If, a few minutes into this Denis Villeneuve remake of David Lynch’s 1984 version, you’re having no trouble keeping House Atreides straight from House Harkonnen, Caladan straight from Arrakis, and have mastered Emperor Shaddam’s plan for the Landsraad, you should immediately take the Mensa exam and apply as a contestant on “Jeopardy!” Otherwise, relax. You’ll be able to recognize the bad guys easily enough; their leader is Sumo-fat and eats with his mouth open. The hero (or, better put, the hero-to-be, once he proves his mettle) is Paul, the 97-pound weakling of Charles Atlas lore, known to the film world as Timothée Chalamet.
Themes of exploitation, mining over people, and climate change refugees resonate, but lose intensity against the effort to replicate Herbert’s sprawling novel.
The action, based on Frank Herbert’s cult classic 1965 eponymous novel, is set in the year 10,191, on the desert planet Arrakis—the magnificent sandscape of Wadi Rum, Jordan. The planet is so dry (imagine the Earth having warmed not 3 degrees, but 30) that traveling its surface requires suits that recycle one’s sweat and urine. The native population, known as the Fremen—akin to Native Americans in their relationship to the land—struggle to assert their environmental values against those who exploit them, those who seek only to mine the planet’s incredibly valuable natural resource, known as “spice,” a substance necessary for vitality of life and interstellar travel. Themes of exploitation, mining over people, and climate change refugees resonate, but lose intensity against the effort to replicate Herbert’s sprawling novel.
Despite the ability to navigate the solar system and beyond, Arrakis’s technology is clumsy early-20th century: the planes, called orthnihopters, flap their wings locust-like and are controlled not by touch screens but by mechanical switches. The architecture on the planet combines Aztec elements with 1970s Brutalism. Most of the fighting is done with knives (specifically, a “crysknife,” made from a tooth of the predator sandworms), and the Emperor’s troops (the enemy) are dressed as if there had been a raid on the costume department of “Star Wars.” Perhaps (we’re not informed) this universe-of-the-future is mired in a long-term post-apocalyptic phase.
Despite its potential as a sci-fi epic, “Dune” the movie is better understood as a coming-of-age story, one complicated by Chalamet’s 17-year-old face and pre-teen physique. Chalamet has the acting chops, but not the body, to pull off this role. One shudders when Paul removes his shirt, and the script makes a point of his lack of physical development when one of the film’s brawny guys asks Paul, “Put on some muscle?” “Have I?” “No.”
In Paul’s case, the process of coming of age has three phases. The first is to separate from Mom and Dad—not so simple a task when Dad is Duke Leto, the handsome and hyper-masculine Oscar Isaac, the appointed steward of Arrakis, and Mom (Rebecca Ferguson) belongs to an exclusive sisterhood (called the Bene Gesserit, if you’re keeping up) with advanced physical and mental powers that, properly learned, would be of enormous help to poorly endowed Paul. The mother problem seems particularly intractable—she’s with him in scene after scene, sometimes doing the fighting for him—until Paul, channeling his Luke Skywalker “the force be with you,” takes an orthnihopter through a deadly dust storm with his mother aboard, proving something.
Being a man also requires having a woman, and Paul finds himself a lovely Fremen maiden (Zendaya as Chani, in a role so tiny here that we know we’re only being teased for the sequel), first in his dreams, then, for a moment, anyway, in real life. The final piece of the being-a-man puzzle is put in place soon thereafter, when Paul must demonstrate that he can defeat a big, muscular man in battle, with only that worm-tooth knife as a weapon, and without tapping into whatever kinetic powers he’s acquired.
Too much of Paul’s journey is predictable. That quality is leavened somewhat by a gloss of religion and the supernatural that overlays and deepens Paul’s character. Clearly Paul has inherited other-worldly powers through his mother’s line (his experience flying the orthnihopter has a spiritual side), and his father takes on a decidedly Christ-like pose before his death. Although the Fremen reject Paul as their savior—he’s “too young”—they have need of a spiritual leader (why, we don’t know), and Paul appears to take on a bit of that role in the final scenes, as he leads them, Moses-like, into their desert.
A pastiche of religion—and that’s all it is; there is no attempt to make much of Herbert’s philosophizing—can’t save “Dune” from an overly complex setup and a formulaic plot, centered around a boy’s quest for a masculinity and adulthood that is too far removed from the very real needs of the Fremen of Arrakis.
In trying to replicate Herbert’s complex universe, the writers, without much attention to a script that would engage an audience, litter the film with the book’s made-up sci-fi terms, eschewing necessary explanation, and with miscellaneous barely relevant characters (e.g., Thufir Hawat, the Mentat [Buffalo’s Stephen McKinley Henderson], some sort of advance scout and tutor, and Duncan Idaho [Jason Momoa], a swordsmaster and another tutor—you get the point). The film lacks humor, too, as well as the sort of camaraderie that rippled through the original “Star Wars” with such joy and delight.
Though moderately entertaining in its combat and action scenes, “Dune’s” collection of earnest individuals—mother, father, son and savior, Paul’s love interest Chani, Fremen tribal leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem), even baddie Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), and more than a dozen other characters—cannot bring this desert saga to life. One expects more from director and co-writer Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Sicario”). Maybe he’ll do better in “Dune: Part Two,” the opening of which, two years from now, was just announced.
Stars: 2.5 (out of 4)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jason Momoa, Zendaya
Runtime: 135 minutes
Other Awards: 2 nominations to date
Availability: In theaters and streaming on HBOMax. For more future availability, see JustWatch here.
Lead image: To become a man, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) must separate from his mother (Rebecca Ferguson, right).