DUNE by Denis Villeneuve. I came, I saw, I forgot

Once again, I have the impression that Villeneuve did what he could do best, that is, he created a perfect cinematic illusion, which can not be faulted much, except that it provides few emotions.

Jakub Piwoński

29 July 2023

I feel that for films of the size and cultural significance that Dune represents, the role of the reviewer is superfluous. Whatever I say, the movie will still be watched. In fact, I’ll even go a step further by suggesting that even if I write that Dune is a shell, you won’t believe me anyway. Because the verdict was made before the premiere, years ago, when the promotional campaign started and Denis Villeneuve shared his ideas for the first time. I understood then that the public would do anything to keep this dream alive.

However, if for some reason you are curious about my impressions of the Warner Bros. megahit, I would like to emphasize one thing at the outset. If you thought this review would be as sublime and as sophisticated as the film itself, you were wrong. In fact, I have a message to tell you that is quite simple, not to say trivial. Fans’ dreams come true. Dune is a good film, and sometimes even a very good one, which is far from the aura of embarrassment spread over the previous cinematic adaptation. And it probably won’t surprise anyone, although that’s not the point. The thing is, you probably expected a masterpiece, a jaw-dropping, breathtaking, 21st-century sci-fi movie. Breakthrough. However, I advise you to curb these high expectations.

I read the original book twice. My experience was the same each time. The fat tome by Frank Herbert is, in my opinion, a story as fascinating as it is … boring. In the case of Dune, however, we are dealing with boredom that is highly beneficial, because it allows – thanks to the meticulously drawn landscape of the world – to calmly enjoy the thoughts poured out on paper. But one thing should be emphasized – in fact, not much happens in this book. I know writers who could neatly close the first book of Dune in one chapter without compromising the quality of the story. For Herbert, however, it was more important to outline the broad context of the depicted world, with political, ecological and religious commentary, which inspired (including George Lucas) and continues to inspire today.

Before the screening of the new Dune, I was most interested in how Villeneuve would approach the source material and which threads he would choose to develop, where he would emphasize, what pronunciation he would ultimately choose. The fact that I would be dealing with quality I knew even before the start of shooting. I don’t think there is a director in contemporary Hollywood who can be relied on more than Villeneuva. This real Midas of cinema and an expert in special tasks on the occasion of Blade Runner 2049 finally proved that he is not afraid of challenges and that even if something looks like an impossible mission on paper, he will manage to come out of this clash unscathed. For years, Dune was thought to be a cursed project for filmmakers, thanks to David Lynch’s flop, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s final fiasco, a miniseries that no one remembers and which turned out to be a screen adaptation still not big enough for fans.

Denis Villeneuve therefore showed great courage in confronting such power. However, he chose very proven, not to say calculated, methods to achieve his goals. The first thing he did was sit down on the source material and, together with his co-writers, performed … castration on it. He cut out all the side plots and unnecessary nuances, focusing on the merits – the theme of the protagonist’s heritage and mission. The second thing he did was let Hans Zimmer, an outstanding composer, understand that music will play a very important role in Dune, because it will give the whole the right key, so you should devote a few more hours of work to it. The third thing he did was think carefully about where the pictures could be shot, what the world shrouded in sand and dust would look like, and who could skillfully design and photograph it. Finally, it was time for the actors. Villeneuve filled the cast with proven names, giving them a script filled with very haughty, almost rigid lines.

And that’s basically it. Once again, I have the impression that Villeneuve did what he could do best, that is, he created a perfect cinematic illusion, which can not be faulted much, except that it provides few emotions. All the elements of Dune work and fit together like a Swiss watch, which, however, has an alarm clock that works too often and too often. Long shots of the desert and no less long shots of the absent-minded faces of the characters are drowned out every now and then by the momentous music, aimed at once again emphasizing the fact that we are dealing with something so important that we should thank on our knees for the opportunity to see it. However, there is too little sincere contemplation here, too little courage in creating a message adequate to the fleshiness of the original. A message that could bring much good to modern society, so that Herbert’s thoughts from 1965 would be applied in a new picture of the world. Clinging to the main (quite trivial) plot axis is nothing more than a shortcut and closing the gate to a whole lot of hidden meanings. Yes, there are things in the universe that will always remain unchanged, but there are also things that we have a real influence on – and this begged to be emphasized. The relationship between technology, nature and the spice standing between them, giving connection with the intangible sphere, are threads that have only been licked in Dune, and which I personally find the most interesting.

Can Villeneuve tell a story?

It hits and hits hard. The source material has been heavily trimmed and subordinated to the requirements of a mass viewer who wants to have everything served on a platter. So I feel a certain dissonance here. On the one hand, almost every frame of Dune screams for attention, wanting to convey deep meaning even when little or nothing is happening on the screen. On the other hand, when we distance ourselves from this story for a moment, we notice that it does not represent anything that we have not seen in the cinema before, taught by the experience of the Star Wars saga. At this point, unfortunately, it must be openly admitted that the adaptation of Dune unfortunately came too late. We’ve really managed to get acquainted with the theme of the chosen one in the cinema, while films dealing with the lust for power also do not impress anyone much, even if they are surrounded by an attractive science fiction costume and the aura of a spectacle. A sign of this feeling for me is the scene in which the desert worm reveals itself in all its glory to Paul Atreides. Probably 20 years ago, seeing something like this on the big screen, I would pick my jaw up off the floor in the cinema. Today, it’s just another big worm coming out of the ground, which, to make matters worse, is shrouded in darkness, as if the creators wanted to add some extravagant mystery to it.

There is nothing in Denis Villeneuve’s film that I don’t know. What’s worse, however, is that there’s nothing in it that I honestly want to come back to. Single knife fight scenes performed by the brisk Jason Momoa, the memorable and convincingly disgusting Baron Harkonnen with the face of Stellan Skarsgård, or finally the nonchalant Stilgar in the version proposed by Javier Bardem, which steals the background, is not enough. I already know one thing and I know it for sure. The Canadian director can create atmosphere, but he can’t really tell a story. Thus, in the new Dune we are dealing with the classic trap of over-aesthetization. After Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve once again showed me that just as he feels SF, he probably doesn’t really understand it.

I don’t know if the announced second part will erase this impression, but I already know that this great, ambitious project turned out to be too conservative.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

See other posts from this author >>>