Adapting Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel Dune as a film has continually been a tricky proposition. The cult psychedelic icon Alejandro Jodorowsky infamously tried to do it in the ’70s and failed so spectacularly that a documentary was made about the fiasco. Dune eventually made it to the screen in 1984, courtesy of David Lynch, but it was a mostly ill-received flop (though Herbert appreciated it). Further efforts to “get it right” started and stalled over the years, dwindling to perhaps the ultimate indignity for an important work of speculative fiction: an early 2000s Sci Fi Channel miniseries.
But now the stars have aligned for another big-budget go at Dune, with the caveat that the new movie adapts only half of the story — “Part One” is not included in any promotional materials but displayed clearly in the title. That over $150 million has been put into a film that requires a sequel but has no guarantee of one is quite the risk on the part of Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros., to put it both mildly and kindly (especially since it will be released in theaters and online simultaneously, much to the chagrin of director Denis Villeneuve).
The desert planet Arrakis is the only known source in the universe for “spice,” a substance of incalculable importance to the interstellar empire of humanity. The brutal House Harkonnen has grown wealthy thanks to their control of the planet, while the respected House Atreides is winning more and more prestige within the empire’s nobility. Threatened by both houses, the Emperor plays them against one another by giving dominion of Arrakis to Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), who recognizes the trap but cannot refuse the position. With his concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), Leto and his retainers find Arrakis unfamiliar and hostile — not just in the climate, but also because of the native Fremen, who have chafed for decades under Harkonnen oppression. And that’s before the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) launches his plot to violently retake Arrakis for himself.
The biggest problem with turning Dune into a film is not its epic scope (enough money and ingenuity can take care of that), nor the potentially alienating complex terminology and lore. It’s that as time has gone on, the book appears increasingly derivative of generic sci-fi tropes — not because it is derivative, but because it is the source of many of these tropes. Herbert combined his pet interests in mythology, ecology, history, and religion to create a story about a war over a desert planet, and then Star Wars came out and gave mass audiences an extremely specific reference point for science fantasy taking place on a desert planet. For more than 50 years books, movies, video games, music, and more have cribbed bits and pieces from what Herbert built. How do you present these elements in a fresh way in 2021?
Villeneuve (who also co-wrote the script with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) tacks into a sincere, serious, and above all faithful interpretation of the story (faithful to the point of insisting on doing it in two parts without any assurance that the second part would even happen). If there’s one aspect of Dune that hasn’t been much imitated, it’s the plot’s critique of what Herbert called “the superhero syndrome.” In Paul Atreides, he fashioned a dark version of a chosen one narrative. Paul has special abilities because he has been eugenically bred to have them; there are prophecies on Arrakis telling of the coming of one like him because for millennia the secret powers of the empire have deliberately spread such prophecies to make the populace easy to manipulate. While the books lack grounding in true anti-colonial sentiment, the prospect of Paul becoming a messiah figure to the Fremen in order to turn them into weapons against the Harkonnen is a grim one, and definitely not the “White savior” tale it may first appear to be.
It is tough to judge how well Villeneuve understands this without seeing the payoffs for all the setups here, but there are hints that he gets it. In the opening, Fremen fighter Chani (Zendaya) wonders in voiceover who her people’s next oppressor will be, which is followed immediately by a cut to Paul. The military attire of House Atreides looks distinctly fascistic. One sequence pays clear homage to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Paul is wearing essentially the same outfit as the figure in the painting), making ironic use of a touchstone for the Romantic self-image of the European man.
In contrast to Herbert’s deconstructive approach, George Lucas cited studies in monomyth and traditional archetypes when conceiving Star Wars, and it makes sense that the latter work’s straightforward romantic (lower-case R this time) vision caught on with popular culture. One way that this Dune perhaps benefits from being made in this post-Star Wars age is that it puts work into humanizing characters whom Herbert often rendered from a distance. Besides adding scenes to explicate the setting, the film also adds welcome warmth and familiarity. In the book, when Leto tells Jessica he should have married her, it reads like a Bible quote (particularly because he prefaces the declaration with “my beloved concubine”); here it’s played much more tenderly and intimately.
The movie’s insistence on keeping things grounded works less well for the visuals. In many respects it looks like a good deal of other contemporary sci-fi blockbusters, particularly in the costuming and vehicle designs. It’s unclear how much leeway the crew may have been given to indulge themselves, lest they spook an executive. It was always unlikely this movie would look as cool as the concepts that fan artists like Alex Jay Brady have drawn up, but it’s a bit disappointing. Fortunately there are still moments that look appreciably like they could be prog rock album covers. More importantly, the film invokes a sense of tremendous scale, and this is where its gravitas works most in its favor. People are frequently dwarfed by their surroundings, be they warships, industrial machinery, or rocky wastes. Thousands of fanatical soldiers invoke a bloody ritual before battle. A flying machine tears through a storm like a leaf. Human beings are utterly minuscule before the icons of the Dune series: the enormous, godlike sandworms of Arrakis. It truly feels like these characters are struggling to control their destinies amidst an overwhelming universe.
The most frustrating thing about Dune is that it does enough well to leave anyone who can appreciate it thirsting for how Villeneuve and company will handle the rest of the story, which contains most of the incidents that would truly let them go wild. Such fans will now simply have to wait to see if this film performs well enough for the green light to glow for the second part. As it is, Dune is intriguing but inescapably incomplete.
Dune opens in theaters and on HBO Max October 22.
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