There are few science-fiction stories that have as much influence over the genre as Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Unfortunately, for me the inaugural novel’s previous on-screen adaptations have been, for me, less so. Admittedly, unlike a lot of my nerdy constituents growing up, and even now as an adult, I could never seem to get into the novels, let alone any adaption of them. I tried reading the first novel a couple of times and it was really difficult to be immersed. Then I watched the 1984 film adaptation starring the great Sir Patrick Stewart and it was… an experience. Also, don’t even get me started on the late 90’s Sci-fi Channel miniseries.
About two years ago, it was announced that one of favorite directors, Denis Villanueve, was signed to helm a new film based on Herbert’s novel. Given how much I enjoyed his direction in Arrival, and have a special place in my heart for his work in the Blade Runner sequel, 2049, I was intrigued. Then the cast was announced: Zendaya, Oscar Issac, Jason Momoa, and Dave Bautista to name a few. There was no way this could end up being wack, right? Would my third on-screen experience with Dune be the charm? Or will I end up wanting two and a half hours of my life back? You’ll find out in a bit.
This film, just like the novel, is set in a very distant future where various noble house rule different parts of an interstellar society. At the center of this story is young Paul Atredes (played by Timothee’ Chalamet), whose family, lead by his father, Duke Leto Atredes (played by Oscar Issac), accepts stewardship of a desert planet call Arrakis. While the harsh and inhospitable planet is barely populated, it is the only source of an ancient drug called melange, or, “spice” as they call it, which can extend a person’s lifespan along with granting them enhanced mental abilities. Unfortunately for house Atredes, every other ruling house of this galactic society is after this resource and goes to go into conflict with one another to obtain it, including house Harkkonen, enemies of theirs whom granted stewardship to them in the first place. on top of all this the Fremen, natives to Arrakis, are not exactly keen on letting yet another outside force milk their planet for their precious resource.
The film is beautifully shot– this is apparent in the crisp cinematography. Each of the planets shown in this story look very interesting and have a level of tangibility to them. The action sequences, particularly the attack on an House Atredes’ Military base by the Harkkonen, looked pretty stylish, and brutal at times. Composer Hans Zimmer’s score sounds like an entire character in the film, and the acting performances of Oscar Isaac as the Duke, and Jason Momoa as house soldier Duncan Idaho really shine in this.
Unfortunately, all of those good things mentioned above, were not enough to carry the heavy boring load that is Dune.
What makes it boring, you ask? What brings the whole thing down? THE ACTING. It makes the performances in the Star Wars Prequels seem like Academy Award-caliber work in comparison. The acting by nearly everyone who is not named Oscar or Jason is awful and dry. Timothee Chalamet is the driest of them all, sounding like a monotone robot. Zendaya? Her acting comes off as someone who had no interest in being on the set at all. One would think that as anticipated as this movie was, and as influential as this story has been to the whole of modern science fiction, you would assume there would be compelling performances. However, NOPE. Not in this film.
I know what a lot of people are going to say after reading all of that, particularly fans of the Dune novels. “Well, of course you didn’t like it. You’re not a fan!” Although as I mentioned earlier, I’m not a fan of Dune, but I am a film enthusiast. As a film enthusiast I tend to enjoy films that, at the very least, have solid acting. This film clearly has far more style than substance, and the sad part is, it may still end up winning some Academy Awards. I expected better from director Denis Villaneuve, and I think fans of Dune deserved much than what we all got.