Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 155
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune aims at many things, but “fun” is not one of them. It don’t know whether there’s any possibility for a laff riot from the source novel—I’ve been meaning to read Frank Herbert’s Dune since the 1984 film came out, and haven’t, ah, gotten around to it yet—but even if the material is inherently sober, Villeneuve isn’t the man to draw out comedy, or bounce, or the sort of sci-fi adventure one might be forgiven for occasionally craving at the old multiplex.
So, fine. Villeneuve does bring other skills, including his gift for saturated visual imagery (though he misses cinematographer Roger Deakins here) and his focus on intimate human gestures. Both are on fine display in the early minutes of Dune, as we get eye-filling canvases and scenes in which government intrigue is suggested with a minimum of dialogue and a multitude of meaningful glances. One of the best scenes in the film takes place early, between hero-to-be Paul Atriedes (Timothée Chalamet) and his regal mother, called Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), as they sit at a table and talk. The scene has humor and lightness; you believe that these two people share a bond of time and family. It’s Chalamet’s best sequence, in part because this inventive and truthful actor gets to play different shades of character, and not just put his head down as he marches along the plotline; longer the movie goes on, the more you feel him sinking in the sand. (Ferguson is excellent throughout, as usual, and the film’s final moments belong, shiveringly, to Lady Jessica, not Paul.)
There are other things to admire, beyond these early scenes. I like that—in a movie that could be crammed with expository dialogue and countless names and histories of people and planets—Villeneuve and his writers keep the yakety-yak spare in the film’s many council meetings and arrivals and receptions. There’s no sense of crowding or rush—it’s enough to understand that this person had power and this other person wants it and this bloated freak who floats around (that would be Baron Harkonnen, played by Stellan Skarsgård) is just evil.
In fact, for a movie that’s supposed to be fitting a long novel’s worth of stuff into a 155-minute container, there isn’t really that much going on in Dune. I am surely the millionth person to suggest that the organizing element of any approach to Dune is the idea of the spice, the product being mined on the desert planet, which allows space travel (do they actually show this in the movie?). The spice is a drug, and it is natural to assume that Villeneuve has taken the idea and used it as a reason to make Dune a spice-dream, which justifies the movie’s gauziness and its curious drifting movement.
But even being under the influence doesn’t explain, or excuse, the way Dune‘s characters grow fuzzier as the film goes on, or the way the orange-dun light becomes monotonous. The cast is overwhelmed, even if breakthroughs occasionally happen: Jason Momoa, an effortless comic performer, gets the only movie-movie energy cooking, and Charlotte Rampling and Chang Chen have moments, by overplaying and underplaying, respectively. And—while this may be yet another failing of mine—the design of the entire thing as Part One leads to some serious ungainliness of structure; I am certain this will be less of a problem for the audience accustomed to longform TV and multi-film universe-building, but I felt the let-down, even if the actual final scene is smartly served up.
Late in the film there’s a close-up of a plant, its vivid green a sudden shock in the midst of the preceding two hours of spiced brown. I suspect Villeneuve lives for moments like that. Sadly, I didn’t know what the plant was, or what it means, any more than I know what the Bene Gesserit is, although it seems to be important to the movie’s world. Dune Part One beat me, despite its accomplishments. I hope you’ve read the book.
October 22, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.