Because it feels like qualifiers are necessary regarding any review of Dune, and perhaps especially the lavishly produced Dune that opened at cineplexes and began streaming on HBO Max this past weekend, allow me to answer a few potential questions right off the bat.
No, I never read Frank Herbert's legendary novel from 1965, nor any of the multitudinous franchise installments that followed. Yes, I saw David Lynch's largely loathed 1984 adaptation, but only once in 1987, and only because, by then, I had become a huge David Lynch fan. (Like most people, no, I didn't really care for the movie.) No, despite absolutely intending to, I did not catch this Dune on the big screen – although to make myself feel less guilty about that, I did watch it twice on HBO Max. (Yes, for those who know me, I managed to stay awake both times.) No, I'm generally not into methodically paced sci-fi. But yes, I am very much into the slow-boil films of director Denis Villeneuve.
And so, yes, when all was said and done, I did greatly enjoy Hollywood's latest grappling with the material – even though, with Part One displayed right under the title at the start, this new Dune was almost designed to be a little unsatisfying. While it may not be a “complete” entertainment quite yet (and as of this writing, no followup is contractually guaranteed), there's so much that's engaging and inventive and glorious about Herbert's world according to Villeneuve that the movie practically nullifies your complaints while they're occurring to you. That's not to say I didn't leave with a few; I just didn't mind them much.
Astonishingly, at least for me, few of those complaints have anything to do with Dune's first half – or rather, the first half of this first half. As reams of backstory and world-building were unquestionably necessary to turn Herbert's tale into the literary behemoth it was, I initially worried that Villeneuve, who's no stranger to taking his cinematic time, would be forced into giving us a tedious first hour before getting to the good stuff. Here, however, the exposition is the good stuff. Without relying on Star Wars-y narrative crawls to set the scene, and employing only a bare minimum of early voice-over by a young desert-dweller played by Zendaya, Villenueve and co-screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts do an elegant and oftentimes supremely clever job of making Dune novices such as myself feel gratefully up-to-speed.
With the film set far beyond Earth in the year 10,191, Dune's director wastes no time plunging us into vast and varied worlds populated by happily familiar genre archetypes. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is the stalwart, benevolent leader of the oceanic planet Caladan. His son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), who has been having increasingly vivid dreams of a heroic future, is teen agnst and impetuousness personified, and Leto's romantic partner and Paul's mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is a tender yet steely matriarch with considerable psychic gifts. The family is sent by the unseen Emperor Shaddam to rule over the desert planet Arrakis, home to the native Fremen (whose numbers include Zendaya's Chani) and a miraculous substance called Spice that outside forces have been warring over for centuries. But others want the Spice, too – chiefly the malevolent despot Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), who has at least one traitorous minion lurking within the Caladan ranks.
Given that there are only so many words one can squeeze onto the Internet, that's no doubt a ludicrously simplified take on Herbert's opus, and doesn't at all address a number of other significant figures in Villenueve's film: the Atreides allies played by Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Chang Chen; the Harkonnen henchmen played by Dave Bautista and David Dastmalchian; the wary Fremen played by Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, and Babs Olusanmokun. (It also doesn't cover the witchy Reverend Mother whom Charlotte Rampling portrays in haughty grand-dame style from behind a black veil.) Hopefully, though, that mini-synopsis suggests the extent to which this Dune is unexpectedly straightforward and clean in its narrative design. While Villeneuve appears to want to extract every ounce of intricate wonder from Herbert's text, he also clearly doesn't want to confuse people, and certainly not with a reported budget of $165 million and a potential decades-long blockbuster franchise on the line. To that end, he has created a two-and-a-half hour (first half of) Dune that feels faithful – though the book's fans may argue otherwise – yet entirely comprehensible. Even more impressively, he's created one that, for unexpectedly long stretches, comes close to feeling playful.
Traveling backward, the last five movies that Villeneuve directed were Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario, Enemy, and Prisoners, and it's entirely possible that you could count the collective number of laughs they generated on the fingers of one hand. Yet in the first 10 minutes of Dune, beginning with a deadpan joke delivered by Brolin's grim-faced trainer Gurney Halleck (“Smile, Gurney.” “I am smiling.”), it's evident that this take on Herbert isn't going to be the place where humor goes to die. Long before Team Atreides gets to Arrakis, we're treated to a number of sequences that, even if they aren't necessarily funny, are surprisingly spirited: Jessica instructing Paul to use his burgeoning psychic powers to request a glass of water; exposition on Arrakis culture and the miraculous Spice delivered via Paul's audiobook lessons; Gurney training Paul while their force shields register hits with blasts of blue and potentially fatal hits with red. (This latter detail proves spectacularly handy, in Villeneuve's PG-13 release, for staging copious battles and executions without blood being visibly spilled.)
But there are additional gags that are narrative-driven, such as Bardem's Stilgar spitting on the floor in front of Leto – a perceived insult that's actually a show of respect. There are gags that are character-driven; we learn less about Henderson's adviser Thufir Hawat from his dialogue than we do from the dainty parasol he carries to shield himself from the desert heat. There are gags specifically for cinephiles, with Skarsgård's entrance an unmissable nod to Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. (Later in the film, Skarsgård's Baron emerges from a mud bath llike Apocalypse Now's Martin Sheen rising from the muddy river.) Hell, there's even a gag based on the casting, with Momoa's brawny mentor Duncan teasing Paul – but really Chalamet himself – about his almost comedic skinniness. (“You put on some muscle!” “I did?” “No.”)
Yet even when Dune's more anticipated thematic and presentational heaviness comes to the fore, you might find it impossible not to grin at the imagination and grandeur of what Villeneuve puts on the screen. The spacecrafts whose wings flutter like a hummingbird's; the false tooth that emits a deadly poison when crushed; the miniature hunter-seeker drone that's just as annoying as, but far more deadly than, a common mosquito … . They're all visual delights that also do their parts to demonstrate the specific attributes and complexities of these foreign worlds.
And for those who remember the gargantuan creatures that Herbert's sci-fi epic is best known for, the sandworms, they're as awe-inspiring and scary as you could want, particularly before one makes its official appearance toward part one's end. Not to be gross about it, but when we finally get to see the thing, it looks a bit like a five-story anus. Villeneuve's suggestion of sandworms, however, is extraordinary, building the promise of their arrival with teasing flourishes not unlike Spielberg's handling of the shark in Jaws, and making you marvel at the grand expanse of the desert – and the creatures living beneath it – through evocative long shots establishing Arrakis as a planet-sized ocean of sand. When the sandworms retreat below the surface, the force of their descent sets off granular waves to rival the watery ones in The Perfect Storm.
Before closing, I should probably at least touch on the aforementioned issues I had with the movie, because they're not exactly irrelevant. But then again, in a work composed of so many very good things, my grievances read more like a wish list. Though they're uniformly admirable, I wish Villeneuve's actors had brought a bit more character to their characters, all of whom are functional but only rarely inspired. (Momoa, in a fun surprise, gives perhaps the liveliest performance; Ferguson gives perhaps the best one, though a case could definitely be made for Duncan-Brewster in the gender-swapped role of ecologist Dr. Liet-Kynes.) I wish the scenes of hand-to-hand combat were more adventurously choreographed, though the nearly subliminal bursts of blue and red do help a lot. I wish that Chani's frequent appearances in Paul's visions, nearly all of them delivered in slow-motion, didn't suggest Zendaya starring in a pricey series of Lincoln car commercials directed by Terrence Malick.
I wish more time was spent with Skarsgård's Baron, whose bloated, floating perversity hasn't yet been fully tapped into. (At least in comparison to the sweaty, boil-covered Kenneth McMillan in Lynch's version.) I wish Villeneuve had ditched some of the overt silliness, such as the sight of Vision Paul cartwheeling over adversaries like he's in Cirque du Soleil, and the goofy and weirdly inconsequential “sand walk” that resembles a blessedly aborted dance step from the 1960s. I wish Paul's and Jessica's long hike across the sands of Arrakis didn't come to feel like a literal desert trek of 40 days and 40 nights. And I really wish the film had directly confronted its problematic White Savior angle, with the ultra-Caucasian Paul an apparent Messiah to the darker-skinned (but keenly blue-eyed) Fremen people who, for the moment at least, seem moderately pleased to have the guy around.
But again, as Zendaya says in the inevitable closing line, “This is only the beginning.” And even though we've got a couple of years – maybe longer than that – to wait, the smashing effectiveness of this Dune suggests that at least a few of my wishes might be fulfilled in a sequel. Thanks for the great time(s), Mr. Villeneuve. Fingers crossed for your Dune Deux.
RON'S GONE WRONG
“This is just like The Mitchells vs the Machines.” That was the perfectly accurate, slightly disappointed analysis offered by my movie-going companion when, in the first 10 minutes of Ron's Gone Wrong, she compared the new animated comedy in which a young Black computer whiz develops a line of electronic gizmos with evil agendas to Netflix's Mitchells, an animated comedy in which a young Black computer whiz develops a line of electronic gizmos with evil agendas. What made the observation touching, though, as well as kind of sad, was that the person who offered it was only seven years old. If a second-grader couldn't help but notice the similarities between the films – and there were myriad more to come – what chance did the Ron's Gone Wrong brigade have in fooling the rest of us?
As TMvtM is still holding strong as my favorite 2021 movie to date, there are certainly worse offerings to be aligned with. Having said that, it would've been nice if directors Sarah Smith's and Jean-Phillippe Vine's outing for 20th Century Animation boasted even a tenth of the wit, emotion, and laughs that Netflix's release from a mere five months ago provided. Smith's and Vine's film imagines a world in which kids can own their own individualized robotic devices – basically ambulatory Instagram accounts – that mirror their tastes and share their personal information. Our young hero Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) gets a damaged one, nicknamed Ron (Zach Galifianakis), who doesn't play by his brand's established rules. Mayhem ensues, as do slapstick humiliations, nefarious high-tech shenanigans, and important Life Lessons about Being Yourself and The True Nature of Friendship. Fair enough, and Galifianakis' enjoyably innocent, fresh-out-of-the-box readings of Ron's directives and gradually dawning consciousness are genuinely amusing.
Little else about Ron's Gone Wrong is, though, from the lackluster plotting to the bizarre absence of worthy punchlines to the contributions of the other performers – one of whom is Olivia Colman, whose vocal portrayal of Barney's Hungarian grandma doesn't evince anything close to the lunatic joy she supplied as TMvtM's domineering cell phone PAL. There are loads of additional (almost certainly unintentional) echoes to Netflix's animated blast – Ron's limited facial expressions are lesser mirrors of PAL's, the plot again climaxes with a full-scale battle at the the robotic nemeses' headquarters – but all they do is remind you of the freshness and spontaneity of Mitchells, and make you wish you were again watching that flick at home rather than being stuck at the cineplex with Ron's Gone Wrong. My poor, shoulda-been-energized friend was nearly asleep by the time this bland new offering concluded, and for this adult chaperone, the only instance of true cleverness I registered was the sound of Ron's rebooted start-up – that horrible blend of “bing!”s and hissing white noise that we all used to suffer through back in the days of dial-up. It's been ages, but that uncomfortable prelude to the Internet still sends a chill through my spine.