Dune: Lovely to see, but lacks character depth

Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDune directed by Denis Villeneuve

Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIt’s been many a year since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune, so I can’t say with any authority where in the book Denis Villeneuve ends his film version, but I do feel comfortable saying it was too far. Because even at roughly 2 ½ hours, Dune the movie is too short to do justice to Dune the book. In fact, as that became more and more evident, I found myself thinking even more frequently that if Peter Jackson could get three movies out of The Hobbit (ignoring that he really didn’t), then Villeneuve should have been given three movies for Dune, not only a longer work but also a much more densely complex one. Had that been the case, then perhaps the absolutely wonderful visuals would have been more equally matched by a richness of character and story.

That’s not to say that Dune is a bad film. Far from it. Filled with a visual grandeur, offering up a number of intimately tense scenes and a nearly operatic battle scene, and peppered with topical themes of ecology and colonialism and more, its nearly-three-hour length passes quickly and enjoyably. Characterization issues, though, mean you’ll remember the themes more than the people, the spectacle more than any emotion.

As for a (very) basic premise recap: in the far future of a galactic empire, workable space travel is only possible due to “spice” (think oil for the eco-allegory), a product that cannot be synthesized and is natural to only one world, the incredibly harsh desert planet Arrakis, making spice and Arrakis the most valuable product and planet in the galaxy. At the opening of Dune, the Emperor has ordered the Great House of the Harkonnens off Arrakis, which they have ruthlessly been strip-mining for spice for some time, all while brutally oppressing the  indigenous population, the Fremen (think a mix of Muslim Bedouins and northwestern Native Americans for the colonial allegory).

The Emperor has also decreed that the Harkonnens’ long-standing enemies, House Atreides, will now be in charge of Arrakis. As one might guess, given the stakes, the Harkonnens do not plan to go quietly, but there are greater galactic politics at play, for while it seems the Emperor is favoring the Atreides here, as Baron Harkonnen says, sometimes a gift is not truly a gift. The ruler of House Atreides, Duke Leto, is well aware he is walking into a trap, but feels he has no choice. So, hoping to evade the trap and even perhaps turn it in his favor, he leaves the Atreides’ homeworld of Caladan with his son Paul and consort Lady Jessica. The latter is also a member of the Bene Gesserit, a mystical and powerful group of sort-of-nuns-in-space who have been manipulating events from the shadows for ages and who have also been employing eugenics in hopes of achieving the Kwisatz Haderach, someone who can see all of space and time. Jessica, as part of the program, was supposed to give Leto a daughter, but her love for him made her depart the plan. Whether Paul, who at the film’s start is beginning to have seemingly prophetic dreams, is “the one” is unclear.

The strength of the film is certainly its look, and so I recommend seeing this on the big screen if possible. Beyond the sweeping Lean-like desert landscapes, Villeneuve does fantastic work with scale, frequently placing human figures so they are dwarfed by both the natural world around them or by their own machines, such as enormous transport ships or massive sprawling fortresses. Besides the sheer spectacle, that sense of scale casts a skeptical wrench into all the pomp and circumstance and sense of self-importance we see or hear of. What then, all your galactic games of politics and war in the face of such an immense universe? In a somewhat different fashion, Hans Zimmer’s score is also discomfiting and suitably strange (something, again, best appreciated via a theater versus your TV).

Pacing is well done. As noted, the film doesn’t feel at all its length, and I easily would have been happy to have spent another 20-30 minutes in this world. Villeneuve shows an equally deft hand at scenes involving just two characters or those with hundreds onscreen. An early scene where Paul is tested by a Bene Gesserit higher up is compellingly tense though it basically involves the two of them staring at each other. A later scene where Paul and his mother are held captive has similar effect. At the other end of the scale is the predicted attack by the Harkonnnens, which comes with all the CGI, color, models, clash of armies, and things going boom that one expects of a big-budget film. The visual look is all the more fascinating for the book’s odd blend (explained in the novel) of high-tech science fiction (spaceships, beam weapons, force fields) and classical/medieval language, clothing, and weaponry (Great Houses, the name Atreides, soldiers fighting with swords and spears, religious mystics and secret societies). Finally, there are also some clear callbacks to earlier films, such as Apocalypse Now, where one scene is impossible without picturing Marlon Brando and where other moments call up Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie.”

The themes, as noted, are timely and if they’re worn a bit heavily on the sleeves, they are no less important. The exploitation of nature and of indigenous people (which often go hand in hand). On the surface, Dune can appear to be a White Savior story, the kind we’ve seen so often before, but the novel (and especially its sequels) deconstructs that concept, something the movie is already aiming at.

While all the above are clear strengths, the greatest weakness of the film lies, unfortunately, in one of its most important facets — character. While the actors, mostly across the board in roles big and small, turn in excellent work, trying to cram such a dense work into even two movies means characters often are more type than individual, are flattened or, ahem, “sanded” down, nearly all of them missing the richness and complexity both of personality and of interrelationships that they have in the novel.

Gurney Halleck is reduced to the old uncle who quotes snippets of poetry. Duncan Idaho is the good–natured noble hearted warrior (he’s also the only one who truly seems to be having a good time in what is otherwise a nearly humorless two-plus hours). The Baron is a tradestock villain. The imperial biologist Kynes, here gender-switched to female in a good move, loses all sense of that benevolent paternalism from the book. And so on.

Time and again it felt like opportunities were missed. In the book, many of the men are suspicious of Jessica and that leads in part to them being blind to the true traitor in their midst. Gone, then, is all that built-in tension, all that commentary on how men view powerful women. The truncated time between Caladan and the Harkonnen attack means we lose the Duke’s sense of desperation, his fear and hope, the love between him and Jessica. When Paul kills his first man, we lose Jessica’s scorn, which does so much to set Paul on his path and also makes their relationship all the more complex. In fact, much of Jessica’s steely nature is missing here, many of the scenes that show her sense of strength and command, and while what remains is accurate to the text — her tears over Leto’s fate, her fear for her son — without those other moments her character is less balanced between steel and tears, stoicism and fear. Meanwhile, the Fremen such as Stilgar and Chani are given so little on-screen time they’re barely a presence, though that is obviously about to change.

The character flaws do not ruin Dune. But they do mar it, preventing a good movie from being a great film. See it, by all means. See it in a theater if you can/desire but at home if you have to. I think you’ll definitely enjoy it. But I also think you’ll walk out/turn it off thinking about what could have been.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    A very fine review, Bill. Really well done! I DO look forward to seeing this one….

    • thanks Sandy–definitely worth seeing. And if you feel up to a theater visit, highly recommend that vs. TV (if not, go biggest screen you can)

      • Sandy Ferber /

        I think that’s the case with ALL films: The bigger the screen, the better…but especially with these special FX extravaganzas!

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