Dune: A pretty but ponderous start to a lengthy epic

First instalment of sci-fi trilogy has more than a few longueurs

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune

Film Title: Dune: Part One

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem

Genre: Sci-Fi

Running Time: 155 min

Fri, Oct 22, 2021, 06:38

   

The clue is in the title. The opening credits of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 sci-fi fantasy novel feature the optimistic and ominous words “Part One”.

The first instalment in a projected trilogy (give or take planned TV spin-off Sisterhood of Dune) is a gamble. The 155-minute run-time and projected sequels make the film-makers’ protests against premiering on the long-form platform HBO Max seem more than a little ironic.

It’s risky, too, that this pretty, meandering $165 million prequel doesn’t even manage – to put it in terms of David Lynch’s unfairly maligned 1984 version – get as far as Sting’s character. There’s no pay-off, only a glossy, opening gambit that makes one think of staring at a table centrepiece before a meal.

Dune is a long haul. There are moments when the immersive, magnificent production design (by Patrice Vermette) and Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan’s costumes make one think “This is what cinema is for”; there are many more moments when the viewer feels trapped in the world’s most expensive perfume commercial. Dystopia. By Timothée.

Oddly, Villeneuve’s script – co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth – is at its best during the exposition-laden opening hour. It mixes and matches voiceover, intertitles, brisk political business, holographic school lessons and Zendaya-splaining, leaving the viewer enveloped in a galaxy of competing imperialist designs.

One bunch of royals, the House Atreides, is enlisted by the galactic emperor to become the new custodians of the bandit planet Arrakis, a sandy spot known for gigantic subterranean worms and a valuable deposit called spice. This manoeuvre annoys the tyrannical House Harkonnen, the planet’s previous landlords, a ghastly bunch headed up by Stellan Skarsgård looking like an animated floating horror from a lavatory cleaning commercial.

To add further intrigue, the houses are rife with discord and various alliances. The boy prince Paul (Chalamet) of House Atreides was sired by the diplomatic Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, bringing all the gravitas) and his undercover telekinetic nun concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

And then there’s the usual guff about The One, a messiah who will deliver the people of Arrakis – or Fremen – from whoever is currently in charge.

Dune belts along until it stops dead with more than an hour of holding pattern to go. Save it for Part Two, the script seems to cry. It doesn’t help that Chalamet’s naturalistic style is an ill fit for the sombre dialogue, and Rebecca Ferguson, perhaps because she’s too young for the role, exudes neither the menace nor fierce maternalism required for Lady Jessica. Zendaya fares better as a mysterious Fremen who appears in Paul’s dreams, as do Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa – in roles that are all too brief – as mentors to the crown prince.

Has Denis Villeneuve succeeded where others – most notably Alejandro Jodorowsky – have floundered? Given the extensive runtime, it’s impossible not to think of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s alleged assessment of the French revolution: “Too early to say.”