NOTE: Sometimes when I see a film I have high hopes for, and it doesn't meet my expectations, I get oddly angry at it, and criticize it more than it warrants. This might be one of those times!
The short version is that I prefer David Lynch's version of Dune.
It's imperfect, maybe, but it's still a movie that I care about, that seems to care about its source material. The Villeneuve is pretty to look at, very expensive, and not really all that interesting at all. Nowhere near. Lynch is a filmmaker. Villeneuve has apparently become, sadly, just another Hollywood craftsman, albeit one with a distinctive and impressive visual style, which is almost all his new version of Dune
has going for it. The new David Fincher, maybe? Kinda sad.
The long version: you know, I loved a couple of Denis Villeneuve's English-language films. Still haven't seen Polytechnique or Maelstrom or Incendies, but Prisoners and Sicario were both really enjoyable, and showed someone coming essentially from an arthouse cinema background making interesting inroads into commercial movie making; reading Prisoners as a commentary on the whole issue of "enhanced interrogation techniques," which was still a reasonably hot topic when the film came out, made it one of the most politically compelling thrillers of its year, and absolutely in keeping with my idea of what cinema should be - or at least the kind of cinema that I enjoy. Enemy was interesting, too, if very strange, and with what seemed a tacked-on, unnecessarily misogynistic ending that made me think maybe I'd misunderstood everything that had gone on before. I didn't care for Arrival, and couldn't exactly put my finger on why - and haven't sat down to a second viewing yet. I remember it just left me feeling flat and unconvinced. It was clearly supposed to have an emotional impact, but what it apparently intended and what it actually achieved (in me, at least) were so dissimilar I came out of the theatre grumbling, even though I recognized the film had some interesting ideas in it.
I started to feel less enthusiastic about Villeneuve's commercial filmmaking with the Blade Runner sequel. I am not among those who think Ridley Scott's first Blade Runner film is anywhere near the best film ever made, as was a common assertion among my peers at one point, and though I have seen it a dozen more times than I properly needed to, the film's production design and images seemed far more interesting than its story, which greatly simplifies the Dick novel, and leaves out several key ingredients - electric sheep included. There's a level of distance from its characters, too - the film is so stylized that I never really felt Deckard's feelings, or anyone else's. I think if I forced myself to watch all three cuts of the film in a row, I'd come out liking the first one, with Deckard's narration, the most.
...And something happens with me when a film is praised and revered far beyond its merit. It's like a song that gets too much airplay; even a good song ("Comfortably Numb" and "Stairway to Heaven" might be good illustrations) that gets elevated to the level of cultural sacred cow starts to grate on my ears, makes me feel like something has gone wrong in the universe, makes me quarrelsome and ill-disposed to participate. It's not that I dislike Blade Runner, or deny its impact; it's that there are a thousand films I value more, and would rather see praised and imitated and talked about. The culture has gone wrong, I think to myself, as yet another edit of the film makes its way before my eyes. I would rather just watch some stupid Marvel film (which at least has the potential to surprise me) than waste another two hours watching the latest tinkerings on a vastly overrated, style-over-substance faux art film.
So I wasn't really predisposed to enjoy Blade Runner 2049, but nor did I expect that I would be bored to tears by it, and - I haven't yet said this publicly - the one time I tried to watch it, I shut it off after half an hour. Erika wasn't feeling it either. There's no shortage of films we will actually enjoy and/ or admire, rather than wasting effort on an unnecessary sequel to an overpraised film that the filmmaker appears to have no strong investment in, other than a) making money and b) extending the range of his images: because Villeneuve has a definite visual sensibility, and does seem concerned about image-making, but... was there anything else to be said for the film? Was there anything else there that he CARED about as an artist or storyteller? (I mean, I didn't finish it, so I don't really know, but was any of it really more vital or necessary than the last dozen Star Wars movies? I doubt it). Prisoners, by contrast - my favourite of the films of his I've seen - seems to have a sincere interest in character and story and ideas, all of which seemed to me - in the first half hour of Blade Runner 2049, to be subordinated to Villeneuve's aesthetic ambitions. Sure, the film looks great. But sunsets look great, too, and don't cost $15 to see, so...
Dune is much the same, but is based on a novel I rather love, which has been well-adapted for the screen before - maybe not perfectly adapted, as I say, but I have never had any great problem with the David Lynch version of the film, much as I wish he would assent to fixing up the Alan Smithee cut of the film and making something great of it (because there are some truly great moments in that long cut of the film, even if the ultimate assembly is amateurish and unworthy of Lynch's name - I wish there could be a proper restoration made of it, even if he isn't the one at the helm).
But if you thought Lynch left out too much of the original Frank Herbert text, I've got bad news: Villeneuve leaves out a lot more. It strips characterization and dialogue down to the bare minimum. It completely disregards huge swaths of the novel - like the highly politically-charged and tense dinner party where Kynes argues with and provokes a Harkonnen-allied banker and subtly shifts to the support of house Atreides, for example - one of the richest moments in the book, but it simply doesn't exist in the film. The idea of Leto dispensing with water-wasting customs is also removed. Kynes - beautifully, if too briefly, played by Max von Sydow in the first film, has been replaced by a black female actress, which in itself is interesting - the only black people in the film are Fremen or Fremen-allied, I think, which presumably connects to what seems to be a telegraphed anticolonial message in the film - by which the whole narrative is framed in terms of the Fremen struggle for freedom against those who would exploit their homeworld. But whatever potential there is in the casting, the film is barely interested in Kynes - her character, like almost everyone in the film, is such a foreshortening of the book that she reads as a cardboard cutout, a plot point, a way to get from point A to B than a vehicle for expression, insight, comment on humanity, or so forth.
That, unfortunately, is something that extends to almost every actor in the film - they're just not given enough to do to make them interesting or human. Kyle McLachlan may have been too old when he played Paul Atreides, but he was likeable and human and seemed a fully-realized character. Timothée Chalamet, by comparison, is emptied of as much character as possible, as if giving him recognizable emotions or wit or interesting dialogue or the space to be human in might interfere with the audience's identifying with him as a hero, projecting their own traits on to him. It's not really Chalamet's fault - it's Villeneuve's. Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac are equally under-cooked, ciphers and plot points instead of characters, vastly reduced from what you find in the book. I wanted to care, tried to care, but for all the expense and craft that went into image-making, there really just wasn't much to latch onto in any of the principal characters.
To be fair, there are a couple of actors who are able to build interesting things with their roles, apparently against the odds. Jason Momoa, whom I don't normally think much of - I kinda hated that idiotic Aquaman eyesore - makes a fine Duncan Idaho, even if there's a weird casual quality to his English that sounds far more like how kids speak today than how some futuristic warrior attached to a royal family might. Javier Bardem manages to make Stilgar a complete and real human, or Fremen, or whatever, and steals the best scene in the movie (the spitting). Josh Brolin, as Gurney, has terrific gravitas, even though he's given far too little to do. Charlotte Rampling as the Bene Gesserit who puts Paul's hand in the pain box is creepy and delightful, if only around a short time. And I guess some praise should go to Stellan Skarsgard, who is kind of unrecognizable as Baron Harkonnen, though he's got a fair bit to compete with compared to Kenneth McMillan's hilariously over-the-top revulsion-generator in the Lynch. It is still a testament to the role (and to the makeup artists behind his character) that Erika didn't recognize him, though she knows Skarsgard from many other films; as the credits rolled, she was like, "Which one was Stellan Skarsgard?"
So that's all fun enough. There is also some terrific production design, some compelling imagery. The worms are neither here-nor-there, not particularly better or more interesting than Lynch's, but the ornithopters are modelled on dragonflies, which is delightful. The visuals are generally amazing, as you might imagine from someone who seems to be following in Ridley Scott's footsteps, and it LOOKS like a Denis Villeneuve film, which, as I say, seems to be the point - to put his aesthetic into a new text, which I guess is the only part of the challenge that really engages him as an artist, now that he's gone Hollywood. But MOST of the characters have so little to do or say, contributing a few lines of dialogue, advancing the plot, then dying or disappearing, that someone who hasn't read the book will wonder what the point is. The Shadout Mapes would be one example - she exists to give Jessica the knife, but there's nothing else intriguing about her, nothing else we learn about her, and between giving the knife and being killed when the Sardukar attack - does she even HAVE any dialogue? Cripes, Marvel characters are generally more richly realized.
That's not good.
I mean, look, I'm biased, I admit it. I'm not that interested in film as image, primarily; I like a pretty picture as much as anyone, and appreciate the craft of image-making in cinema, but I'm PRIMARILY interested in film in terms of character, story, writing, ideas. Erika and I have been binging on Better Call Saul and loving it, and it's full of all of those things. There MIGHT be some interesting ideas behind the Dune adaptation - along those aforementioned anti-colonial lines - but the film only barely gets to the halway mark of the first novel, so it is kind of impossible to evaluate on those terms, reading more like a very glossy, slightly chilly white saviour narrative, which, pretty as it is, isn't really anything all that new. Dances With Sandworms, anyone - with Lakota Fremen?
And you know what else I hated? That the film pretty much ends on the words, "This is only the beginning." (Or something to that effect). Like, oh, really, you need to TELL us there's going to be a sequel? Like we didn't already know that? Gee, thanks. It's clear Villeneuve doesn't have a lot of respect for the characters or the writing in Frank Herbert's novel, but ending on a clunkily obvious bit of foreshadowing like that makes it seem like he doesn't have a lot of respect for his audience, either - like the whole point of the film is not to express an idea of tell a story, but get us hooked into a franchise. There is no possible note more likely to generate in me a non-serviam response. Only the beginning, you say? Well, I better tune out now, because I sure didn't think much of it, and fuck y'all for thinking so little of me. Tug on my leash at your peril.
The best thing to come out of the whole Dune remake thing? That there's a bunch of lovely new editions of Frank Herbert's books. I'm reading one of them now. I'm going to go back to it in a second - pet the cat and read a bit before I join my wife in bed.
Perhaps I wouldn't be so disappointed if I hadn't been waiting for a whole bloody year for the film to get released?