I attempted to read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune when I was in the seventh grade. I had begun to read more fantasy literature and was looking at older, heralded novels. I can still recall my frustration of reading those first five pages and having to repeatedly flip back and forth to a twenty-five-page glossary of terms so that I could even start to comprehend what was happening on the page. After those five excruciating pages, I gave up. Maybe I was too rash, and maybe my older present self would be more accommodating to the struggle, or maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort. I never watched the 1984 David Lynch adaptation that was met with great derision from critics and fans alike, although it does have its vocal defenders (Hindsight alert: Lynch turned down directing Return of the Jedi to helm Dune). So when acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) became attached to direct a big-budget, large-scale adaptation of Herbert’s novel, I was finally interested for the first time in my life. It was originally slated to be released in 2020, and after the studio planned to release Dune onto its HBO Max streaming service, Villeneuve and the production company negotiated to make sure a theatrical release would still be an important part of the plan. Alas, I watched the 2021 Dune at home, and I found myself enjoying the experience and development of the world building. However, it’s unlikely to watch this version of Dune and feel like you got a full movie for your money.
In the distant future, like 10,000 A.D., mankind has colonized worlds and the most important planet of them all is Arrakis. It’s a desert world inhabited by poor natives, Freeman, who live a moisture-preserving life mining the natural “spice,” a special substance that makes space travel capable as well as prolonging human life. The top family houses are vying for dominance and House Atreides has been assigned by the unseen Emperor to rule over Arrakis and bring it and its spice production back in line. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees great opportunity but also great danger. The other houses will scheme to engineer the failure and desolation of House Atreides, especially House Harkonnen, led by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who is like a mixture between Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now and Marlon Brando from The Island of Doctor Moreau (plus with levitation powers?). Paul Atriedes (Timothee Chalamet) is his family’s heir and much is expected of him, especially from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who believes he may be long-prophesied messiah. On Arrakis, Paul and his father must tackle this very delicate new mission while keeping the many adversaries at bay.
As anticipated, Dune is yet another visually stunning and gorgeously immersive visual experience from one of the greatest visual filmmakers working today. If you can watch the movie on a big screen, or at least a bigger screen, then you owe it to yourself to do so. The sweeping vistas and startling science fiction imagery have so much power and grandeur to them. If Lynch’s movie inspired a generation of devotees and impressionable children, I imagine that this superior modern version will do likewise. The production design and costumes are terrific and perfectly in keeping with the larger scope of the expansive visuals. You really feel the size of this world and its imposing weight. Villeneuve has such a natural keen eye for pleasing visual compositions, but he also has the patience many famous big screen stylists lack. He allows the moments to linger and to let scenes breathe in a way that feels more transporting and immersive. If you were simply looking for a visually resplendent movie-going experience, then Dune is the ticket. The sound design is also very smartly aligned and makes use of unconventional and alien sounds to make the movie feel even more like its own thing. When Dune came out in 1965, this was before much of the modern building blocks of our sci-fi pop-culture, so in a way while Dune was the influence it feels partially like an odd after-effect rather than a predecessor. The same thing happened with 2012’s John Carter, based upon a novel a hundred years old that influenced many sci-fi adventure serials and now seems derivative even though it came before the many imitations. I was happy with the first 90 minutes of Dune and felt like the slow pace of the first hour, and its heft of needed but spaced-out exposition, was paying off with a thrilling assault. The concept of the protective shields is a smart way to communicate the casualties of battle, where “kill shots” are illuminated in red, informing the audience of a mortal wound. It makes for an easy to read visual to keep up with the development of battle and stay in a safer PG-13 realm. The whole rescue sequence on the mining station is thrilling at every step.
The cast is another major credit to the success of Dune. Chalament (Little Women) has a soulful yearning to him, to learn, to be his own man, to prove his father wrong and then prove worthy of his father’s faith. Surprisingly, the next biggest role isn’t Zendaya (Malcolm and Marie), the woman that Paul dreams about (prophetically?); it’s Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) as Paul’s mother. She’s a woman with deep secrets belonging to a powerful religious sect that might be the real power behind the throne. Lady Jessica is more Paul’s mentor than any man. She teaches him to hone and focus his mind, to use the “Voice” to impart his will, and to prepare for the hardships to come. With every new exposition dump, and she has many, we learn about her growing concern for the fate of her son and her possible culpability for that fate. There’s a genuine warmth between them that serves as the film’s emotional core. I enjoyed watching Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and Dave Bautista (Army of the Dead) as opposite ends of Super Good Fighter Guy, though Momoa looked unsettling without a beard. Needless to say, the 2021 movie is far more diverse than the 1984 movie. It makes space feel more lived in when it’s reflective of a diversity of people that we already have at this point in our history.
And then, after the hallway mark, Dune became a protracted sequence of chases and then I started to worry that things were just going to end in an unsatisfying manner, relegating the 150 minutes as setup for the as-yet-unplanned sequel, and that’s exactly what happened. My mood began to deflate somewhat during the last hour of Dune. I was still interested and the visuals were still mighty captivating, but the events had the unmistakable feeling of being stretched out to meet a frustrating stopping point, a pause that didn’t produce a satisfying endpoint. I just kept thinking, “Oh, they’re not going to resolve this,” and, “Oh, Zendaya is barely going to be in this movie,” and the movie proved my predictions correct. It’s hard to judge the movie as its own entity since it’s so dependent on a Part Two that has yet to be greenlighted (though its strong opening box-office returns are hopeful). This is an expensive movie, possibly pushing $200 million, so it’s quite a gamble to declare you would only be adapting roughly half of the story. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel, a movie I loved, had a budget of $150 million and a worldwide gross that didn’t make the producers comfortable going forward with a Blade Runner 2050. To be fair, that was an original story, a sequel, and rather well contained. Still, it’s an expensive sci-fi movie that has as much in common with dry art house fare as it does blockbuster adventures, like Villeneuve’s Dune. The promise of a second movie is not secured. If Dune doesn’t do well enough, we’ll forever be left with a movie that feels designed to only be a teaser. It reminds me of the hubris of 2007’s The Golden Compass where the filmmakers had a whole 20-minute finale that they carved out with the intention of having it be the opening for the assumed sequel (welp). Even when designing a multi-movie arc, it’s necessary to plan each entry so that it can exist as its own beginning-middle-end and with a suitable intermediary climax. The Lord of the Rings movies each had their own climax, each moving the larger picture forward, and each had storylines and subplots that came to a head by film’s conclusion. Dune doesn’t. There are more dead characters by the end and certain characters are displaced, but it feels less like the end of the big-budget Dune movie and more like the conclusion of episode two of the Dune mini-series.
My resonance with the source material is minimal, but the world of Dune feels stuffed with stuff and not as deep in the realm of commentary. Fans of the book series will likely thrill at the level of minutia the 2021 movie luxuriates in, allowing fans to lap up the lore. For those of us uninitiated into the fandom, it feels like there could be more going on behind the scenes. The book was released in 1965 and has clear parallels to Middle East occupations and quagmires, a subject even more relevant in the first quarter of this new century. There’s the occupying force coming in to manage the supposedly primitive natives on a desert planet, replacing the last occupier who made bold promises that were unable to be met by the reality on the ground. The parallels of colonialism are there and obvious, but that’s because everything in Dune seems obvious to me. The bad guys are corpse-white and dressed in all black. They look like the alien zombies from 1998’s Dark City (itself referencing the silent sci-fi classic, Metropolis). The leader of House Harkonnen is this noxious man who bathes in black goo and sucks the life force from others. I don’t need my sci-fi to be ambiguous about its heroes and villains. We clearly recognize the bad guys because they’re grotesque. However, the lessons learned by the heroes seem a bit stilted. Its attacks on capitalism are a little more nuanced but not much. The planet of Arrakis could produce water but that’s not in the interest of the power brokers of the galaxy. They need the spice for the economy and thus keep the exploitative status quo. The parallels are there but there’s not much more to be had other than direct summations. The movie has more to say with religion and messiah figures but at this point we’re grading on a curve, and the more complex commentary attached to messiah figures seems reserved for a Part Two.
Another aspect I want to highlight that seems trivial but no less intriguing to me is how Herbert chooses his character names. We’re eight thousand years into the future, spanning multiple planets with names like Arrakis and Giedi Prime and Salusa Secondus, and then we have such anodyne twentieth-century names like… Paul and Jessica? It’s funny to me that Herbert goes to the trouble of coming up with so much jargon and terminology and alien-sounding names and then he says, “Hey, this guy’s name is… Duncan Idaho,” like he’s a supporting character in Point Break. I realize this is a very dubious criticism, and there are other character names to conflict with this assertion, but it made me laugh at the different levels of effort Herbert put into his world-building and universe than selecting character names for that same far away land.
After watching the new Dune, I went and watched the 1984 David Lynch version for the first time and was, quite simply, dumbfounded. I’ll credit Lynch for many of the weird choices in style and how it never stoops to even be accessible for a mass audience, despite having characters explicitly narrate their schemes and motivations out in the open (by scene one, the power play that took up 90 minutes of Dune 2021 is awkwardly explained in full). By the end of Lynch’s movie, it is an incomprehensible campy mess. I only have more appreciation for the 2021 Dune after watching the goofy (those eyebrows!) 1980s version that Lynch has disowned entirely, although that stirring guitar riff from the score still rocks thirty years later. The new Dune is only intended as Part One as its presumptive title promises, and because of this key artistic decision, there’s a feeling of padding and wear by the end. I found myself reflecting back on the first 90 minutes more fondly. It’s not that the last hour is absent great moments or audacious style, but it’s hard to fully judge this Dune when its last line is its own conditioning of expectations: “This is only the beginning.” The 2021 Dune is a visually remarkable movie experience with fantastic artists executing at some of the highest points of their talent. I’m eager to see if a Part Two can provide the satisfaction lacking in this beginning half. It’s a hell of a start but it feels too incomplete and in need of an ending.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on October 23, 2021, in 2021 Movies and tagged action, book, charlotte rampling, dave bautista, dennis villenueve, drama, jason momoa, javier bardem, josh brolin, oscar isaac, rebecca ferguson, sci-fi, space, stellen skarsgard, timothee chalamet, zendaya. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
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