My disappointment in Denis Villeneuve and Dune.

First of all, I thought Arrival was a fantastic film. It worked for me on almost every level, and I ended up crying after the “reveal” at the end of the movie. Few movies (or books) cause me to react that way. It’s in my collection.

I was tentatively looking forward to Blade Runner 2049. The original remains a classic, and one of my all-time favourite movies, but sequels rarely do the original justice. However, I was disappointed. While it was visually interesting, and I enjoyed watching it, no single scene provided any kind of meaningful impact on the rest of the movie or on what had happened in the original movie. At the end of each scene, I was able to say to myself, “Okay, this scene could be removed, and nothing would be lost in the bigger picture.” By the end of the movie, I’d literally said that about every scene, making the entire movie somewhat pointless. So, while I’d say it was a “fun popcorn movie,” I didn’t think it offered anything of intellectual value, or was anything more than just something riding the coattails of the movie that had come before it.

Then there’s Dune. The trailers didn’t appeal to me all that much, and I felt the movie itself lived up to (or down to) what I thought of the trailers:

  • It tried far too hard to be “epic,” at the expense of actual story.
  • Scenes were slow, and there was always dramatic music—often signalling drama in a way that didn’t match the information being relayed.
  • As with Villeneuve’s past movies, the visuals were impressive. But without anything to back them up, they just seemed like wasted resources.
  • I’ve read the books several times, so I know the story well. But the writing glossed over character background and plot points all the time. Things just suddenly happened without explanation. I know what the explanations are, but if I’d gone into the movie without having read any of the books, I would have been left scratching my head at some of the events and motivations.

In short, I was bored and frustrated. I never felt engaged with the story or any of the characters. In fact, I just wished the movie would end so I could move on to a more enjoyable way of spending my time. When something is a chore to sit through, you know something’s wrong. I thought the visuals and music were all just smoke and mirrors, designed to make you think something important was happening, but really hiding the fact that the screenplay was lacking in exposition.

While I could generously say that Villeneuve had little to do with the screenplay, there’s no way I can avoid blaming him for the plodding pace of many of the scenes that simply highlighted for me the fact that nothing was explained properly.

For example, I’d rather see Paul Atreides spend half the time he does trying to avoid the hunter seeker sent to kill him, if it only meant there could have been some kind of voice over or other narrative device that explained exactly what was happening during that scene. There was some tension in the scene, but not nearly as much as there should have been.

The same could be said for Paul’s encounter with the Bene Gesserit and the Gom Jabbar. For anybody not already familiar with the story, it’s clear that something is happening. But the way the scene is put together, and the way in which TimothĂ©e Chalamet has been directed to act out the scene, makes the dynamics involved and Paul’s internal thoughts and feelings unclear.

The end result is that for the entire movie, I felt as if my emotions were being played with in the form of the in-your-face music and visuals, seemingly used just for a forced “epic effect” rather being a natural extension of the story that builds to something epic without trying. I also felt that my intelligence was being insulted by the lack of background and exposition, as if it’s assumed that everybody already knows the story, and that the story is just a second-class vehicle for a long music video.

The David Lynch version of Dune deserved much of the criticism it received. However, despite that, it did a much better job of explaining the characters, their motivations, and the story. I felt far more engaged with Kyle MacLachlan’s portrayal of Paul, and the directing of the two scenes I’ve specifically mentioned. It had many more moments of “camp,” and induced eye-rolling and groans at times, but it at least kept my interest. It was another one of those “fun popcorn movies,” where I could put my mind on autopilot and just enjoy watching the movie as it unfolded. It was campy, but it never seemed as if it was trying to be anything else. So, I could appreciate it on the level it presented itself on.

In contrast, I found Villeneuve’s Dune to be boring, frustrating, pretentious, manipulative, and insulting. I am quite honestly amazed that it’s garnered the praise it has, not least of which its being nominated for all kinds of film awards.