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Yeah, ‘Dune’ Is a Real ‘Cinematic Achievement,’ I Guess, If That’s What You’re Into

Denis Villeneuve's take on (the first half of) Frank Herbert's novel is more an accomplishment than a movie.

Spice World: Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Timothée Chalamet
Warner Bros.

I was disappointed to learn that Denis Villeneuve would be directing Dune. Not because I feared he wouldn’t succeed but because I suspected he would.

Frank Herbert’s nerd-cherished sci-fi tome has a rep for being “unfilmable,” but it’s more accurate to say that something about the book has always drawn quixotic moviemakers into its orbit. Maybe it’s Herbert’s immersive, encyclopedic mix of mysticism and realpolitik. Maybe it’s the resonant story of a messianic figure leading the exploited natives of a resource-rich desert planet to revolt. Maybe it’s just the giant sandworms.

Cult auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky sank years into dazzling production design on a failed project. David Lynch passed on a shot at directing Return of the Jedi to explore his gloriously misbegotten vision of turning a b-movie inside out on a blockbuster’s budget, which only showed that you can populate a universe with pustulant and airborne grotesques, humanly impossible hair styles, fetal Lovecraftian space pilots, death-metal-voiced child witches, and a near-nude Sting… and still bomb. Especially if the studio gets the final cut.

But Villeneuve has finally given Hollywood the respectably non-embarrassing Dune it’s wanted to cash in on for a half-century. Two Dunes, even. One big problem with adapting the book (its length) is overcome by splitting the story into halves, only the first of which hits theaters this weekend—a good call unless you happen to prefer movies with endings. Fortunately for Villeneuve, a decade of long, dense blockbusters has already broken in a Dune­-friendly audience—willing to leave the theater without closure even after two-and-a-half hours, trained to accept submergence in obscure mythic arcana as the cost of a good time, open to be even a little bored in the service of a worthy franchise.

But this new Dune is impressive without ever quite being thrilling, offering beauty without real style, prophecy without fulfillment. If you’re familiar with the story, Dune feels like a movie about how to make a movie of Dune. (If you’re not, you’re probably racing to keep up with the exposition, muttering “kwis-huh hada-what?” and wondering how much of this is gonna be on the final exam.) Many of its sharpest scenes feel less like spectacular filmmaking than like elegant solutions to difficult mathematical equations. It’s a true “cinematic achievement” in the most backhanded sense of that puff-phrase—more an accomplishment than a movie.

So, what happens? Well, Dune has A LOT of backstory (in some ways it’s mostly backstory) but let’s see how quickly I can zip through the basics. In the distant future, a duplicitous emperor has handed control of of the desert world Arrakis from one warring dynasty, the grotesque Harkonnens, to another, the ridiculously attractive Atreides clan. Barren and barely habitable, Arrakis is the source of an invaluable “spice” required for interstellar travel. (No, the allegory is not subtle here.) OK, that’s enough to start with.

Dune is cast perfectly, beginning with Timothée Chalamet, the It Twink whose tubercular pallor and intricate bone structure give him an appropriately alien aspect. Striding about in all black like he’s ready to jump into Ophelia’s grave, Chalamet plays messiah-in-training Paul Atreides with his characteristic shifty gravitas. (Oh, and he sleeps shirtless, if that’s your thing.) Paul begins the film coached by a surplus of excessively manly, ingeniously named role models: brusque Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), heroic Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), staunch Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and, atop the heap, his smoldering papa, the aggressively bearded Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac).

That surfeit of testosterone is balanced out by the witchy ministrations of Paul’s mother, Jessica (an alternately opaque and transparent Rebecca Ferguson, who glowers or simpers as the plot requires). She has tinkered with the far-reaching designs of her powerful sisterhood in the hopes of breeding a very special leader indeed. Paul also has visions of a young woman on Arrakis who will turn out to be the most certainly having-visions-of-worthy Zendaya.

The baddies are plenty ominous. Introduced while ruminating baldly in the shadows like a Rodin sculpture of Brando’s Kurtz, Stellan Skarsgård gives the corpulent, misshapen Baron Harkonnen an unexpected and perhaps inappropriate pathos. As his nephew, Beast Rabban, Dave Bautista looks prepared to rip off heads, spine and all.

But while the characters and scenarios Herbert created are intensely cinematic, the narrative itself (the culmination of eons of intergalactic plotting) honestly isn’t. (That’s why Jodorowsky’s collection of unfilmed storyboards may always be the perfect Dune movie.) The story requires a director to establish Paul’s old world in depth only to quickly strip it away. And so Villeneuve’s Dune is both too fast and too slow, loitering around characters if only so we have an eventual reason to mourn them, and then checking off plot points with a businesslike expedience.

A bigger problem is Villeneuve’s hesitant imagination. In the past I’ve forgiven him for being corny (Arrival) or tedious (Blade Runner 2049) because in a cineplex of intricately stylized, washed-out computer graphics he’s one of the few directors today whose production designs can seem genuinely otherworldly. But Dune is uncomfortably naturalistic, as though fearing that too fantastical elements will start the movie along the road to Lynchian meta-kitsch and next thing you know you’ve got a spiky-haired Sting prancing around shrieking “I will kill him.”

Yes, Villeneuve makes the cinematographic most of the expansive sandscapes, the worms’ widened maws suggest an infinity within, and “The Voice,” the mind-control technique Jessica teaches Paul, is truly psychically rattling. But the body shields protecting warriors glow blue when effective and red when they’ve been penetrated, giving the battle sequences an unfortunate video-game quality. And it’s cool how the choppers that transport offworlders through the desert have dragonfly wings that flutter vertically, but they still have the weight of real-life troop transports.

It’s all just so relentlessly earnest for a movie that’s basically Lawrence of Arabia with giant worms and spooky voices. It’s not just that Dune is humorless; it’s as though these beings have evolved beyond jokes and exist in a perpetual state of terse dignity, so that the odd wisecrack feels jarring. (Though honestly, it’s a bit of a relief from the “[insert quip here]” style of Marvel screenwriting.) Only Javier Bardem brings a little life to the party as a leader of the Arrakis natives, the Fremen.

The film’s sympathy seems to lie with those Fremen, and why not? Even the quasi-heroic Atreides forces betray a sleek fascist tinge here. But the movie is cagey about a subject that Herbert obsessed over: whether Paul’s coming rise as a fundamentalist empire-builder is just more of the same old exploitation. You can imagine why a movie so proud of its very existence might put off for as long as possible the question of what motives lurk behind our grandest visions. “It’s just beginning,” Zendaya shouts back over her shoulder with a promising grin as the first part of Dune ends. Yeah, I know, kid. That’s the problem.

Dune opens in probably every movie theater in the country this weekend and begins streaming on HBO Max today.

Special Screenings This Week

Thursday, Oct. 21

Dressed to Kill (1980)
The Heights
Celebrate Thanksgiving fan Michael Caine’s recently announced retirement from acting with this Brian DaPalma Psycho homage. $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Parkway Theater
A lotta nightmares, actually. And they all end badly. $9-$12. 8 p.m. More info here.

The French Dispatch (2021)
ShowPlace ICON
The Twin Cities Film Festival begins with an advance screening of the new Wes Anderson movie, which opens area-wide next weekend. 5:45 p.m. More info here.

Days (2020)
Trylon
Sorry, fans of long, static shots—no more tickets available for Ming-liang Tsai’s latest. They call this series “Slow Cinema” but you gotta be fast to get a seat. Free. 7 p.m. More info here.

Friday, Oct. 22

Twin Cities Film Festival
ShowPlace ICON
Today’s films include The Turkey, Paradise Strong, Laughter Is a Best Medicine, Encounter, Pretty Boy, I Am Lisa. 4 p.m. More info here.

Horrorthon V: Son of Horrorthon
Trylon
More like Sorrowthon: Son of a Bitch for you if you didn’t get tickets yet ‘cause this sucker is SOLD OUT. $50. 8 p.m. More info here.

Saturday, Oct. 23

Phantasm (1979)
Alamo Drafthouse
Uh oh, the town mortician is a murderous grave robber. A 4K restoration. $10. 7 p.m. More info here.

Fire Shut up in My Bones (The Met Live in HD)
AMC Rosedale 14/AMC Southdale 16/Showplace ICON
Terence Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir is the first opera by a Black composer presented on the Met stage. 11:55 a.m. Also Wednesday 1 p.m and 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Night of the Comet (1985)
Parkway Theater
It’s a campy post-apocalyptic Valley Girl adventure! $5-$10. 1 p.m. More info here.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Parkway Theater
With live shadow cast performance by Transvestite Soup. $10. Midnight. More info here.

Twin Cities Film Festival
ShowPlace ICON
Today’s films include Being Thunder, Rough Brothers, 39 Seconds, Honoring the Past…, After Antarctica, Sold Out, C’mon C’mon, Leaves of Grass: Illuminated, Night at the Eagle Inn. 11 a.m. More info here.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)
Trylon 
RIP Melvin Van Peebles. This example of the boundary-pushing Black filmmaker’s early work shows his French New Wave influence. $8. Saturday 7 & 9 p.m. Sunday 3 p.m. More info here.

Sunday, Oct. 24

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
AMC Eden Prairie 18/AMC Rosedale 14/AMC Southdale 16
Never turn up a chance to see a Miyazaki movie in the theater. Dubbed on Sunday, subbed on Monday. Also Monday. 7 p.m. More info here.

Twin Cities Film Festival
ShowPlace ICON
Today’s films include Uprooted—The Journey of Jazz Dance, Chasing Childhood, Trusted Messenger, A Hidden Star, Invisible Wounds, Rural by Choice, A Northeast Passage, Mayor Pete, A Hero. 11 a.m. More info here.

Phase IV (1974)
Trylon 
Scientists discover “a colony of superintelligent ants.” What could go wrong? $8. Sunday 5 & 7 p.m. Monday & Tuesday 7 & 9 p.m .More info here.

Monday, Oct. 25

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Alamo Drafthouse
Leave Heather Langenkamp alone, you jerk! $10. 7 p.m. More info here.

Tuesday, Oct. 26

RiffTrax Live: Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes
AMC Rosedale 14/AMC Southdale16/Showplace ICON
I don’t know what’s so funny about the evil escaping, you guys. 7 p.m. More info here.

The United States of Insanity (2021)
AMC Rosedale 14/AMC Southdale16 //Emagine Willow Creek
It’s the Insane Clown Posse vs. the FBI. Which side are you on? 7 p.m. More info here.

The Shining (1980)
The Heights
It sold out on Monday night, so the Heights added a second screening. Lotta Scatman Crothers fans out there. Also Tuesday. $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Wednesday, Oct. 27

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Parkway Theater
The chop ‘em up classic about a chainsaw massacre in, I believe, Texas. $9-$12. 8 p.m. More info here.

Gaza Mon Amour (2020)
Trylon
A 60-year-old Palestinian falls in love, discovers an ancient statue, and falls afoul of Hamas. $10. 7 p.m. More info here.

Opening This Week

Becoming Cousteau
A documentary about Jacques Cousteau. A “Jacques doc,” if you will.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
The best biopic of a weird English guy who painted cats that you will see all year, and you can quote me on that, Amazon!

Mass
Two couples confront each other about a past violent incident that affected them for life.

Ron’s Gone Wrong
I’ve been saying this for years.

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free
Behind the scenes footage as the late rocker worked on Wildflowers.

Ongoing in Local Theaters

The Addams Family 2
Dear Evan Hansen

Halloween Kills 
Hard Luck Love Song
The Last Duel
Lamb
No Time to Die (read our review here)
The Rescue
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Titane (read our review here)
The Velvet Underground (read our review here)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage