Dune

Dune ★★

At the level of spectacle, DUNE is a visual feast for the senses, a magnificent exercise in what everyone likes to call "world-building," and a terrific opportunity to lean further into what that nebulous phrase, "pure cinema," might mean. It is a film that is never lacking in ambition, nor immensity, nor grand imagery, and it's certainly not hard to be impressed by the sheer level of craft on display. The combination of artistry and ambiance is always majestic, courtly, and, in many of its details, almost abstract. Villeneuve didn't shoot a film, he painted a complex cinematic mural about interstellar war and the ominous nature of Messianic idolatry. 

I'm admitting up front that I have not read the source material and went into this mostly fresh and without expectation, but the ideas that I am familiar with seem to be very much my jam: the danger of hero-worshipping, the fear of authoritarianism, the devastation of colonialism, of environmental collapse, of religious power gone seriously awry, the cautionary sting of false saviors, the exploitation of prophecy and legend to earn the loyalty and respect of the native inhabitants, etc. All these ideas speak directly to my soul. Now combine all of this into an epic sci-fi intergalactic conflict with a world so expansive that it practically drools awesomeness, and I think I left the IMAX more in awe over the fact that Villeneuve's sweeping saga oddly didn't work for me.

For all its orange-hued sweep and grandeur, it's really unfortunate the film lacks the internal excitement deserving of its vast interplanetary scope. Some of this, I'm told, is based on the limitations of a first volume adaptation that must throw all of its eggs into set up, exposition, and "world-building." The better stuff comes later, they say. Just you wait, they say. Ok, ok. I'll believe you. But even as a first film in a series of who knows how many, Villeneuve never really seems interested in these players as characters. He struggles to balance the epic and the personal, often trading intimacy for magnitude, personality for panorama, resulting in a rigid balloon of a film that uses its epic posture to eclipse any grand adventure. The style is ceremonial, not dramatic; it's not character-building that Villeneuve is interested in here but figurines in a design shaped to support his splashy showpieces. It's all about the spectacular sand worms, the glow of spaceships, the intricately designed courtroom politics, and the geometric compositions of the Atreideses' army in block formations. Villeneuve seems to be so much in love with the aesthetics of warfare — the elegant rituals of armies marching and ships flying — that he avoids any semblance of real drama, offering only a skeleton of a story rather than fleshing it out with beats that sink deep.

Meanwhile, his formal control is so precise, like Kubrick, that he never ends up with a story that required my contemplation or emotional involvement, unlike Kubrick. I blame some of this on my unfamiliarity with the text itself, which other viewers who've read the book are afforded the luxury to fill in the gaps when any emotional depth is terminated prematurely and races off to the next set piece. The editing is quite aggressive in this way, never really allowing for any kind of emotional payoff to occur. Again, this is the "first volume" dilemma that services scale over depth, comically reminding me of those friends who've always told me that ("insert any TV show") always gets better in the third season if you can just slog through the drudgery of the first season. The dialogue is terse and to the point, which I quite like for a story that is meant to be more operatic in nature, but there's a dullness to the film's energy that often makes it feel as dry as the desert sand found on Arrakis itself. Where is this film's passion that isn't tied to its production design? Why are its compelling ideas locked into such bureaucratic forms, embodied by characters that feel so uninvolving and spiritless? 

In all fairness, there are some engrossing scenes: Paul's Jedi mind trick (a deadly martial art referred to as the Bene Gesserit "Voice") allows him and his mother to exude control over their Harkonnen captors. There are some really tense scenes: Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother sticks Paul's hand into a torture box to test his strength over his base instincts, hoping this inchoate Messiah will possibly guide humanity toward… stability? Chaos? Something other? And then of course there's some really awesome scenes: sand worms, duh. 

In a story that sets up the flora and fauna for a massive holy war mapped to a precog who seems terrified by the future and the collapse of his own people, this is a planetary battle fueled with a special kind of horror. The problem is, we aren't made to feel that horror. Despite the peril faced by Paul, his plight feels sterile and is treated dispassionately, yielding a cold and hollow interior. In this film, Villeneuve's pomp and pageantry cannot be interrupted to create basic characterization or empathy with its lead character. His visuals are truly impressive, bolstered by an even more seductive and glorious Hans Zimmer score, but he neutralizes the film's best elements against peaks that almost immediately flatten into a procedural drone. My eyes were always engaged, my heart and brain were almost always checked out. There isn't enough spice in the universe to make this thing come alive, but in all honesty, I am looking forward to the sequels, because in the words of Bilge Ebiri, "I liked the part of DUNE when things finally started happening, but that was also when the movie ended." Feels like it's going somewhere promising, somewhere apocalyptic, and I wanna be there when shit goes down to confirm the best thing I have to say about Villeneuve's DUNE: it truly is an emotionally barren beauty, a film that excels lightyears beyond the boredom I felt during Villeneuve's ever ponderous and phlegmatic BLADE RUNNER 2049.

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