In 1985, I lived off Oakhurst Road in Seminole, within walking distance of Seminole Mall. In those days, most businesses in the mall were still flourishing. It was still a focal point for the community. Among its amenities was Seminole 2, part of the AMC chain of movie theaters. By the 1980s, Seminole 2 was a discount movie house, running films that had been released weeks or months earlier for the low price of $1 a person.
When David Lynch’s “Dune” made its last theatrical stand at the Seminole 2, I hopped on my bicycle, dodged traffic on Park Boulevard and bought my ticket. I hadn’t read Frank Herbert’s novel, but I had read articles about the making of the movie. I knew it was based upon an epic science fiction story — and that was enough to spark my curiosity. Mind you, I also paid $1 to watch “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone” at Seminole 2, so my judgement was sometimes lacking.
But I loved Lynch’s “Dune.” I enjoyed it enough to go back and see it a second time. And a third time. For $1, who wouldn’t watch it over and over again on the big screen?
Well — quite a few people, apparently.
Lynch’s “Dune” was a box office disappointment. Critics berated it, using words such as “incomprehensible,” “ugly,” “hollow,” “overloaded,” and “pointless.” I might also point out that each time I paid to see “Dune” at Seminole 2, I could not talk anyone into accompanying me — and most of my friends were nerds, or at least possessed some nerd genes. Come to think of it, at a few of those screenings, I may have been the only person in the audience.
As much as I admire Lynch’s adaptation of Herbert’s work, I acknowledge its many, many flaws. Lynch was given a nearly impossible task. He failed on some levels, and he was hindered by the film’s producers in ways that limited his artistic vision. His noir-baroque tone and his phantasmagorical dream sequences elevate the film to a level of surrealist art that is simultaneously captivating and unintelligible. I still love Lynch’s “Dune,” and I watch it every few years.
Fast forward to 2021. Along comes Oscar nominee Denis Villeneuve with his big-screen adaptation of “Dune.” The film was released on HBO Max on Oct. 21 and in theaters the following day.
The story revolves around Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Paul is heir of House Atreides on the ocean planet Caladan. As the movie opens, word arrives that the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, through an imperial delegation, has handed Leto control of Arrakis, a desert planet that is the sole source of the galaxy’s most valuable commodity: melange, or "spice." Melange is required for interstellar travel. As a drug, it also extends life, protects against disease, enhances awareness, and potentially awakens a form of prescience in some users.
House Atreides comes to Arrakis following the long and brutal occupation by the House Harkonnen. The change of stewardship, however, is subterfuge. It quickly becomes evident that the emperor has set in motion a series of events to eliminate House Atreides. But there are other forces at play, with the Bene Gesserit working in shadows to create a messianic superbeing, a palace intrigue that leads to betrayal and tragedy, and a population of Fremen — native inhabitants of Arrakis — who await the coming of a prophesied liberator.
Being a devotee of Lynch’s version, I found myself somewhat conflicted as I experienced Villeneuve’s take on the source material. I won’t lie: I found it to be immersive, gorgeous and ambitious.
I also found it to be underwhelming.
Villeneuve certainly conveys a sense of spectacle. Visually, it is a triumph in terms of its enormous scale. Hans Zimmer’s score is remarkably evocative, pushing the envelope to deliver something truly unique and otherworldly at times.
The world-building is captivating, though somewhat monochromatic. One would expect more acute contrast between rival houses in terms of culture, fashion, and even architecture. Sharp contrast does exist in the juxtaposition between utilitarian structures and the natural world. This manifests in the launching of unwieldly Atreides space transports over the Caladan coastal region as well as in the expansive stronghold on Arrakis, surrounded by a seemingly endless desert.
Villeneuve’s adaptation proceeds at an unhurried, deliberate stride. It takes its time as it avoids infodumps in favor of clever, well-rationed exposition. It is Shakespeare mixed with space opera by way of “Lawrence of Arabia,” with a touch of “Apocalypse Now” thrown in for good measure. It is technically a better film than Lynch’s 1984 endeavor — and yet, when I compare components of the two films, scene by scene, I find I almost always prefer Lynch’s version.
Assessing Villeneuve’s star-studded cast, performances range from adequate to outstanding. Standouts include both Ferguson and Isaac, as well as Josh Brolin, who plays Gurney Halleck; Stellan Skarsgård, who portrays Baron Vladimir Harkonnen; and Javier Bardem, as Stilgar.
Chalamet captures Paul’s insecurity and reluctance as well as his resolve. Still, he is often eclipsed by those with whom he shares key scenes. Chang Chen is under-utilized as his character — Dr. Wellington Yueh — is not afforded the attention it deserves. Likewise, it is too early in the game to fully evaluate Zendaya’s performance as Chani, since the character has not yet moved to the forefront of the story.
That’s part of the problem with Villeneuve’s “Dune” — it is incomplete. It is, after all, “Dune: Part One,” as the title card reminds viewers at the opening of the film. Never mind that the promotional materials did not make this abundantly clear. This film ends halfway through the book — with an audacious line that struck me as a cheesy Kickstarter pitch. Let’s be brutally honest: There is no guarantee that there will be a “Dune: Part Two.” That makes it difficult to pass judgement on this cinematic feast for the senses.
Beautiful but bloated, majestic but unsatisfying, epic but emotionally empty, “Dune” anesthetizes viewers with its sumptuous visual flair and fails to provide a meaningful payoff.
Despite decent performances, none of the characters leave a lasting impression. Despite scenes depicting treachery and peril, none of the action sequences feel particularly distressing. Moments that actively seek to generate empathy are few and far between.
“Dune: Part One” is a feat and a letdown. As Lynch compressed the story and simplified plot elements, Villeneuve has diminished character development making it harder to feel invested in Paul’s call to adventure, the fate of House Atreides, or the future of the Fremen. Villeneuve can remedy this in “Dune” Part Two,” assuming that project receives a greenlight from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures.
In the meantime, I’ll probably watch “Dune: Part One” again — after I’ve watched Lynch’s 1984 version.