Movie Curiosities: Dune (2021)
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. It really shouldn’t be an issue, but Denis Villenueve has proven to be an arrogant blowhard who just couldn’t learn the lessons of Christopher Nolan before him.
Yet for all of WB’s recent incompetence, even they were smart enough to take notice when Tenet lost them a fortune. Thus WB went against Villeneuve’s increasingly emphatic demands and launched the film on streaming and the big screen simultaneously. But then WB went and made Dune (2021) only Part One of the story, never mentioning that once in all their ubiquitous marketing for the film. And Part Two hasn’t even been greenlit yet. Idiots. But we’ll come back to that in a minute.
The point is, I went ahead and saw the film in IMAX while I still had the chance to do so. But maybe you’re still not comfortable with crowds while a pandemic is on. Maybe you want an intermission during this two-and-a-half hour movie. Maybe you want your own snacks, or subtitles. Maybe you want to adjust the volume or crank the saturation on your TV so you can see some goddamn color.
If a movie absolutely must be seen on a big screen to be truly experienced, then that movie has virtually no future beyond 90 days at most. If you want to see the movie, it’s your own damn business how you go about it.
And I do strongly recommend seeing the movie, so long as you’re okay with only seeing half a movie.
I know that WB already tried this strategy with adapting Stephen King’s “It” — another tome so long and dense to the point of unadaptable — and I’m sure WB took good note of how lucrative that two-parter was for them. The difference is that It: Chapter One still had a clearly-defined beginning, middle, and end. The source text played out in parallel between two separate time periods, so splitting each time period into its own movie meant that each half could stand on its own as a serviceable narrative.
By comparison, one of the reasons why “Dune” has proven so exceedingly difficult to adapt is in the excess of tempting “chapter breaks”. There are plenty of noticeable thresholds and turning points in the journey of Paul Atreides (here played to uncanny perfection by Timothee Chalamet), but none that would make a satisfying ending to the story.
I won’t waste anyone’s time going into detail about the plot and premise, because it’s freaking “Dune”. It’s been one of the most lauded and heavily influential works of science fiction for almost 60 years, it’s already been adapted into a film and a TV miniseries, and that’s not even getting started on the notorious failed film attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky (which itself proved highly influential in its own odd way). If you’re not familiar with the book, and you want to know how the movie would look to somebody walking in cold, I can only tell you that I haven’t the faintest fucking idea and you should absolutely read the book regardless of whether or not you’re seeing the movie.
That being said, another significant reason why the book is so notoriously difficult to adapt is its psychological nature. There’s a lot of trippy stuff in the text regarding premonitions, expanded consciousness, and the powerful yet nuanced abilities of the Bene Gesserit. Furthermore, the characters are all deeply entrenched in the politics of the setting, with their inherent knowledge of the various players and agendas involved in running the known universe, and that knowledge is extensively used in almost everything they say and do. Plus, each individual House has its own various secret codes and languages used to convey vital information quickly and securely.
Getting the audience up to speed without compromising the pacing would be a tall order for any adaptation. And the film does a pretty solid job of finding ways around this.
First off, the David Lynch adaptation selected the Princess Irulan as the narrator introducing us to the world of Dune. Here, it’s Chani (Zendaya), a character with far greater ties to the desert planet, and thus her narration is far more potent. I might add that Paul’s visions of Chani are much, MUCH more frequent in this adaptation, because Zendaya’s character won’t really be important until the second movie and we’ve got to give this name actor something to do in the meantime!
Thankfully, though Villeneuve’s effort does utilize voice-over narration in spots, he mostly relies on subtitles. It’s a clever and expedient way of translating the various languages and signals and secret codes between characters. As for the visions, Villeneuve went full steam ahead in portraying the numerous flash-forwards, with use of speed-ramping, sound design, and extreme close-ups to give that unnerving feel. I might add that when we see a flash-forward to an event that most certainly didn’t happen in the book, the realization that we’re looking at an alternate possible future is nicely jarring. Villeneuve didn’t bother with a whole lot of exposition about the nature of Paul’s visions, but simply threw us into the deep end and left us to figure the whole thing out for ourselves along with Paul. It’s a bold approach I can’t help but admire.
Next up, it’s perhaps worth addressing the ways that Dune has aged poorly, because this is absolutely another reason why the book has proven so tough to adapt. For instance, the premise — most especially where the Bene Gesserit and their Kwisatz Haderach breeding program are concerned — was built from the ground up around the gender binary. There’s very little room for anything in the plot beyond a strict male/female delineation. Not that I blame Frank Herbert for his failure to take LGBTQ people and the full gender spectrum into consideration back in freaking 1965.
Even so, another crucial aspect of the premise is in how humanity has regressed over 8,000 years. Sure, we’ve got spaceships and laser guns, but beneath all the sci-fi trappings, the government of this universe is an archaic feudal structure straight out of the Middle Ages, one where anything beyond a cishet gender binary paradigm would certainly be verboten. It speaks volumes that by 10,000 BCE, humanity has advanced so far that computers have become obsolete (more like forcibly abandoned, but that’s another story), yet we’re still plundering entire solar systems for resources in the service of an elite few wealthy assholes.
Which brings me to the colonialist aspect. At the very center of this story is a wealthy white boy who grows up to be the savior of the unwashed masses. It’s a problematic (dare I say racist) trope, to be sure, and Avatar caught no end of flak for the same when it came out in 2009. But “Dune” did it first, and arguably did it best.
After all, another huge part of the story is that the Fremen weren’t anywhere near the lowly and ignorant cavemen that the greater Imperium took them for. They’re a proud and wise people, brilliant enough to invent reliable means of surviving a barren wasteland, and hell on wheels in a fight.
Villeneuve, to his credit, leans hard into all of the above.
This movie hammers it home hard and often that the system is the enemy. It’s the system that set the Atreides up for failure and put them on Arrakis to kill them all. It’s the system that has plundered Arrakis for its own profit, giving the Fremen nothing but bloodshed and poverty in return. Though Paul certainly has his own personal reasons for seeking to dismantle the Imperium, the point stands that it’s a backwards-thinking and obsolete system that needs to be changed.
Villeneuve clearly went out of his way to make sure that the Atreides and Harkonnen occupiers (with only a few Atreides exceptions) are solidly white while the Fremen are played by a spectrum of brown faces. What’s more, the Fremen make it forcefully clear that they’re perfectly fine left alone, and they don’t trust the Atreides any more than the Harkonnen.
(Side note: Yes, I’m aware that the Duke Leto Atreides himself is played by a Guatemalan man. Even so, Oscar Isaac can pass for white when the need arises, and that’s definitely how this portrayal of the Duke was intended.)
Though the Atreides are unquestionably the heroes of this particular story, the filmmakers are careful to never portray them as overtly heroic. Even with the iconic “Damn the Spice!” scene, the filmmakers put a much greater emphasis on the Harkonnen’s sabotage, the raw primal power of the sandworms, and Paul’s sensitivity to the Spice, rather than the Duke’s altruism. Through numerous shots of Atreides legions carrying massive banners with the hawk insignia, the filmmakers convey the strong yet implicit point that House Atreides is not some virtuous scrappy underdog, but a massive military force to be reckoned with.
Yet the Harkonnen are portrayed as something even more monstrous and inhuman, which was most definitely the right way to go. There’s a clear family resemblance to the industrial David Lynch take, but mercifully toned down to a less gut-churning and batshit crazy extreme. Granted, the Atreides make a sincere effort at befriending the Fremen rather than oppressing them, but an occupier is an occupier, and a spice harvester is still a huge mechanical smoke-spewing eyesore all the same.
I might add that the film went out of its way to portray the Sardaukar as the empire’s most elite cutthroats, and their involvement in the wholesale slaughter of House Atreides is explicitly clear. Yet after all of that, we still see a platoon of Sardaukar get their asses kicked by a mere handful of Fremen fighters. Delectable.
Then we have the “white savior” trope. To the movie’s credit, the filmmakers went very far out of their way to show that prophecies of the Lisan al Gaib had been planted in advance by the Bene Gesserit. It’s a recurring question as to whether the Fremen genuinely believe Paul to be their savior, or if Imperialist propaganda had tricked them into thinking so. This also gives Paul a legitimate reason to doubt his own status as the Chosen One, until such time as he has to embrace it for his own survival.
Perhaps most importantly, the Fremen seem primarily concerned with their own ways and customs, rather than purity of blood or place of birth. Yes, Paul is an offworlder, but when he shows that he can learn and accept the Fremen ways of living (and indeed, shows a disturbingly innate aptitude for some of their ways), they more or less accept him as one of their own.
As a reminder, this is a book in which the freedom-fighting underclass are called the “Fremen”, and the crux of the whole mythos is a desert planet that everyone wants to occupy and plunder for the resource that makes transportation possible. Frank Herbert was a great many things, but he sure as hell was never subtle. I can’t help but respect Villeneuve for embracing the brash allegory of the book, not only leaning into it but expanding it to the four corners of an IMAX screen.
Then we have the aspects that are less political and more mechanical. I’ll be honest, the film had me pretty much immediately hooked when Paul and Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) talk over breakfast, capably demonstrating the Voice and showing us that Jessica has been training Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit. Both of which are nonetheless conveyed through dialogue later on.
Another fine example comes with the Holtzman shield. Paul tests the shield by rapidly tapping a blade against his wrist, and the blade is deflected by a blue energy blur. Then he slowly presses the blade against his wrist, and the blade touches his skin through a red energy haze. It’s a fantastic visual demonstration, it gets the point across, and it makes sense in the context of the story because we understand that Paul would want to test his shield. But then Gurney (Josh Brolin) gets a line of dialogue explicitly stating that a blade has to go slower to penetrate the shield.
Look, Denis, the rule is “Show, don’t tell.” It isn’t “Show, and then tell anyway.”
In the world of “Dune”, close quarters combat depends on moving fast and striking slow. This turns out to be a marvelous fit for stage combat, which must be fast enough to be flashy, yet slow enough to be safe for the performers. Seriously, every off-putting nitpicky trope about bad stage combat (like when the fighters pull their punches, when the bad guys take on the hero one at a time instead of charging in all at once, etc.) makes perfect sense in the context of the Holtzman shields and how they work. Again, the filmmakers lean into this to give us some fantastic combat scenes, with the added bonus of the red and blue shield blurs to help us decipher the chaos.
Even better, it’s an iconic part of the source text that the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (here played by Stellan Skarsgard) is so morbidly obese that he can only move through the use of suspensors. Thus suspensor technology exists in this universe, and the filmmakers had the brilliant idea of applying it towards combat. This comes in handy tactically (Sardaukar trooopers paradropping in with suspensors to slow their fall), and sometimes it just looks cool (Jason Momoa’s suspensor-assisted leap into battle).
Speaking of which, Duncan Idaho (Momoa’s character) was given a lot more to do here. I particularly liked the scene in which Duncan is showing off his new Fremen toys to the Atreides troops back home — another effective and natural means of conveying so much technical exposition to the audience. Perhaps more importantly, Momoa has such a breezy and devil-may-care screen presence that he provides capable comic relief just by showing up. And wow, did this movie badly need some comic relief.
Do I even need to say that this cast is phenomenal? Timothee Chalamet is absolutely perfect, nailing the “wise beyond his years” presence that Paul so badly needed. Zendaya may not have much to do in terms of plot, but she serves well enough as a persistent mirage and her trademark attitude serves Chani quite well when she finally shows up. Otherwise, you’ve got the likes of Oscar Issac, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgaard, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling, the list goes on and on. Even further down the roll call, you’ve got Stephen McKinley Henderson and David Dastmalchian, two seasoned veteran character actors playing the respective Mentats to the Atreides and Harkonnen. Babs Olusanmokun plays Jamis with fiery madness, Chang Chen is suitably tortured in the role of Yueh, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster admirably plays a gender-swapped Liet-Kynes with eccentric genius. Start to finish, top to bottom, there isn’t a single dud anywhere in this cast.
I joked earlier about how the colors in this film have been aggressively desaturated, and that is indeed a problem. The trademark Atreides green is almost muted beyond recognition, and there’s no sign anywhere of the Harkonnen blue or the Corrino gold that were so prominent in the source text. Not that I had any problem keeping the fight scenes clear, but it would’ve done so much to have the different vehicles and uniforms emblazoned with different faction colors.
Still, there’s something to the notion of Arrakis as a world so barren and lifeless that it sucks all color right out of the air. Moreover, when we do get flashes of color — as with burning red fire, thriving green plants, the glowing blue Eyes of Ibad — that color takes on a much greater significance against all the desaturation.
On the subject of the visuals, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the bull motif. In the book, we learn that the Duke’s father was killed while bullfighting. In fact, Duke Leto insists on keeping the bull’s head prominently displayed in the great hall, complete with the blood of his father still on the horns. It’s a minor detail, but the filmmakers build upon it to establish bulls as a prominent visual motif, foreshadowing the mortality and eventual downfall of House Atreides. It’s a brilliant touch.
The production design is top-notch. The set design looks fantastic across the board, and the costumes are all wonderful. I especially like the armor, which nicely embodies the “Middle Ages mentality with futuristic sci-fi style” mindset that the whole franchise was built upon. I’m not a fan of the black stillsuits — sure, it pops nicely against the sand, but wearing all black in the sun-drenched desert goes against all common sense — but it otherwise looks utilitarian enough.
It’s also curious to note that the vehicles and technology get progressively less “organic” as it gets larger. For instance, the miniscule Hunter-Seeker has a wickedly insectoid look to it, and the ornithopters have a beautiful dragonfly motif to them. But then we get to the spice harvesters and the carryalls, which resemble nothing so much as huge angular chunks of metal. It progresses from there all the way up to the mountainous Imperial shuttle, which is basically a featureless sphere. It’s a neat hierarchy.
The sound design is wonderful throughout, but of course the most prominent feature is the Hans Zimmer score. Not gonna lie, I listened to the whole soundtrack expecting the Wonder Woman theme to break out at any moment. The score does have that kind of otherworldly electronic sound to it. But no, there’s nothing in the way of a recognizable tune, no electric cello or any kind of hook to kick the score into gear. So it’s basically a score more designed to complement the onscreen action than to stand on its own (see also: Zimmer’s previous work for Christopher Nolan’s Batman and Zack Snyder’s Superman). As to whether that’s a bug or a feature, I’ll let you make the call.
For all my compliments about Villeneuve’s masterful work at getting us up to speed, his efforts were not without collateral damage. To start with, even with all the various cuts that were made, and even with only half the book covered, we’ve still got a two-and-a-half hour movie.
The Shadout Mapes (here played by Golda Roshuevel) is barely present. The paranoia regarding a potential Atreides traitor is never even hinted at until the Harkonnen attack is already underway. I dearly missed that iconic line about the first step to avoiding a trap. Gurney quotes a few lines of poetry, but there’s not a baliset in sight. There’s nothing about Piter’s lust for the Lady Jessica, his addiction to the Spice, or much of anything interesting or memorable about the character, so it’s lucky that David Dastmalchian is a strong enough actor to make up the deficit.
Feyd-Rautha is wholly absent, and most of his role in the story was given to Beast Rabban (here played by Dave Bautista). In fact, the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two characters merged together through the hypothetical Part Two as well. That’s not necessarily a bad idea in theory, but in practice, the whole point of putting Beast Rabban in charge was so Feyd-Rautha could step in and be welcomed as a more gracious and charismatic Harkonnen overlord. We lose a character who was redundant to the plot, yes, but we also lose a lot of the Baron’s devious capacity to make plans within plans within plans.
I might add that the entire banquet scene was cut. This was perhaps inevitable, given all the convoluted political maneuverings, coded phrases, and hidden agendas that made the scene such a highly entertaining intellectual battle royale to read in the original book. Moreover, that one scene did so much to broaden the scope of the book, helping to establish so many of the major players on Arrakis, the relationships between them, and their methods for securing power. Still, adapting that scene properly would take far more subtitles than Villeneuve would probably be comfortable with, and it would be hard to blame him.
So, is Dune (2021) a good movie? Is it worth seeing? In all honesty, I’d put a pin in those questions until such time as we finally get a Part Two. Yes, the film is already a box office smash, so discussions for getting a Part Two underway are likely happening as I type this, but who knows if a Part Two will take two or three years or even longer to reach screens?
(Side note: This first movie ends just before a long and bloody planetwide campaign, and Part Two could potentially pick up several years later. So at least there’s no concern about anyone in the cast aging out, like there was with It: Chapter Two.)
The best I can say about the movie we’ve got is that it’s a fine start. I only ever wanted a Dune adaptation that found a happy middle ground between the high-flying sci-fi grandeur of the David Lynch adaptation and the intricate politics of the miniseries adaptation, and this one turned out to be darn close. If we get back the surviving cast members, and if the second film fulfills the promise of the first one, we’ve got a sci-fi cinematic masterpiece on our hands. But that’s a really big “if”. And even in the absolute best case scenario, the completed work will still pale in comparison to the original text.
This is a tough recommendation. I have a hard time recommending the full IMAX treatment, paying $20 to sit through two-and-a-half hours for what’s ultimately half a movie, when there’s still no promise of if or when we’ll ever get a second half. At the absolute least, it’s definitely worth streaming on HBO Max or home video, provided you see it on the largest screen available. If you’re okay with going to see it on a big non-IMAX screen or a second-run, that’ll do.
This will either be an accomplishment for the ages, or it will be the most humiliating and costly belly flop that mainstream cinema has seen since the Dark Universe. There’s no room here for anything in between. Either way, you’ll want to be there to see it.
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