It's not often we get out to sci-fi movie premiers, but the Missus and I teamed up with another couple to check out the latest film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 classic, Dune. Two and a half hours later (and with the tinnitus still ringing from the Dolby surround sound), here's the Good, the Bad, and the Awful of Denis Villeneuve's attempt to mash a wonky, complicated, pseudo-psychedelic 188,000-word novel into big screen, mass entertainment....
The cinematography in Villeneuve's Dune is fantastic. The settings were sprawling, beautiful, and at times, haunting. No doubt much of it is computer-generated, but still, every scene is intricate, and well-crafted, and carefully thought out--from the varying art styles in textiles to little details that only serve to pay homage to trifles in the novel (repeated closeups of a mounted bull's head trophy were a nice air kiss to Herbert's book). And if you like big machines, if you've ever gone to a monster truck show and said to yourself, "If only they could do this with space ships," well, strap yourself in, my friend, because believe you me, a $165 Million budget can whip up some thumping big machines and blow them up big-time. And since that's pretty much become the "spice" of modern sci-if movies, the sheer volume of metal and explosions in this film will all but guarantee it will be a money-maker.
Villeneuve had a talented cast playing beloved, complicated characters. But apparently he gave them all the same direction: brood. You can almost hear him shouting in his director's horn: "I want those frowns to hurt, people!" Every actor on the screen, from every planet, great or small, came across the same--broody men and women brooding on their broodiness. Even the knife fights looked mopey.
And some of that may have been a function of the script, which served up a heaping helping of flat blandness. In some places, the lines were just outright silly (note to screenwriters: when characters find themselves in a confined place that is literally exploding all around them, it is completely unnecessary to have one of them calmly suggest, "Let's get out of here."). It's all the more a pity because you could tell the actors were trying really hard to wring the most out of what they were made to work with (Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica deserves a "Bread Upon the Waters" award (if there were such a thing) for putting together a solid performance despite mediocre material, not unlike Bryan Cranston's surprisingly moving character in that 2014 Godzilla remake).
The soundtrack. Oh, dear God. Hans Zimmer picked out a harmonic minor chord and pounded on the poor thing for two and a half hours. It was like Peter Gabriel's Zaar, amped up to 11 and set to play on an endless loop.
To Wrap-Up ...
So overall, the movie was "meh."' Which is a huge improvement over David Lynch's god-awfulness. But like the prior version, this version is going to be incoherent for anyone who hasn't read the book. Maybe that's the rub. Maybe Dune is just one of those stories that only works as a novel.