Ah, “Dune.” It seems like yesterday that David Lynch gave us the hoary epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s landmark sci-fi novel. Kyle MacLachlan headed up a very eclectic and weird cast, even for 1984, that featured a legend (Jose Ferrer), a rock star (Sting), and a sitcom actor from “Rhoda” (Kenneth McMillan).
Here’s the thing about the old “Dune” from 1984. When you watch it now, you see it had a lot of heart but looks really dated. It’s like watching a rerun of “Lost in Space.” Made eight years after “Star Wars,” the OG “Dune” looks like it came from the 60s now, before special effects were perfected.
So let’s remake it, someone said. With a new cast, lots of Big Deal actors, starring teen sensation Timothee Chalamet, famous for his love of peaches in “Call Me By Your Name.” His Paul is much younger looking that MacLachlan’s and degrees more androgynous. But he captures the screen like James Dean or a young Leo DiCaprio with his tousled hair and aquiline nose. He is the Conflicted Young Man of the 2020s.
As for Sting, his one of a kind 1984 “Dune” character, Feyd, was not recast for the update (I’m actually surprised they didn’t go for Adam Levine). And a main male character, Dr. Kynes, played by Max von Sydow the first time around, is now a Black woman in the the form of the excellent Sharon Duncan Brewster.
The rest of the cast is formidable: Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin. I clapped when Stephen McKinley Henderson came on screen, and we get really nice work from Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, and especially Stellan Skarsgard. Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista are there as signposts for fans of certain kinds of blockbusters.
Denis Villeneuve is our director this time. He made “Arrival” and tends to create cold atmospheres. His “Dune” is the opposite of Lynch’s, methodical and cerebral, set against pastels and smoke and long stretches of moodiness. It’s a two and a half hour movie so for an hour or so, that’s all fine and beautiful and you’re really invested in the idea that this time, something might happen while the main cast, living in space way in the future, can find “spice” — a rare commodity — on the desert planet.
But you know, there was a book, and we’re still following it. (Although in today’s press conference Josh Brolin admitted he never read it, and I doubt much of the cast did, either.) So whatever the “spice” is, it doesn’t actually add spice to an often bland meal. Chalamet’s Paul is trained by his father to take over the quest to colonize the dreary sandworm plagued planet of Arrakis, get past the shifting sands of its deserts, and spice things up. Like Hamlet and Luke Skywalker before him, Paul wrestles with this idea, but once his dad — Oscar Isaac is indelible as Leto, the movie hinges on his performance — is out of the picture, Paul sticks close to his mom (Ferguson) and remains ambivalent to say the least.
Now wait: the first “Dune” movie was two hours long, and didn’t require a sequel. This one is labeled”Part One” up front, and comes in at 2:35. Plus, MacLachlan had a romantic thing going with Sean Young as Chani. (She was hot stuff in 1984.) Chani now is played by Zendaya, who doesn’t speak much until the end of the movie. (At today’s press conference she conceded not having met most of the cast after doing just a couple of days’ work.)
What jumps out in Villeneuve’s saga is the production. Every bit of it is Oscar worthy, from set design to costumes to lighting, make up, etc. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser has outdone himself from frame to frame, set piece to set piece, creating jaw dropping pieces of art that are impressionistic, sensational, and other worldly. Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” brought an Oscar to Roger Deakins, and this may be the case here as well.
This year has been big on production excellence– look at “Cruella,” for example. We’ve got crafts people at the top of their respective games. Fraser isn’t alone on “Dune.” Hans Zimmer’s music just pounds away, creating lots of tension with melody.
My only grievance is that hardly anyone in this film ever smiles. While the first half feels like “Star Wars” in sand, you remember all the fun of the George Lucas movie, the minor characters, the interplay. Everyone in “Dune” is grimly serious. You kind of wish someone would shake Paul’s hand with a joy buzzer, pull a snake out of a can, sit down on a whoopie cushion. I mean, they are looking for spice, aren’t they? They need a hot chili pepper in their recipe.
Still, new “Dune” should be a smash hit. It’s a big old epic, the kind we need right now, to sweep us away from viruses, hurricanes, and wars in real life. Put on a mask, get a tub of popcorn, and kick back. We need a break. This is it.