By Tom Cain
A film based on a book is common. Less common is needing that book to be your Mastermind specialist subject to make any sense of its transition to the big screen. Yet that is how it is with Dennis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune. Its plot, at least that which I could establish, is this: there is a planet called Dune. Warring space families want to control that planet because it contains the substance Spice. I am still unclear as to why Spice is important, despite a voiceover telling me it is Very Important. The planet has a local population who are driven out so Spice can be mined (as metaphors for colonialism go, it’s not subtle.) As our story begins, a new family takes control of Dune, bringing with them their mopey son (played by Timothée Chalamet). He has a strange affinity for life on Dune, and the locals seem oddly reverent of him. And thus Dune poses one central question to its audience: is Timmy Chalamet space Jesus? Dune then proceeds to spend nearly three hours resolutely avoiding answering this question, in order to drum up demand for a gazillion-dollar sequel. Capitalism, as Marx opined, is a bitch.
Dune comes from a 1960s epic sci-fi novel, of an ungodly length, hyper-specific in its detail, and filled with quasi-religious imagery. They are a whole series of books spanning thousands of fictional years, and crucially, I’ve never read them and don’t particularly want to. That shouldn’t matter when it comes to watching a film adaptation, but oh boy, it does. In comparison to the scale of the books, the film is little more than a highlights reel, and in chopping it down and squishing it all in, Dennis Villeneuve has opted to pretty much ignore any backstory, exposition, or context. Usually, I’d respect this: establish your world so well that the audience can’t help but be swept along in its ways.
But here’s where Denny-V falters. The Dune Universe (Duniverse?) created in the books is so bloody massive with such intricate complexities that not giving the audience any sort of grounding in what’s what and who’s who automatically lowers the stakes. It’s like watching a sport I’ve never seen before, in which the players make the rules up as they go along. The stakes can never be all that high; whenever the plot demands it, a new titbit of lore can be introduced to circumnavigate the problems of our protagonists, and the problems themselves never seem all too seriously because, well, the audience doesn’t really know what these problems represent. Characters intended to be ominous or evil end up sapped of all their power. They’re just another A-list actor wearing a silly hat.
This brings us onto the cast themselves. Plot holes and irregularities could all be forgiven if there was a loveable rabble to root for in their fight against whatever it is they may or may not be fighting against. Star Wars had plot holes big enough to drive a bus through, but it worked because Luke was loveable, Han Solo was rugged, and Leia was cooler than the both of them put together. Unfortunately, Timothée Chalamet was cast in the central role of ‘Paul’ (an entire fictional universe of names to choose from, and some muggins plumped for ‘Paul’. Might as well have the ring delivered to Mordor by Gary and Nigel).
Timmy manages to spend most of his scenes looking mildly bored, like an emo teenager who’s been forced to join his family at the beach. Sure, he might build a sandcastle or two and be given inordinate praise for doing so, but ultimately he’s a drain on the whole day out. Oscar Isaac, as Paul’s father and the family patriarch is reliable but hardly scintillating, Josh Brolin seems to have been told to scowl at literally everything (which, in his defence, he does wonderfully) and Dave Bautista, bless him, is doing his best. Oddly, some of the most genuinely stirring moments come from Jason Momoa, the man who is the answer to the question “What if we built a man so beefily gorgeous that it really wouldn’t matter if he has the acting range of an ironing board?” It’s perhaps the fact that Momoa is basically playing a spaced-up version of himself that lets him inject some genuine warmth into the picture – for one thing, he occasionally smiles, and his fight scenes, as well as being immaculately choreographed, are just something to cheer for. He’s a hero to get behind.
Perhaps it’s old fashioned of me to want a bone fide ‘hero’ figure, but the film is so high in references to the books, and so low in the actual drama that I’d have appreciated a very simple label on at least one character saying “This one here is a goodie. Support them.”
That being said, there are real positives. To look at, the film is truly awesome. Its cinematography neatly avoids being a CGI mess and instead paints stunning portraits of a desert landscape, all rich reds and yellow ochres. Costumes too are a delicate blend of military apparel and almost Middle Eastern desert wear. Even the sci-fi paraphernalia, spaceships, laser beams et al, is rendered to look functional and worn in. It’s these secondary features that truly bring this world to life with their lived-in, beaten-up appearance.
Granted there are weak spots; the giant worms for which Dune is so famous do end up looking, how do I put this, distinctly sphincter-like. And there seem to be moments when Villeneuve, surely realising that the cinematography is by far the best thing about this film, gives us gratuitously lingering shots of funky CGI interiors. A Best Cinematography nomination is inevitable.
Ultimately though, Dune never quite feels like a film in its own right. It is somewhere between an extended trailer for the books (essential reading if you’re keen on knowing what’s going on in the films you watch) or a hell of a prologue to the inevitable sequel. When stood on its own, Dune leaves you ever so slightly underwhelmed. There was an all-star cast. There was a lot of noise. There were giant worms. And yet… I still don’t know if Timmy Chalamet is truly space Jesus. And the wretched thing went on so long and was so compressed in all the wrong places, and so drawn out in all the others, that at this point I just don’t give a damn.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova