just been nominated for Best Picture for his previous effort (Elephant Man).
Despite impressive character design and set pieces, Lynch’s project crumbled from an overwrought script (I’m assuming the novel never used the phrase “sneak attack”) and a contentious production between him and the studio. And so fans of the novel speculated whether or not it were possible for the story to be told on the big screen.
Enter Denis Villeneuve, a prolific director and Oscar-nominee in his own right, now taking on the challenge of adapting Dune 37 years after Lynch’s previous catastrophe. The filmmaker has proven he could handle large scale epics with the likes of Blade Runner 2049 – the predecessor of which the original Dune movie was likened to – and complex premises such as in the hard sci-fi Best Picture nominee Arrival. To call Dune hard sci-fi would be putting it lightly. To call it complex would be misleading.
Set in a far-off galaxy in the year 10,191 (although it’s sort of moot to assign a year when it takes place in a far-off galaxy), spice is the most sought-after commodity, and its only known source is on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune. The elusive Emperor (unseen) appoints the just Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his army to rule Dune, mysteriously replacing the barbarian Harkonnen clan. But the Emperor has a secret plan to kill Leto and all his people out of jealousy, with the help of the Harkonnens themselves.
Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), is assumed to be the savior prophesied to lead the natives on Arrakis to freedom. Also the illegitimate son of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), he’s the first male born to a bloodline of superhuman women, known as Bene Gesserit, allowing Paul to see visions of his supposed future. He now must learn how to navigate adulthood and his newfound responsibilities in the wake of their arrival on Dune.
Where Lynch took liberties with this story in the spirit of the cinematic medium, Villeneuve is more faithful to the source material and divvies up these plot points much better, with spaced out exposition inadvertently given through dialogue rather than spotlighting every word. But the director and co-writer (along with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts) also uses that faithfulness to the book as a safety net, leaning on the oceanic visuals to imply some level of inspiration on a content level. He subliminally increases the scope by making each interior set piece at least 10 times larger.
The result is much more consistently watchable, but also the plot details don’t necessarily skew too far from the ’84 film either. The world he’s created is fascinating, showcasing the desert landscape in a way that this story deserves. That said, part of me misses the comic bookish characterizations of the humans, the weird Star Warsian creatures, and the ambitious practical effects, all of which imbued Lynch’s film with a personality and even a sense of humor, intentional or otherwise.
2021’s Dune is morbidly serious and void of suspense, featuring an ensemble cast basically just functioning in their roles (where’s Sting?). Surprisingly, Jason Momoa is the only performer who manages to bring a much-welcomed livelihood to a drab movie. He treats the material with the popcorn pretense that it has instead of the cerebral, self-indulgent arthouse reality it actually turns out to be. There are a few scenes featuring Javier Bardem showing every other performer (except Momoa) how to turn dry material into something intriguing for the audience.
Chalamet, who’s only a step up from Hayden Christensen in the Star Wars prequels, is somehow worse than the miscast Kyle MacLachlan who previously played the part. While the former version of Paul just simply didn’t fit into the hero role in a believable way, Chalamet is objectively not good, even outperformed by the likes of David Bautista. He can never get his jaw or his eyebrows placed correctly, like he’s constantly trying to mask a smirk.
Tricking us into thinking his version of Dune is deep with one-off inspirational quotes lifted straight from the book like “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience,” the director never manages to find what truly makes this story poetic and interesting, seeming to focus mostly on not being David Lynch. Villeneuve banks on viewers’ familiarity with Herbert’s novel for them to fully appreciate all that he’s doing or omitting, assuming we will trust him to come through with the expected payoffs in hypothetical sequels, rarely offering anything rewarding here.
But knowledge of the source material should never be a prerequisite for grasping or enjoying any movie. The story is still inherently structureless, perhaps even more than Lynch’s. A mood board of monochrome palettes and slowly rhythmic pacing only make us forget there’s no jumping off point. Once again, the first act (if you can call it that) doesn’t end until almost 90 minutes in. Regardless of a planned sequel, a film needs to have a beginning, middle, and end.
Villeneuve’s Dune is, generally, a faithful adaptation of Herbert’s novel and an improvement over the 1984 adaptation, though this rendition also might be proof the material isn’t really meant to be adapted for cinema, and makes us sympathetic for its poorly-received predecessor. Perhaps it’s not all that easy to make Dune entertaining after all. When I first watched Lynch’s film, my unfamiliarity with the story made me frustrated, if not agitated. Now that I know what’s happening in this latest version, I’m just bored.