Jason Momoa shouldn’t stand out in Dune, but he does. Clean-shaven, ebullient, he has an Errol Flynn bounce, a change from the grouchy Neanderthals he usually plays. But House Atreides soldier Duncan Idaho is a relatively minor player. Why, then, did Momoa’s scenes stick in my mind later? I think it’s because he alone looked like he was enjoying himself.
Denis Villeneuve doesn’t make entertainers. He makes dazzlers, visions. Dune is a wonderfully tactile universe, imagined in detail from tiny mouse to giant worm. It’s spectacular—and it’s also very serious. His Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was exquisitely mounted and inert, like thousands of butterflies pinned to a neon-lit wall. Dune is more stirring, but I still wonder: in the age of the wisecracking blockbuster, do audiences care for a deliberate and solemn $160 million film?
Of course, Christopher Nolan has shown that very expensive and largely serious films can do great business. And if you want someone spending obscene sums of money, it’s probably Villeneuve, a consummate dreamer of worlds. So maybe there might be an audience after all for his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi series. Paul (Timothée Chalamet), the heir to House Atreides, accompanies his parents, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), to Arrakis, a desert planet bequeathed them by the Emperor. Leto intends to continue mining the exceedingly valuable ‘spice’ that’s underground there while building an alliance with the native Fremen, who’ve been subjugated by the planet’s previous masters, House Harkonnen.
Paul has been having dreams: of his death, of an Arrakis girl (Zendaya), of himself as a Fremen. This tips off the Bene Gesserit, a shadowy, powerful group of women to which Jessica used to belong, that Paul might have abilities that mark him out as special. The Fremen, too, seem to recognise in him a prophesized hero, Lisan al Gaib—The One (there’s a training fight between Paul and a general that’s a nice callback to The Matrix, which may have borrowed The One from Dune). The boy is handy with a knife but his tendency is toward the philosopical, as if he's mentally preparing to lead. We see where this is headed, even if Villeneuve shows no hurry to get there.
Working with cinematographer Greig Fraser, Villeneuve demonstrates again his considerable talent for image-making. There are moments here too beautiful and too weird to be encompassed by workaday action franchises. Sardaukar soldiers descend silently from the sky like combatants in a King Hu film. The blades of helicopters beat up and down like dragonfly wings. When the maggot-featured Harkonnen baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) is injured, he attaches himself to the ceiling: an insect's retreat. The desert undulates like the sea. And there’s a simple, primal idea carried over from Villeneuve's Arrival: the spaceships resemble giant smooth stones suspended in space.
The implications of a white royal family laying claim to a brown land with rich natural resources is unlikely to escape anyone. Dune draws heavily from the desert cultures of Africa, but it also perpetuates the idea of a white saviour coming to the aid of indigenous people (at least it seems that way till now—this film is part one). The whispers of ‘Lisan al Gaib’ reminded me of ‘mhysa’ being chanted in Game of Thrones; hopefully Paul won’t be crowdsurfing atop a mass of brown bodies in the next film. At least Villeneuve leans into it by casting the pastiest of young Hollywood stars.
Ferguson is both heart and exposed nerve. There’s a scene where Jessica is outside the room where Paul is being tested, painfully, by the Bene Gesserit; she seems to writhe in the memory of similar pain, delivering the book’s famous line (“Fear is the mind-killer…”) in a whisper. In a polished ensemble—Charlotte Rampling, Chang Chen, Javier Bardem—her performance is the one that most resembles Zimmer’s score: tense drones punctuated by primal screams.
The shadow of a second, maybe third film hangs over this one—it feels, unsatisfyingly, like an episode, not a completed narrative. When the original Star Wars released, Dune fans recognized in it a lot that was familiar. It’s been 44 years since then, during which time Hollywood has trained audiences the world over to relate to cinema as a member of one or several benign cults. It’s also instilled in them—and in more than a few critics—an unfulfillable desire for an unquantified another. Nothing gold can stay. Sequel is everything. Franchise is the mind-killer.