Denis Villeneuve has a real touch for making films that highlight the power of language to communicate the sacredness of life and Dune is no different in that aspect. The variety of imagery that exists within the film may obscure the significance of language in the movie but once you see Javier Bardem’s introduction of the Stilgar character it’s evident how important language is to this special story. Which brings me to one of my essential questions for the makers of this film, why with such a prolific narrative available to them why did Duniville & co. not make use of the words of Frank Hebert to inform and color the world of the movie?
One example of this loss of language/narrative is what happened with Dr. Huey, I have always been fascinated by his story and how it greatly impacts the life of the House of Atriedes. Unfortunately in this reboot of David Lynch film from 1984 Dr. Huey’s story is almost completely disappeared in this adaptation and I must say the plot of the fall of the Atreides family loses much from the absence of his contribution. For some reason the missing dialogue/ language of the character changes the tension of the key betrayal of his actions.
To me Dune 2021 definitely felt like there was an off putting interest in breaking the flow of the plot to bring the movie to a stand still but unfortunately not to introduce compelling dialogue and character but to fill it with silence. Now don’t get me wrong I love silence in movies it’s especially compelling in westerns, film noir, thrillers and was done exceptionally well in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 but here in Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune he misses out on some beautiful dialogue moments and instead feeds the audience a steady diet of stillness and silence. By doing that the riches of some great characters are lost, take for instance Thuwfur Hawat a brilliant character full of mystery and intelligence, he’s a literal ‘Human Computer’ for God’s sake and he gets almost no compelling or interesting screen time in this film. He is one of Paul’s mentors and I don’t think there’s a single instance of real interaction between them. Not only is Hawat an essential part of the Atreides high ranking officials he is a Mentat an order that is fascinating and detailed. The director’s omission of him as a character in this version of Dune means we learn nothing of this group and the role they play in the larger society. One of the things that make Paul Atreides such a multi-layered hero is that he’s been taught by a variety of people all at the top of their skills, Duncan, Thuwfur, his father the Duke, Gurney Halleck and Lady Jessica all have contributed to his extensive education. It’s definitely a missed opportunity to flesh out the foundation of the Paul character and do some much needed world building. Instead this director focuses his skills and energy to give us a scene with the palm tree caretaker, an elaborate signing of a contract, an untimely space out on spice by Paul and a scene of the fremen spitting into a water purifier. All of these scenes are shot beautifully and the music is perfection but all of them could go, and I mean ALL of them. More scenes of characters actually interacting and actually speaking to one another. Let the audience find out and discover what the relationships are between the people on the screen.
And if you think I’m alone in my critique, please know they’re others who also noticed the lack of warmth in this desert tale. Owen Gleiberman shared some of my same sentiments in his Variety review https://variety.com/2021/film/reviews/dune-review-spectacular-and-engrossing-until-it-isnt-1235051928/. Now we all know critics have gotten it wrong a lot lately but to me his perspective is right on in this case. He directly states that the film lacks something for the audience to emotionally invest in and that is true. Even when Doctor Kines is killed, her death while fantastically shot falls flat. Are we supposed to mourn her passing or admire the cinematography…..
Another compelling critique is this breakdown by youtuber FilmSpeak: (145) I watched Dune and felt nothing… | Video Essay – YouTube
There’s one significant scene between Paul and Leto and it’s absolutely wonderful, the scenery is a vision to look at and adds to the emotional impact of the moment but the best thing about this is the movie slows down so that Oscar Issac (a great actor by the way) to deliver some beautiful lines to Chalamet who plays Paul Atreides. We see a father meaningfully tell his son that no matter what he loves him. The scene is outstanding in its execution but most importantly it moved the characters along by having a real emotional connection that was communicated to the audience by a compelling interaction and that’s what makes it memorable. Take another fantasy/science fiction series like the original Star Wars, yes they’re incredible moments of movie magic in that franchise all courtesy of special effects and art direction but some of the most everlasting memories fans have of the Star Wars series are the connections between characters and the dialogues. The emotional ties between Chewbacca and Han Solo or Luke and R2-D2 are as significant as the space battles.
By reducing the human interaction to easily forgettable or awkward and rushed interchanges ( insert Stilgar meeting Duke Leto) we get a very superficial sense of the people populating this complex universe. I would have greatly preferred more Piter than to see an entire sand storm flight, I absolutely loved Brad Dourif’s performance in David Lynch’s 1984 film, most know him from his amazing work in the Lord of the Rings but if you can please check out how awesome he is in Dune. The character leaps off the screen and makes such an impression and he adds to the world building aspect and all of that is noticeably missing from Villeneuve’s version. So that’s not one but two Mentats who get almost no screen time and no real impact to the story.
And don’t get me started on the Baron, Villeneuve has made the baffling decision to completely underplay one of the best villains ever created in Sci-fi fantasy. Why?? Don’t ask me, but I will say it’s totally a mistake and a waste of a great actor in Stellan Skarsgard. If part two of this series continues to undercut the role it will be a sad day for Hebert fans, Valdimir Harkonnen deserves better treatment, every hero needs an adversary worthy of him and for Paul it’s the Baron. Funny enough there’s another character, Duke Leto who I would love to see more of in the next installment of this Dune series. Yes, he is now deceased in the storyline but some flashbacks would be welcome. I think Denis Villeneuve would do well to flesh out the relation of Father to Son in this mesianic tale and I am surprised it didn’t occur to him how essential that was for this piece.
It’s almost like this director didn’t want any real intimacy between the major characters in the film, is it possible that as a director Duniville prefers atmosphere to moments of intense familiarity? For example, while I felt Oscar Issac’s portrayal communicated the love Duke Leto felt for his wife and son there’s not any significance given to the dynamic between the three of them as a family. Another glaring and very telling scene has Lady Jessica who mere moments earlier was scared that her precious son was going to be killed by her teacher Gaius Helen Mohiam then finds that he survived only to talk to him from full across an entire room and if that wasn’t enough Villeneuve filled the room with mist so mother and son could barely see each other! Between the set up and then annoyingly whispered dialogue I was truly confused. Where was the love and care of a mother in this scene? Why place the actors so physically distant from one another? It was awkward and completely wasted the emotional intensity of the previous moment in the film.
I’ve said a lot in this “review” but I think that Justin Chang of NPR said it best when he stated,
“ In some ways, David Lynch’s Dune actually got closer
to the mind-bending strangeness of Hebert’s novel;
it had a touch of visionary madness that this movie
could use a little more of.”
Big vibrant visuals and special effects are all well to the good but empty scenes with no real emotion to back it drag on this movie and considering the source material are a big disappointment to a science fiction fan like me. Dunniville’s Dune gave us a lot but in the end I wanted more, much more than pretty visuals but empty characterizations.