Frank Herbert’s epic dissertation on social messiah’s and religious ferver (not to mention the privilege of the ruling class) has long been a favorite novel of mine. A story about the dangers of becoming a savior, it spends a lot of time and effort to weave you into its world so that you understand the mechanisms in place when everything goes down. It’s a mean little novel, and one that Herbert would expand into a master narrative that his son would finish with a friend after Frank passed.
Many have come before Denis Villeneuve to try their hand at adapting this complicated story, each turning out a wildly different product that has good and bad aspects of it. I thoroughly enjoy the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which entails a bunch of individuals looking at concept art and talking about how cool their 12 hour drug trip of a film would have been. David Lynch, a man I greatly adore, took his swing at it in 1984. They delivered a film that has a stellar first hour (particularly the TV cut, with its matte paintings and expository narration on the history of the universe) and a lackluster second hour. The studio apparently interfered so much that the director didn’t even want his name on the film. It’s an absolute blast to watch, unique and weird, but lost so much of what made the novel more impactful. John Harrison went on to develop a miniseries for the Sci-Fi Channel, one that was so popular he fused the second and third books into the series to create a sequel series. That mostly lies forgotten, but it always held a special place in my heart. It’s been twenty-one years since then, and after a rough road we’ve finally landed at Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
Keeping the film separate from all that came before it is impossible. A reappraisal of Lynch’s adaptation is already being held up to this one across the internet, but I hope everyone can let this stand on its own. Dune is a complicated film, one that reveals in its opening moments that it is only half of the story. This is the director’s attempt to take a massive, impossible story and create something akin to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s beauty in this loving, straightforward version of the novel. It’s humorous, imaginative, and is going to look insane on the silver screen.
They’ve opted for more of a grounded approach this time, leaving the more imaginative ideas in the design of the technology the universe partakes of while allowing the characters to be more human. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been tasked by the Padishah Emperor to take control of the planet Arrakis from Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), ruler of the planet Giedi Prime. The Baron and his nephew, Glossu “Beast” Rabban (Dave Bautista) have made a secret pact that they believe will help them recover the world Arrakis. This is the most profitable planet in the universe as it is the only one where can be found the spice, melange. This hallucinogenic seasoning is taken across the universe by different guilds and groups for a variety of reasons, but the Spacing Guild uses it to move between the stars. It is the only way to do so, and therefore the spice must flow. Duke Leto takes his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and his son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), to the world as other forces around them conspire. Paul is the only son, a potential messiah bred by the cult Lady Jessica comes from – the Bene Gesserit. Torn between his duties to his father, his love for his mother, and the growing fear that his dreams are reality, Paul begins connecting with the planet in a way never seen on the world. His friends and mentors Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa), Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and eventually the scientist Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and the Fremen Stilgar (Javier Bardem) will aid him in finding his destiny.
Oh, and Zendaya is Chani. She doesn’t have much to do in this film, but we’ve been promised more in the second part.
Does that all sound like a lot? Good, because it is. There’s almost no way to boil this plot down to one brief description. The mechanisms behind Herbert’s original vision were those of a well-built world, difficult to adapt to the screen, but Villeneuve has managed to find the popcorn-crowd pleasing humanity in Paul Atreides. What makes this version of the story sing is this forward human tone. Gone are the drug-trip visuals, the rock ‘n’ roll Toto music, and the plot that spans nine hours or more (I forget how long that miniseries is). This is one half of a larger whole, one that sees everyone onscreen wrestling with their beliefs and their purpose.
I’ve seen a lot of frustration over the fact that this film ends open, the sequel that is promised not yet shot. I saw similar complaints when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released as it did not end the story. Those had been shot all at once, and the follow-up films were guaranteed. This hasn’t had its second half shot yet, and the sequel we all hope for depends on box office performance as well as…I guess HBO Max views? It’s a complicated time, where a film designed for the big screen is being shoved onto televisions in homes at the same time it’s screening, so we’ll see what comes of this.
Jodorowsky and Lynch envisioned wild designs for their space-faring heroes and villains, but Villeneuve has opted for things that feel otherworldly and practical at the same time. It’s all rounded, with most small ships looking like a mixture of eggs, bugs, and baskets (so basically an Easter picnic in the desert). I love it, but sometimes I long for some color despite knowing that sand and grey stone are of course the tones that would dominate a film of this nature.
Hans Zimmer has been brought in to score the film, and I have very mixed feelings about what he’s created. It’s large in scope and vision, but often relies on the wailing he leaned on for earlier films. American audiences just seem to expect that whenever there’s sand onscreen, whether it be a story about Romans (Gladiator), Greeks (Wonder Woman), or yes…Fremen. It’s an odd way to audibly identify people that are, in the novel, mean to be Muslim in many ways. Much of Zimmer’s success in this series of pieces comes through in his frightening, whispered, and shouted tones for the Bene Gesserit music. He’s got the right idea, but falls into the trap of holding the audience by the hand.
Dune was Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to take this story and make something that everyone would enjoy. It’s a dense plot, complicated and bizarre, but I think he’s been largely successful. This is as much of a fun popcorn movie as it is a contemplation on the themes Herbert wrote about in the 60s, most of which are still relevant today. It’s as much of a dopamine rush as it is a head-scratcher, and the open ending will be difficult for many to accept, but I think Dune is a winning film that pulls off the incredible trick of making this material entertaining.
Dune will be released in theatres and on HBO Max on October 22nd.