‘Dune’ Take Two: We’re Dune Fine, Thanks

If you like watching Zendaya turn around and stare into the camera in slow motion, boy have I got a movie for you. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part I is chock full of little visions like this. A bloodied hand surrounded by billowing fabric. A guy saying cryptically, “I will teach you.” Little soupçons of prophetic intimation of the kind that can make or break image-driven messianic stories. Dune is largely out of things worth looking at by the time we reach the titular desert planet, and even that grand entrance amounts to little more than an overblown Halo cutscene, the city of Arrakeen as empty and lifeless a collection of beige and brown boxes as any of Master Chief’s mission destinations. 

There is a little fun to be found in the ministerial costuming of the Bene Gesserit witches like Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) and her protege Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and the Nazi-esque tattooing and attitude of the near-feral Sardaukar supersoldiers, but Villeneuve’s Dune is in large part a sterile affair. Even on lush, fertile Caladan Villeneuve opts for a muted color palette, and his interiors hew toward the bare and brutalist. The acting, too, is largely bare-bones. The colorful state dinners and outsize personalities of both Herbert’s original novel and David Lynch’s contentious 1984 adaptation are nowhere to be seen. Characters murmur and mumble. Expressions remain largely slack. Even the famous “Litany Against Fear” is recited in jumbled, barely audible fashion.

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Chewing the Fat

Two figures in particular hobble the film’s modest narrative ambitions. The first is Paul himself, played with all the verve and personality of an unwashed towel by man of the moment Timothée Chalamet. Only once, when Paul reels through a vision of religious war waged by his fanatical followers, does Chalamet pull off anything remotely interesting, shaking and sobbing with enough intensity to really sell the horror of the prophetic glimpse. The second, and by far the thornier of the two, is the film’s chief antagonist, baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Adapting the baron — a fat and sexually predatory gay man who floats through the air by means of “suspensors” — is an inherently tricky proposition, and Villeneuve’s timid, uninspired attempt results in a character at once deeply hateful and painfully boring.

Skarsgård’s fat suit alone is enough to sink the performance. The film makes it clear in scenes of abject gorging and with Colonel Kurtz-esqe closeups that his fatness is part and parcel of his monstrosity, but the suit’s effect is at cross purposes with this characterization, rendering the baron sterile and sexless, a figure not of unbridled gluttony but of lifeless latex. He’s more potato than fat man, and Skarsgård’s torpid performance does nothing to impart life to the getup. Why go through the bother of excising the character’s problematic sexuality if your only fallback idea is to lean extra hard on his grotesque body? It’s a failure of imagination which neatly circumscribes nearly everything wrong with the film, and with Villeneuve’s body of work as a whole. Dune is not without its pleasures — I’ll be watching Rebecca Ferguson’s next career move with sharp interest — but perhaps the spice has flowed for long enough.