Denis Villeneuve has successfully made a great movie out of “Dune” — author Frank Herbert’s pulpy, sprawling, unfilmable space-opera — by using the book as a point of reference, and filling in narrative detail with adroit visual storytelling.
Throughout the movie, Villeneuve wields the camera like a paintbrush, letting the epic landscape, far-future technologies, exotic architecture — and lushly talented, extremely comely cast — tell the story just by being gorgeous and in-context on camera.
It is in the dialogue that the movie’s real weak spots emerge. Where Herbert’s text is dense and involving, Villeneuve’s script is lean to the point of sparse; what dialogue there is must not only develop each character, but also fill in a galaxy-spanning backstory.
This puts a lot on the shoulders of the viewer, who, if not already initiated in the mysteries of Herbert’s distant, desert mirror, must be willing to infer the fuck out of names and plot points dropped casually throughout the film like ticker-tape parade confetti.
The process of sense-making is further undermined by the movie’s extraordinarily bad dialogue mix. Against the ear-rattling sound FX, and Hans Zimmer’s spectacularly interesting soundtrack, essential conversations and monologues disappear into the cacophonous swirl.
Villeneuve generally uses implication and misdirection to great effect in his movies, but with “Dune” his technique is undermined by that lousy audio mix, which no doubt has contributed to widespread reports of confusion among a nontrivial swath of moviegoers.
That said, devotees of the book (and enthusiastic members of the lay public) who can go with Villeneuve’s moviemaking style will leave the theater in a swoon. The film bears repeat viewings — if for no other reason than to try and discern the dialogue you missed the last time.
More seriously, like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, like the Star Wars franchises, Villeneuve’s “Dune” builds an entire universe through great visual storytelling, and sets a terrific cast loose against it, like your favorite pinball game in multiball mode.
Everyone’s an eyeful. The Atreides are variously lush, sleek, lithe, granite, and stern. The Harkonnens are loathesome, malformed, usually bald, and, for former inhabitants of a desert planet, seriously lacking in vitamin D.
Amid the many great performances, Rebecca Fergusson stands out as Lady Jessica — consort to Duke Leto Atreides, mother of messiah-to-be Paul, and witchy Bene Gesserit nun. She’s an emotional cauldron throughout, boiling over with fear, sorrow and cast-iron resolve.
Jason Momoa also brings barrels of gusto, gales of brio, and stack-o-bricks machismo as Duncan Idaho, weapons master of the House Atreides. He’s an irrepressible big brother to Paul, and exactly the guy you want on your side for the inevitable “last stand” sequence.
Really, the whole dang cast deserves a shout — Josh Brolin (craggy!), Stellan Skarsgard (eeevil!), Oscar Isaac (stoic!), Zendaya (spiky ‘n’ sparky!), Timothée Chalamet (knifey goth boy!), Dave Bautista (pure brute!) … plus all the supporting cast. They crush it.
Villeneuve delivers the colonialist critique with all the directness the science-fictional metaphor can pack, and the orientalism of the book remains exotic without really plumbing the depths of appropriation. It’s intoxicating escapism that also tells us true things.
“Dune Part 2” has been greenlit, and there’s probably a long-form director’s cut lurking out there for a future DVD release, so suffice it to say, this itch is being nicely scratched. Just please, remaster the damn dialogue mix.
UPDATE: Word has it that theatrical screenings of “Dune” now include English-language subtitles throughout.