Towards the end of our honeymoon, my wife and I stopped by the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. It was my first time visiting a mosque, and I honestly had little idea what to expect. Based on years of pop-cultural representations, I think I expected a dark, cavernous dome, illuminated mostly by light shining in through the intricately carved grates and lattices along the walls.
I did not expect the dozens of globes of light hanging suspended from the ceiling, like stars in a firmament, giving the whole structure an altogether otherworldly ambiance. To crib from Oswald Spengler, the mosque was a perfect exemplar of the ancient “prime-symbol” of the Cavern: the universe depicted as a space of perpetual contestation between mystical light and primordial dark.
That image kept coming back to me as I watched Denis Villeneuve’s new take on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic. Villeneuve’s adaptation is, like the mosque of my imagination, a thoroughgoing play of light and shadow—but it is a drama with no stars to gaze toward, no beauty or sublimity to inspire awe. His is a “Dune” that is visually striking and finely crafted, but devoid of transcendent fire.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of Herbert’s 1965 novel: the mix of operatic battles between factions, intricate worldbuilding, and enigmatic spirituality was a powerful influence on “Star Wars,” among countless other works in the genre. Contemporary readers, I imagine, might find the original book a bit of a slog—I certainly did—but there’s no denying its enduring power. Indeed, even a cursory overview of the plot reveals just how many themes Herbert bequeathed the sci-fi tradition.
In the far future, interstellar travel depends on the substance known as “spice,” harvested only from the inhospitable sand planet of Arrakis. As “Dune” opens, the venerable clan of House Atreides—helmed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac)—is dispatched to Arrakis to oversee the spice extraction effort. In so doing, they replace House Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). Along with Leto come his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet). Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, an all-female order with the power to mind-control others though the supernatural “Voice,” and she has trained Paul to also wield this weapon.
House Harkonnen does not take kindly to this displacement, and following a violent betrayal, Paul and Jessica must flee into the desert. There they hope to find the indigenous “Fremen” people of Arrakis, who have learned to master the planet’s monstrous “sandworms” (imagine something that looks like a cross between a lamprey and a vacuum cleaner).
Let me make one thing clear from the first: Villeneuve is, and always has been, an amazingly talented filmmaker. In his hands, Arrakis comes alive in a cascade of painterly scenes—the lights of aircraft descending through the fog of nighttime battle, the thick vortices of sand that surround an emerging sandworm, the whir of wings of a dragonfly-like “ornithopter” scudding across the dunes. Villeneuve has always had an uncommon eye for mesmerizing visuals—one thinks of the night-vision shootout of “Sicario,” the mist-shrouded heptapods of “Arrival,” the giant spider of “Enemy,” and the sensual neon advertisements of “Blade Runner 2049”—and “Dune” is no exception.
Moreover, “Dune” represents a remarkable success at translating a sprawling, unwieldy novel into an accessible narrative. Villeneuve has always favored character-driven, vaguely downbeat conclusions (see, again, “Blade Runner 2049” and “Sicario”) over big CGI-drenched blowouts, and that tendency serves him well here given that this “Dune” is merely part one of two. True, the movie ends at an unexpected juncture, but I didn’t feel cheated.
So with all that in its favor, what’s not to like?
What holds “Dune” back from genuine greatness is less a matter of what it does than of what it doesn’t do. And what it doesn’t do, in short, is enchant.
Villeneuve’s best movie, “Prisoners,” is a taut, morally gray crime thriller that pushes Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal to the very limits. Like a good David Fincher flick, it’s a movie that’s grim, somber, and utterly suffused with slow-burning menace. And it’s always seemed to me that something of that same harshness, that same sense of resignation to the abject pitilessness and indifference of the cosmos, leaks into everything else Villeneuve directs.
For a film ostensibly about a scorching desert world, “Dune” feels positively chilly. Maybe it’s the “Dunkirk”-esque Hans Zimmer score throbbing along beneath the surface, or maybe it’s the desaturated color palette, or Chalamet’s vaguely Edward Scissorhands-esque affect. Maybe it’s the thick, staticky bass effect that triggers whenever someone uses the Voice—akin to the “Force” sound effect repeatedly used by J.J. Abrams in the most recent “Star Wars” films—which hints that spiritual reality is first and foremost power, rather than a kind of grace.
But I think the biggest issue here is simply Villeneuve’s refusal to let his audience experience something like wonder. There’s nothing here like the “first flight” sequence of “Avatar,” the binary sunset of “A New Hope,” or the crashed freighter of “Alien”; the closest we come is a quick ornithopter excursion over the sands, which rapidly turns into a tense rescue mission. Yes, some of the glimpses of spice blowing amidst the sands are picturesque, but these shots are few and far between, fleeting exceptions to what’s otherwise a crushingly solemn endeavor.
I’ll withhold final judgment, though, because I may have been wrong all along. Perhaps there’s a subtle point being made here, that the aesthetic austerity of “Dune: Part One” represents in a sense the mindset of colonizers—those incapable of apprehending a landscape without seeing endless raw material for extraction. Perhaps next time around, the audience, with Paul, will learn among the Fremen how to see beneath the surface of things, to the true beauty underlying all. But I’m skeptical. Something in Villeneuve’s directorial constitution seems profoundly resistant to the cinematic language of eternity and symbols and cosmic order that Lucas and Spielberg and others have so masterfully deployed over the years, and it’s hard for me to imagine that changing in the next couple of years.
None of this is to say that “Dune” isn’t a good time at the movies. Go see it, preferably on a large screen. As popcorn entertainment goes, this is A-list stuff.
But don’t expect the next “Star Wars.” Magic like that is far from view here.