The Current Debate: The Style and Substance of Villeneuve’s "Dune"

Is the actual drama in Villeneuve's sci-fi epic as rich and satisfying as the universe he's created?
Leonardo Goi


After Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted 1970s project, David Lynch’s (unfairly) reviled 1984 version, and a 2000 miniseries best remembered for its outrageous costumes, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the latest attempt at tackling Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi cult novel. For those new to the hallowed text, it’s a tale of a messiah-in-training, where young prince Paul Atreides (here played by Timothée Chalamet) finds himself at the center of an interplanetary war. Sent to the arid Arrakis to harvest the “spice,” a substance so powerful it fuels interstellar travel, his imperial family is slaughtered by a rival clan, and Paul must rally the indigenous Fremen to restore justice in the galaxy. Unlike Lynch’s adaptation, Villeneuve’s Dune covers just over a half of Herbert’s opus, and the decision affords the film ample room to create, as per The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey, “a film of such literal and emotional largeness that it overwhelms the senses,” a work “of such intimidating grandeur that it’s hard to believe it even exists in the first place”. But is the actual drama as rich and satisfying as the universe we’re ushered into?

For Michael Sragow, writing at Film Comment, Dune “typifies the current mania for world-building over character-building," where talented supporting actors are essentially reduced to “mere placeholders for key figures in the book.” Indeed, as Richard Lawson echoes over at Vanity Fair, save perhaps for Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson (Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica), 

“No one has much time to distinguish themselves, all functioning as mere fleshy cogs in Villeneuve’s churning machine. We don’t really learn much about individual characters in the film, making it hard to grasp or care about the stakes of the story. […] In all its marvel, Dune forgets to do basic things like give us someone or something to root for, or feel for, or think about for longer than the stretch of the film.”

And is the universe Villeneuve has imagined really that stupefying to begin with? His Dune, Richard Brody suggests at The New Yorker, “seems less like a C.G.I. spectacle than a production still waiting for its backgrounds to be digitally filled in or its sets to be built.”

“The bareness with which [Villeneuve] depicts the story doesn’t resemble the shoestring production values of nineteen-fifties sci-fi cheapies, but it instead suggests merely a failure of imagination, an inability to go beyond the ironclad dictates of a script and share with viewers the wonders and terrors of impossible worlds. […] His images are as rigid and hermetic as the illustrations in a graphic novel. His point of view is without a second level, without physicality, without visceral impact, without an unconscious. The movie’s stripped-down material world correlates with a stripped-down emotional one—narrow, facile, and unambiguous. ”

Which may well be the chief difference between Villeneuve and Lynch’s version. Sure, Lynch’s may have been clotted with exposition, but it did not shy away from the headier, more bizarre details in Herbert’s story—which Villeneuve here seems to have ironed out. Flawed as it may have been, Justin Chang contends at the L.A. Times,

“[Lynch’s Dune] also had the courage of its demented convictions, as well as a fearless commitment to feverish, pustular imagery that makes Villeneuve’s pristine filmmaking seem almost timid by comparison. Not for the first time, his craft seems to exist mainly for its own sake; it’s the hallmark of a filmmaker who’s more logistician than thinker, more technician than artist. As a visual and visceral experience, “Dune” is undeniably transporting. As a spectacle for the mind and heart, it never quite leaves Earth behind.”

So why is it that the film still works? Perhaps because, as K. Austin Collins offers at Rolling Stone, “it’s big and breathless and committed, so capably navigated in its finest moments that you can’t help but give credit where it’s due.” 

“What’s fun and flawed about this new Dune is that, like Blade Runner 2049 before it, it wears its aspiration to once-in-a-blue moon, auteur-anointing spectacle squarely on its sleeve. So it sometimes falls into the trap of an ambition so overwhelming, it eclipses any genuine glimpses of originality or dramatic imagination. […] When the movie whittles itself down to the totalizing, sublime power of a well-funded action spectacle, it hits its stride. It’s in the grand opera of it all that it hits its boring stretches and false notes.”

But that alleged failure of imagination on Villeneuve’s part raises a thought-provoking follow-up question: how could anyone make Dune feel genuinely original? The biggest problem with turning Herbert’s saga into a film, Dan Schindel astutely remarks at Hyperallergic, is not so much its epic scope, but that “as time has gone on, the book appears increasingly derivative of generic sci-fi tropes—not because it is derivative, but because it is the source of many of these tropes” (to name the most obvious but by no means the only suspect, George Lucas’s Star Wars has borrowed heavily from the same book, too). There’s no denying that the narrative “has been rendered stale by decades of imitation,” David Rooney reminds us at The Hollywood Reporter. But to argue, as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich does, that the director’s “only move is to crank up the volume until the distortion makes it sound like you’re experiencing something new” seems to me a little far-fetched. Perhaps because the real novelty may have much less to do with the film’s sci-fi elements than with the curious kind of blockbuster Villeneuve has conjured. 

“As movie spectacles go,” Stephanie Zacharek notes at TIME, Dune “is admirably understated;” Villeneuve respects the source material without either “genuflecting to it” nor trying to “tart it up as a flashy, self-satisfied blockbuster flimflam.” In fact, the film may be closer to “a hard sci-fi movie rather than a traditional blockbuster,” David Jenkins claims at Little White Lies, “more in the slow-release tradition of David Lean than the candy-coated insta-high of the MCU.” Which is not to gloss over the demands of big-ticket mainstream cinema Villeneuve must wrestle with. As Manohla Dargis argues at The New York Times,

“The trickiest challenge is presented by the movie’s commercial imperatives and, by extension, the entire historical thrust of Hollywood with its demand for heroes and happy endings. This presents a problem that Villeneuve can’t or won’t solve. Paul is burdened by prophetic visions he doesn’t yet fully understand, and while he’s an appealing figure in the novel, he is also menacing. There’s little overt menace to this Paul, who mostly registers as a sincere, sensitive, if callow hero-in-the-making. Mostly, the danger he telegraphs exists on a representational level and the dubiously romanticized image presented by a pale, white noble who’s hailed as a messiah by the planet’s darker-complexioned native population. ”

How exactly will Villeneuve problematize that white-savior narrative remains to be seen (the saga’s second chapter has just been greenlit), but for anyone interested in the fascination Herbert’s text has exerted on the far right, Dargis points to an eye-opening essay by Jordan S. Carroll in the Los Angeles Review of Books. For now, this first Dune will likely go down as a curious oddity, an idiosyncratic and somewhat anachronistic film that retains the slick shape of a blockbuster without sacrificing the book’s more contemplative, quieter moments. In a sea of unimaginative and undistinguishable franchises, that’s what makes it stand apart. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes at the A.V. Club, 

“What Dune offers, despite its often monochromatic futurism, is a kind of entertainment that was a far older Hollywood’s stock-in-trade: that of stars and titanic spectacle. In an odd way, the movie feels like an update of a Cinemascope epic, with impressive vistas, an overall sense of exotic grandeur, and a deliberate pace. […] However inconclusive as a story, the resulting film is a rarity among the overlong effects-heavy blockbusters of the last decade: One actually wishes it didn’t have to end so soon.”

The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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