With Denis Villeneuve's Dune, we arrive at a new apex for the cinéma du nerd. At the end of the last century, Frank Herbert's long, arid, none-more-niche saga of sandworms and spice trading - think The Fountainhead with more silica, or a less fun Tremors - was all but untouchable within movie circles, a consequence of the disastrous 1984 adaptation, rapidly disowned by its young director David Lynch. (Its folly status is such that even Film Twitter's contrarian faction couldn't do much to reclaim it upon its recent UK rerelease.) Twenty years of dour, pernickety worldbuilding have since reodorised the multiplex, however, installing the conditions necessary for someone to give it another crack: business-grad execs struck dumb by charts, graphs and storyboards, a generation of filmmakers who've monetised their childhood fetishes, viewers re-educated by the mainstream to marvel at the stories they were first told at ages seven and twelve, and an emergent critical class, made up of shameless fanboys and cheerleaders, prepared to wave through anything that presents as remotely big or ambitious in return for set access, boxes of studio freebies and the occasional red-carpet selfie. (At the back of this Dune's glowing festival reviews: a strong sentiment of "isn't it great to be back at the movies?" Well, yeah, but there are other ways of getting out of the house.) So we go again, this time with the book handed to a filmmaker who's been elevated to the pantheon of major contemporary directors even before he's directed a single great movie. Arrival was foursquare multiplex sci-fi that kept the teens in Row D quiet for two hours, and Villeneuve did the best job he could with Sicario's thick-eared script and prejudices, but this remains the filmmaker who made the risible Incendies and bored half the world senseless with his Blade Runner sequel. Even Christopher Nolan has a better track record. Top-heavy with design, big on capital-V Vision, Villeneuve's Dune may be the ultimate film made by geeks for geeks. But, really, where's a wedgie when we need one?
Some effort has been made to broaden the material's appeal, granted; Warners wouldn't have spent this much money without learning a few lessons from that ill-fated predecessor. Contra Lynch, this is a 12A-rated, Young Adult Dune, the suits intuiting that there's likely a higher proportion of nerds among that demographic, and that this group carries with them the kind of disposable income that has traditionally sustained franchise filmmaking. So we get Little Timmy Caramel as the archetypal (read: bogstandard) hero gathering his newfound powers to overthrow an oppressive regime; and, as his future love interest, Zendaya from the MCU, whose opening bout of narration warns viewers of a non-nerdy disposition that they're in for a very long night, and who thereafter spends this first film walking the dunes in her own private fragrance commercial. ("Boredom: for a man or a woman.") Still, Villeneuve can only sex things up so much. Why is everything dun-brown or slate-grey? For what's been trumpeted as Very Great Spectacle, the film is wilfully subterranean; 75% of it is murmured meetings in what looks like a Polish municipal car park, and even the spaceships look to be built of concrete and crushed dreams. (It's a miracle they ever get off the ground.) Also: why is everybody dressed - and, in the case of a newly beardy Oscar Isaac, actively styled - like the Ewoks? I suspect this is far more deliberate, subconsciously evoking Star Wars, still a sacred text among the nerd brigade, despite the Special Editions, the prequels, the toxicity of their fellow fan-travellers. Swap in spice for the prequels' taxation business, and you have the measure of Dune as a narrative, but Villeneuve gets nowhere near that franchise's buoying, boyish spirit. From the off, Dune is overbearingly pompous, its every line of jargon loaded with unearned portent; that's when you can hear the dialogue under Hans Zimmer's honking score, designed to batter the credulous into five-star submission. Estimable colleagues of mine have praised Villeneuve for porting the solemnity of his earlier art movies into the blockbuster realm, and they're almost right: what he's actually done is turned the event movie into a Haneke-like ordeal. Not a single flicker of humour is permitted in a film about a teenager who uses his psychic powers to revolutionise the spice trade - utter bunkum, in other words, and something's gone badly wrong with the dominant storytelling mode when our movies (and fellow moviegoers) are taking this hooey this seriously. "We didn't make this movie as adults but as teenagers," Villeneuve confessed in a recent BFI onstage. Boy, does Dune ever bear that out.
Clocking in at 155 minutes, Dune: Part One also arrives as the most illustrious example yet of how well-financed worldbuilding has corrupted basic cinematic storytelling. At least Lynch was trying to solve the problem how to convert a long, windy tome into a single sit. Villeneuve is operating within a system that has learnt from recent experience that there is $$$ in dragging these things out beyond their natural length. That's why this is only Part One, with the promise-slash-threat of more to come. Nothing climactic in these two-and-a-half hours, which is why it plays as so much rigmarole: just long, quasi-meaningful pauses, offering ample opportunity to admire every brick in its constituent walls (worldbuilding!); wholly underwhelming, bloodless fight scenes; shots that tease action to come, to be mistaken for visionary cinema; Stellan Skarsgård's floaty Brando impersonations (as close as anyone gets to having fun in this mausoleum); more Zimmer honking; and passing minutiae on the intergalactic spice trade. (Here, Villeneuve succumbs to the old Harry Potter problem: the source is so sacred he can't think to leave anything out.) There was a point in time - as late as the late 1990s - when major American movies moved, in a way that was often entertaining and sometimes thrilling to behold. Now they wheeze and sputter, their arteries clogged by this kind of agonised trivia; they don't need an Oscar so much as they need an enema. You can cling to the delusion that this stuff is good for the medium and good for cinemagoers, that American cinema is doing swell - in the same way there are still people out there who insist capitalism is the best system to be living under. You might even argue that Villeneuve has triumphed in translating a long, dull book into long, dull cinema. (Five stars.) Yet I think you could equally resent that a regressive, joyless sulk such as this is being positioned as somehow cutting-edge, that a project this fundamentally adolescent should have sucked up whatever oxygen remains in our arts pages and replaced it with BO, and that at the end of an especially ploddy two hours and 35 minutes, we still aren't through with this world and its pallid and uninteresting characters. Great, the nerds will cheer, more mirthless mythos coming down the tubes. The adults among us will just have to reach for another boxset, dig themselves further into the sofa, and console themselves with the following thought: that even if the movies have given up entertaining them, they at least won't have to expose themselves further to the new strain of Delta.
Dune: Part One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.