Zendaya attends the "Dune" UK Special Screening at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square on October 18, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)
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Breathtaking… and empty

The formidably long run-time of Dune leaves viewers with little world-building and a lack of colour

What film has any business being two and a half hours long? Not, having seen it, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

It is well cast, and beautifully shot. But so too would have been a (perhaps much) shorter film. Instead, its formidable running time stretched out before this increasingly agitated filmgoer like the sands of Arrakis before our marooned hero, breathtaking… and empty.

Apparently, it rewards a second viewing, especially if one takes the time to Google the plot of the book before a second attempt. But why on earth should anyone have to do this to enjoy a film two and a half hours long?

Travelling between worlds feels as humdrum as yet another jump to lightspeed

Even in a stand-alone picture, such a running time ought to leave plenty of slack for world-building and plot-explication. When part of a trilogy, there is surely no excuse for avoiding it. Especially when dealing with a fictional setting as wonderfully weird as that of Dune.

(Some spoilers to follow, inevitably.)

Villeneuve clearly knows how to do it, when he tries to. Blade Runner 2049 did a marvellous job of setting its characters into a breathing, believable dystopia. 

There are flashes of the same skill in Dune: fleeting visits to the planets of Giedi Prime and Salusa Secundus paint excellent sketches of our antagonists, the wicked House Harkonnen and the fanatic warrior-cultists of the Imperial Sardaukar. The personal shields that have forced warfare back to the age of swords, one of the setting’s more distinctive features, are tidily explained.

But so much is left out. We meet two mentats – humans trained to think like supercomputers because the setting has outlawed the real thing – but they and their reason for being are scarcely explained. We’re told that the Spice is essential to inter-stellar travel, but we are told this, not shown it. Guild Navigators get one mention, and appear in the background of a single scene. 

What a waste! Space travel in Dune is made possible because special mutants get high on a magical psychedelic and then fold space. Think of the cinematic possibilities! Yet, in Villeneuve’s hands, this is not shown. Travelling between worlds feels as humdrum as yet another jump to lightspeed.

One wonders, indeed, whether the long shadow of Star Wars doesn’t linger over this apparent trilogy-to-be. The tight focus on the heroes, and the under-developed efforts to flesh out the wider universe, have a similar feel to Disney’s films, bending over backwards as they did to avoid comparison to the slow, plot-heavy prequels. As a result, the universe of Dune feels a lot smaller than it should. 

Even where some politicking is essential, it is dumbed down. Duke Leto meets with the native Fremen of Arrakis to try and ease Spice harvesting. Their one demand? Get on with it and leave them alone. For acceding to this – for agreeing, basically, not to behave like a villain from a Saturday morning cartoon – we are supposed to get the impression that Atreides Senior is a stateman. It doesn’t land.

One wonders, indeed, whether the long shadow of Star Wars doesn’t linger over this apparent trilogy-to-be

It feels like heresy to unfavourably contrast Villeneuve’s effort with David Lynch’s much maligned 1984 version. There is no doubt that the former is much the better film overall. 

But just as one can deplore George Lucas’ many missteps and still appreciate his attempt to broaden and deepen the Star Wars setting, so too I found myself – as much to my surprise as anyone’s, I assure you – wishing Villeneuve had taken a little more inspiration from his predecessor. Perhaps a shot of the vast interior of the Spacing Guild’s ships.

Or, at the very least, some analogue to the opening scene of the Lynch version, which manages in the space of a few minutes to put a face on the Emperor, outline the political manoeuvring driving the plot, and impress on the viewer just how vital is the Spice, as well as adding a few flavourful hints about the ‘new machines’ of Ix to boot.

Would it have greatly injured Villeneuve’s vision to include something like this, perhaps at the expense of going a bit shorter on the increasingly interminable visions of blue-eyed desert girls? To scatter a few new locations – and some more screentime for Stellan Skarsgård’s peerless Baron – to break things up a little? Probably not.

There are two films to go. Potentially five hours or more of running time stretches out before the viewer, vast and dry. We must hope these little oases of character and colour are scattered more liberally before us than behind, if we are to reach the far side with patience intact.

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