All set-up and no payoff: ‘Dune’ is world’s longest and most expensive trailer

Oct 22, 2021, 1:32 PM

It’s hard to find the right metaphor for the new “Dune” movie. It’s like a beautiful table setting for a meal that’s yet to be served. It’s a negative that sits undeveloped in the darkroom. A shiny race car still in the pit. A table of contents without any content, or a cast of characters without a storyline. Whatever comparison you choose, it must reflect a sense of incompletion.

Unbeknownst to many moviegoers, Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious, big budget remake of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel “Dune” covers only half the book. The first, and less compelling, half. And it ends so abruptly, with our hero just beginning to venture out with a tribe of “Dune” natives, that it’s hard not to feel cheated. The story is over just as it seems to be ramping up.

In the long run, this may not matter much to audiences. Banking on the presumed commercial success of this “Dune” film, Villeneuve is reportedly already working on a script for a sequel, and possibly on a third film to make a trilogy that encompasses the first two of the six “Dune” books. If those films do indeed come to pass, this first film may be judged in the context of its sequels and be given a pass. But as of this moment, those future films have yet to be given the green light.

Admittedly, given the success of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” films, Hollywood’s clearly become comfortable doling out epic stories over any number of films. But at least in those trilogies, the first film was a good stand-alone experience. This “Dune: Part One” is just getting on its feet when the proverbial rug is pulled out from under the audience. Villeneuve recently seems to acknowledge exactly that when he admits “Dune” is just an appetizer and “Dune Part Two” the main meal. (I guess Villeneuve likes the dining metaphor.)

To its credit, “Dune” does spend its two-and-a-half-hour running time building a plausible cinematic world out of whole cloth, Herbert’s whole cloth. It may not be glamorous work but the film carefully lays the necessary groundwork for our understanding of the various planets’ ecological properties, its varied races and cultures, and the political and economic conditions at play in this newly imagined universe. By film’s end, audiences will know about the water-rich resources of planet Caladan and the scorched sands of planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune), about the warring Houses of Atreides and Harkonnens and the nomadic tribe of Fremen who are native to Arrakis, about the secret religious cult of women known as Bene Gesserit and its centuries-long preaching about a Chosen One, and about the infinitely valuable “spice” being mined on Arrakis and the gigantic sandworms that protect said spice.

The film also, obviously, has to introduce us to an elaborate cast of characters as well, especially the troubled Paul Atreides who may be the Chosen One (played by Timothee Chalamet), Paul’s mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), the vile Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen (Javier Bardem), and the mysterious young Fremen woman named Chani (Zendaya) who haunts Paul’s dreams.

Not only does Villeneuve make all of the planetary intricacies abundantly clear, he presents his vision with such precision and flair that for much of the film it may not matter whether anything of consequence is happening. The wind-swept sands of Arrakis deserve the IMAX screen I saw them on as do the glorious killer sandworms. But the question is: “Is that enough?”

The book “Dune” is a dense, complex, and multi-layered work of art and it’s clear Villeneuve realized how much heavy lifting he’d have to do to do it justice. It’s a daring move to spend this much time and energy on a film that’s all set-up and no payoff. It’s the world’s longest and most expensive trailer ever. I just hope Villeneuve’s calculations prove correct and the pay-off is in the works.

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Tom Tangney

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All set-up and no payoff: ‘Dune’ is world’s longest and most expensive trailer