'Dune' Review

Plus: a new lawsuit might help clarify "ownership" of digital purchases.

Dune Review

Here’s a pull quote for the posters: “Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is definitely one half of one movie!”

This is the fundamental problem with Dune, a frequently beautiful action-sci-fi epic with very solid performances, some rousing action, and a soundscape you’ll feel in your bones if you see it in a theater via glorious IMAX or wondrous Dolby rather than on your couch at home. As good as it is—and I really did quite like it, despite the grumblings that are to follow—Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is, definitely, one half of one movie.

Despite its half-ness, the plot still feels a bit rushed. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is relocating his house—including son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet); official concubine and Bene Gesserit witch Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson); and house warmaster Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin)—to the desert world of Arrakis at the command of an emperor we never see. Inhabited by the Fremen, Arrakis and its native populace have been brutally exploited by Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista). Arrakis is a trap for the Atreides family, one laid by the emperor, who fears Leto’s growing esteem, and the Harkonnens, who hope to continue mining the psychotropic spice that swirls across Arrakis’s sand dunes and has made them rich beyond comprehension.

Ah yes, the spice. Here’s all you’ll learn about the spice in this film: It’s very valuable because it aids in space travel. That’s it, that’s what the wars are being fought over. A line or two of dialogue and we’re past it.

This fairly brusque treatment—I defy anyone who watches this movie without having read the book to explain why spice is needed for space travel or what its use means for Paul—is endemic to Dune. On the one hand, you have to give screenwriters Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth credit for efficiently keeping things moving: Despite the fact that this one-half-of-one-movie runs more than two-and-a-half hours, you’re never bored. Dune moves very efficiently from scene to scene, moment to moment.

I am somewhat curious to know if the efficiency comes at the cost of alienating people unfamiliar with the source material; for all the talk of politics and intrigue, Dune never really gives us much in the way of either. The political intrigue is mostly just characters offering dire warnings like “political danger!” and “you fight when the necessity arises, no matter your mood!” while we jump between worlds as the Harkonnens assemble their forces and witches mumble dark prophecies of a chosen one.

There’s just something very … perfunctory about it all. For being an epic, it’s all quite compressed, none of the ideas really get much of a chance to breathe. And, again, it all comes to a screeching halt midway through the story being told. Without a conclusion, even an unsatisfying one, it’s hard to tell if this efficiency pays off.

And yet! I still enjoyed Dune quite a bit. In part it’s because the movie is so well cast and so well acted that you can forgive the fact that we’re getting a fair amount of telling rather than showing. Skarsgård, all bald bulk, is channeling Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now in this, rubbing his clean dome while sweat pours down his face; you half-expect him to ask if his methods are unsound when discussing his plot to wipe out the Atreides clan. Brolin and Jason Momoa, playing Duncan Idaho, bring different sorts of physicality to their characters. Brolin’s angry sneer and ramrod posture contrast nicely with Momoa’s liquid mass; each fights like a demon in his own way.

You will, perhaps, notice that I’ve yet to mention Zendaya, and that’s because her Fremen character is barely in the movie despite featuring prominently in all the advertisements. I have also barely mentioned Chalamet, and that’s because I believe very strongly that if you have nothing bad to say about a malnourished chap who spells Timothy with two e’s, you should say nothing at all.

Again: This is a movie you should watch in a giant theater with a punishing sound system. When Jessica and the other Bene Gesserit witches unleash “the voice”—a psychological trick that compels behavior in those who hear it—the sound rumbles right through you. You can understand why someone subjected to it would have a literally physical response. And everything just looks better on the big screen: that’s science.

Dune is quite good, for what it is: one half of one movie. I just hope we get to see the second half of the story sometime soon.

Make sure to check out my essay on Matt Damon, American man, as well as this week’s Across the Movie Aisle episode on The Last Duel. And read Bill Ryan’s piece on Shirley Jackson! And remember: if you want to convince someone to check out Dune, there’s no better way to do that than to send them this review.

Share Screen Time

When does “buy” really mean “borrow for a time”?

A story to watch: a lawsuit has been filed against Apple in which the litigants argue the “buy” button on digital transactions is misleading advertising. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, given that it gets at one of the core conflicts in the media landscape today: the distinction between digital and physical media.

When you buy a physical copy of something—a codex; an LP; a Blu-ray disc—a legal principle known as “doctrine of first sale” allows you to do, more or less, what you want with that thing so long as what you want does not include reproducing it. You can burn it, you can resell it, you can rent it, you can loan it out: you own the thing, you can do what you want. This is how Blockbuster built its business: buying $100 copies of VHS movies and renting them out for $5 a throw until they recouped their cost. This is how Redbox works and how libraries work and how used record stores work.

In a digital world, the doctrine of first sale is a little trickier. When you sell your used vinyl copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, you no longer have that LP. But if you buy a digital copy of Born to Run and later decide to sell it, what do you transmit to the buyer? A copy of the original—and there’s not always an easy way to ensure that you have subsequently deprived yourself of the album by, say, deleting your copy of the file. On top of that, when you click “buy” on a digital item, be it a movie or a book, you aren’t really buying it in the sense that you think you are buying it. It’s more akin to a long-term rental: you’re purchasing a license that you cannot transfer, and if the underlying entity (e.g., Amazon) loses the rights to that license, you do too.

I am writing generally and overly broadly here for a lay audience here, so I ask the lawyers reading this not to tear their hair out! I am merely trying to explain why, occasionally, a movie (or other digital product) that a person has “bought” will disappear from their digital catalog and Amazon and Apple’s response to that disappearance is, essentially, “You fucked up! You trusted us.”

And consumers do trust corporations. That’s the thrust of this paper by Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Jay Hoofnagle:

The overwhelming majority of online shoppers ignore license terms. It is not hard to understand why. Licenses are notoriously long and complex. … Our data demonstrate that a sizable percentage of consumers is misled with respect to the rights they acquire when they “buy” digital media goods. They mistakenly believe they can keep those goods permanently, lend them to friends and family, give them as gifts, leave them in their wills, resell them, and use them on their devices of choice.

Again: You can’t really do that! Which feels like a problem.

Anyway, a similar suit has been dismissed in the past, so maybe this one will go nowhere as well. But consumers would be much better off if they had somewhat better protections when it came to their digital “purchases.”

Assigned viewing: Polytechnique (The Criterion Channel)

Denis Villeneuve has made a series of big, expensive sci-fi movies like Dune, Blade Runner 2049, and Arrival, and they’re great, but I’d like to highlight something smaller and more personal: Polytechnique, his film about a shooting at a university in Montreal. The killer was a frustrated man—we’d call him an incel these days—who was angry that the feminists were ruining his hopes for the future.

It’s worth watching this black-and-white feature just to see how Villeneuve frames a shot, how he lights a room, how a director working with a smaller budget can hide moments of violence (squibs are expensive) in a way that do not diminish their visceral impact. It is disconcerting, watching something that looks this good yet tells a story so ugly. But it is a key text to understanding why Villeneuve has been given the keys to some of the biggest franchises in Hollywood.