Review: Dune and The Velvet Underground

Back to the future, out of the past



Say what you will about David Lynch's 1984 version of Dune—many people have said many unkind things about it over the years, because it's a mess—but the movie has some indelible components. The bladder-headed Guild Navigator in his interstellar traveling tank. The floating lunatic Baron Harkkonen. The incomparable Brad Dourif with his classic litany of giddy gibberish ("It is by the juice of Sappho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning"). And let us not forget Sting, in his wing-embossed codpiece.

Lynch didn't have final cut on Dune, his third feature film, and so was at the mercy of his producers, who demanded a manageable two-hour movie to keep theatre owners happy. This forced the director to jam the whole of Frank Herbert's weighty 1965 novel into a runtime too cramped to accommodate it. It was an experience Lynch has cursed ever since.

Now director Denis Villeneuve, whose last film, Blade Runner 2049, was also an '80s exhumation, has taken his own run at Dune. Villeneuve has only been given a bit more time for his picture than Lynch was (this film runs just over two and a half hours)—but then his new Dune only covers the first part of Herbert's book. The second part, which contains much of the story's action, will require a second movie, the making of which will presumably be contingent upon the ability of this one—which is long and dark and slow—to find an audience.

Maybe it will. Because the picture is gorgeous to look at, filled with moody grey interiors, imposing brutalist architecture, and endless reaches of wind-sculpted desert. The story, more clearly presented this time, remains the same. It's set 10,000 years in the future, in part on the ocean planet Caladan, home of the noble Atreides family; in part on the ugly industrial planet Giedi Prime, stronghold of the unspeakable Harkkonens; and principally on Arrakis, the parched planet known as Dune, which is the source of the coveted spice called melange. The spice enables space travel and psychic abilities, among other things, and on Arrakis it is ferociously guarded by giant sandworms, and by a native tribe called the Fremen, who resent their long oppression by off-world colonizers and now are fighting back.

Presiding over this universe is an emperor, unseen here, who is setting the Atreides clan up for a fall. He has tasked them with responsibility for all spice-mining on Arrakis, which is currently being supervised by the brutal Baron Harkkonen. As played by the late Kenneth McMillan, the Baron was the most grossly entertaining character in Lynch's film; here, portrayed by an unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgård, rising up from a vat of black mud to begin his daily round of despicable activities, he is a darker, less amusing presence.

The Baron's goal is to crush the hated Atreides family: Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac); his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson)—who's also a member of the witchy Bene Gesserit order of black-robed female schemers; and their son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Like Kyle MacLachlan, who played Paul in the earlier Dune, Chalamet isn't given a lot to do in the movie's early innings, being mainly called upon to keep his hair tousled and endure a bit of excruciating pain. And since Isaac is heavily burdened with the weight of familial nobility, charisma duties fall to Ferguson (a veteran of the ongoing Mission Impossible franchise), who gives a subtly commanding performance as a woman of fearless devotion to her family and her spiritual order.

Dune's cast of characters is as crowded as ever, although a little less confusingly this time. Weighing in on the Atreides side are Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Doing their dastardly best for the Harkkonens are Dave Bautista and David Dastmalchian (occupying the role of wily stooge Piter de Vries in a more subdued fashion than Brad Dourif once did). And tiptoeing through Paul's dreams is the Fremen beauty Chani (Zendaya), who's due to get a little more screen time in the next movie, if it gets made.

The film benefits greatly from Hans Zimmer's score—a jolting, hammer-of-the-gods electronic assault that's sometimes more interesting than what's happening onscreen. But while you'd expect contemporary computer-animation technology to have improved on the effects in Lynch's film, that's not quite the case. There's one great shot of Chalamet and Brolin running through the desert with a titanic sandworm rising up behind them, but generally the worms seem quite similar to their predecessors of 30-some years ago. And the huge, clunky techno dueling armor worn by MacLachlan and company back then—one of the most ungainly creations in big-budget FX history—has been improved only slightly by Villeneuve's fizzling update, which makes it seem as if the duelers are blowing a fuse. Like so much else in the movie, not a cause for great excitement.

(Dune will open theatrically and on HBO Max on October 22.)

The Velvet Underground

One of several unusual things about the Velvet Underground, who recorded four albums' worth of incomparable music from 1966 to 1970, is that they've never sounded dated. There's no annoying phasing on their records, no phony neo-Beatles string-quartets. In its two classic lineups, the band consisted of a couple of guys with guitars; a self-taught drummer who was partial to mallets and tom-toms; and, in the beginning, a German actress and fashion model named Nico. The music they left behind must have sounded great at the time, you'd think, because it still does. But very few people cared.

Writer-director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine) is clearly a passionate Velvets fan, and he has managed to put together a documentary about the group, which couldn't have been easy given that they left behind so little live footage. Haynes has finessed this challenge by broadening the scope of his film to take in the downtown arts scene of Manhattan in the early 1960s—the place from which the band emerged and roping in such witnesses as John Waters, Jackson Browne (Nico's onetime guitarist), Jonathan Richman, noted scenemaker Danny Fields, and avant-garde eminence La Monte Young, all of whom have interesting or at least piquant things to say.

The story is by now well-known. In a metropolis rich in experimentation in music, writing, and cinema at the time, droll singer-songwriter Lou Reed came together with college pal/guitarist Sterling Morrison, sister-of-a-friend/drummer Maureen Tucker, and classically trained Welsh expatriate John Cale, who played piano, bass, and a very edgy viola. They hit it off, and since Reed had some songs—some great songs, like "Femme Fatale," "Venus in Furs," "All Tomorrow's Parties"—the group went into a studio and had their mentor, Andy Warhol, cough up the $1500 required to record them. Warhol also contributed an additional vocalist, the emphatically blonde-and-beautiful Nico.

Neither that first album nor its followups (including the brilliant Loaded) did much business. But the magic of the Velvets' music is vividly suggested here in live clips—not always of the band itself but of its environment: downtown clubs like the Dom, and Warhol's Factory, and a clip of Nico's small part in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, a token of the art-film frenzy of that moment. All those things are gone, and, to the detriment of Haynes's documentary, so are Nico, Morrison, and Reed. But the music they once made with the Velvet Underground won't likely to be fading away any time soon.

(The Velvet Underground is now in theatres and playing on Apple TV+.)