The best bit of dialogue from any iteration of Dune was not written by Frank Herbert, but it so perfectly distilled the absurd wonder of his magnum opus that you’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise. “The sleeper has awakened” is less a single moment of David Lynch’s Dune than an entire entry into the thinking-man’s space opera––preposterous and magnetic, as ready for scorn as it is appreciation. To hate it, though, is outing oneself as too serious-minded and too demanding of naturalism, which is to say: not quite in the headspace for Dune.

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (now known as Part One) was a perfect distillation of its own: titanic in both size and detail, of scale and floridity so impressive there was suspicion he’d set a benchmark for conjuring other worlds onscreen, while often narratively interminable. It’s difficult reconciling one (“that looks so cool”) with the other (“how are there 42 minutes left”) except to say this material has never––in neither Frank Herbert’s hands nor David Lynch’s, probably not (I’m just going to guess) a 2000 Syfy Channel original––functioned sans turbulence. Long, lumbering, lugubrious––accept these terms and you may learn to love Dune. Little surprise that Dune: Part Two, reuniting much of the core team, arrives as an astonishment of design, a film essentially applying Truffaut’s for-every-scene-a-new-idea philosophy to spaceships, imperial costumes, grand halls, weird walking sticks, or sound effects going thwoop-thwoop-thwoop. And again such breadth of aesthetic betrays much depth of imagination. Why does this feel so rote for actual fascination or curiosity, a faraway world of first impressions?

Posed another way: did Denis Villeneuve ever crack Dune? It’s a troubling question north of five hours into a project he already intends to complete (speaking operatively) with a third entry. On paper there’s always plenty to admire; his and company’s efforts have been largely valiant, sometimes stirring, notwithstanding Hans Zimmer’s reliance on a wailing woman being the worst leitmotif I’ve ever heard. It takes a good stretch of precious screentime for Part Two to play as its own entity and not the serial continuation of a two-year-old film based on a 60-year-old property; it takes a good stretch of precious screentime for Part Two to play as anything other than a thoroughgoing, checklist-meeting obligation bolstered by obvious craft.

Adapting a big novel’s hard business, surely. Don’t even start with matching Frank Herbert’s sui generis saga of interplanetary jihadism to any single person’s specifications—just ask Lynch, whose often-brilliant interpretation earned such scorn he’s spent forty years resistant to talking about it. And though it’s unfair comparing anybody’s stylistic approach to material with, well, David Lynch, it’s hard rewatching the second half of his 1984 film without admiring its skill for brevity and conflation. Where that filmmaker solved problems of condensation by galvanizing imagination with his own designs––something gross, something ungainly, something the author himself found suitable––this heir apparent’s now spent more than twice that time sanding down a good portion of what made Dune so strange and transfixing; what splinters Herbert left in the mind’s eye are now Villeneuve’s smoothed-out, worked-over tools. There isn’t room for “the sleeper has awakened,” and repeating the novel’s “long live the fighters” invocation rings falser than Lynch’s fabrication––it sounds like a tagline, perhaps because it literally is

Manoel de Oliveira once expressed a wise maxim of film form: “If you don’t have a car, film the wheel, but film it well.” Villeneuve has the wheel, the car, every fathomable element––the worm, the shimmering shields––at his disposal, and by filming each and every one struggles for lasting images, for deeper texture. Early on is a battle sequence involving hand-to-hand combat, RPGs, and POVs oscillating between ground-level soldiers and aerial vehicles that plays somewhat spectacularly, and spectacularly to his strengths: this is a director who likes moving parts. More 1:1 segments betray his mistrust of an audience’s attention. In the iconic sandworm-riding scene (I understand how absurd that exact order of words sounds) it first seems he and cinematographer Greig Fraser devised a genius long-lens, long-take method of capturing Paul Atreides’ big hero moment: Timothée Chalamet stands rigid in the foreground as a massive force cascades towards us and him, deep in the background and then in the middleground and then… close-up of someone thus far offscreen before cutting to another close-up of someone thus far off that plane of action. Underline awe and wonder, I suppose. But we’ve been led into feeling this; it’s not necessary to punch in, tip the scales, beg for sensation. This alone is not a massive black mark, and really you must be made of stone not to feel something stir when, only a minute later, the abstract swirl of sand begins breaking apart as sunlight reshapes the frame. Yet it’s a mistrust of iconography, a witnessing of something brilliant until it’s suddenly not, so part and parcel of a film unsure how to situate itself.

Villeneuve and Fraser shoot better the climactic fight between Paul and Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler suggesting a buff Denis Lavant and sounding strangely like Cheech Marin)––mediums to emphasize combat, close-ups on striking faces, wides that make these figures into silhouettes or frame them like cave paintings––and somewhere along the line there emerged this very wise decision to play only immediate sounds of combat. (Or I really just can’t stand Zimmer’s imposition.) It’s also one of many sequences that end at about the same speed it began. Whether it’s Paul Atreides’ three-week novelistic slumber collapsed into three minutes of screentime or lacking gravitas when one of the world’s most bankable young actors slays another of the world’s more bankable young actors while a coterie of A-listers look on––Zendaya, Florence Pugh, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling, and Christopher Walken under one roof is the greater testament to this material’s interest––Part Two operates with forceful brevity, the desire to fit everything in a compact-enough package that can’t (on the part of its narrative, on behalf of its performers) generate natural frisson.

Notwithstanding the commendable choice to let Walken sound like Walken––it’s appreciably guffaw-inducing when the fate of the known universe is pondered with that cadence––or boldness in hiding Rampling behind a dark veil (much credit to one scene that renders her entire figure pitch-black like that stark presence in Meshes of the Afternoon) this ensemble’s oddly wasted, somehow underserved. Léa Seydoux’s not been mentioned because I continue forgetting she’s appeared. Her assigned character, Margot Fenring, isn’t one nearly anybody comes away from Herbert’s novel with a grand impression of, but her three-or-so scenes (only one of which gives room to play) register too accordingly.

This is less a movie that feels incomplete than one that has achieved its questionable goals––a diligent follow to a diligent adaptation, a brilliant build upon a brilliant physical manifestation. By my count, though, that makes two projects––maybe, possibly a bit hack to lean on this point, but just for the sake of context: about $300 million––spent in debt to another’s work or promise of some other film. A strange instinct for notoriously burdensome material. Myriad allusions to Dune Messiah, Villeneuve’s promised adaptation of Herbert’s far smaller follow-up, yield promise: flashforward images are stark, and Part Two’s climax finds its actors already selling the pieces set in motion. I can’t pretend I don’t want to see it, that it won’t look and sound great. But enthusiasm’s turning a tad dry.

Dune: Part Two opens on Friday, March 1.

Grade: C+

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