Beyond fear, destiny awaits.
When I was a child, I had deeply disturbing dreams of vastness, like my unconscious mind was tapping into the sheer, unfathomable scale of the universe, the entire sweep of not just geological but celestial time, and the dim awareness of how small and finite I was when set against all that was terrifying.
It was all very abstract; there were no concrete images that I can now recall, only the impressionistic sense of huge, unknowable shapes moving, perhaps rotating, in yawning space, and my insectile, flawed apprehension of something absolutely beyond my mind’s ability to fully and accurately encompass.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like much written down, but it was annihilatingly horrifying at the time, enough to jolt me awake in a welter of uncomprehending and fearful tears more than once. I remember one time I was out the front door, through the front gate, and halfway down the street in the middle of the night before I recovered myself enough to return, barefoot and shaken, to my bed.
Now, Dune — in any of its varied forms — isn’t exactly about that, but it’s a little bit about it. It’s about finite lives lived in infinite space and time, it’s about free will and prophecy, destiny, and what Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin calls the two schools of history: the “trends and forces” school, where vast and largely rudderless social and economic movements, combined with pre-existing conditions, shape the course of our existence; and the “great man” school which puts the blame squarely on charismatic movers and shakers — your Adolph Hitlers, your Napoleon Bonapartes, your Paul Atreideses. It’s about colonialism and imperialism and oil, and the new film adaptation by Denis Villeneuve handles those themes better than any other iteration thus far, even if it still doesn’t quite thread the needle.
But what Villeneuve does exceedingly well is at least touch on that vastness that scared me half to death as a little kid. Sense of scale is an interesting thing in science fiction, and it’s far better communicated visually than in prose. You could argue with no small amount of justification that the key image in modern science fiction is that first shot of the Star Destroyer in pursuit of the Rebel Blockade Runner in the original Star Wars (1977), how the Imperial Ship looms into the frame seemingly from behind us and just keeps coming, an enormous metal sperm whale running down a minnow. Gareth Edwards, who already had Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) under his belt at the time, got a similar, if less iconic, effect in 2016’s Rogue One with the shot of the Death Star’s super laser dish being lowered into place. The king of this sort of thing is sci-fi artist Chris Foss, whose paperback covers communicate the sheer size of his ships and planet-bestriding robots better than any other artist. Chris Foss actually worked on Chilean lunatic Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted but hugely influential attempt to film Dune back in the ‘70s, and while little of his influence is readily discernible in Villeneuve’s film (and that’s a pity, as we’ll talk about in a bit), Denis’ big, brutalist spaceships and buildings certainly pack a punch, especially on the big screen (and you should, if you can, make the trip for this one). Oppressively immense walls of metal tower over us, and even the quiet, airy spaces of the Atreides castles on Caladan and Arrakis seem too large for human use. The Spacing Guild Heighliners that carry House ships and personnel between the stars are so big you begin to understand how an ant must feel when a human fingertip stabs towards it with murderous intent. And we haven’t even got to the worms yet.
But first, let’s talk about plot.
The plot of Dune is both well-turned earth and a bit byzantine, but to summarize: it is the year 10,191, and humanity has a universe-spanning civilization organized under powerful noble houses with an Emperor at the top of the heap. Computers are banned, but human potential has reached its zenith, with human computers called Mentats handling the information processing, and all kinds of wild Shaolin-monk-level martial arts and psychic powers thrown into the mix for good measure, the latter chiefly wielded by the Bene Gesserit, an order of all-female witches who have been manipulating bloodlines for countless generations in order to produce the Kwisatz Haderach — a universal superbeing capable of bringing order to the cosmos (and whom they want to control).
All space travel is controlled by the Navigators of the Spacing Guild, whose own mental abilities allow them to fold space and chart a course between stars. They derive this power from ingesting vast quantities of the spice melange, a potent narcotic and life-extending anagathic. Without the spice, all space travel would cease to exist.
Melange is only found on one world, the desert planet Arrakis, also called Dune. This is a pretty valuable piece of space real estate, essentially analogous to the oil fields of the Middle East, which is also why it’s home to tribes of fierce desert warriors called Fremen, who are essentially Space Bedouin and have been fighting off every noble house tasked with mining spice for ages now. When the film opens (we got there eventually), the Emperor has ordered the brutal House Harkonnen to cede control of Arrakis to their ancient enemies, House Atreides, led by the honorable Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). House Atreides decamps for Arrakis, with Leto; his concubine, the Bene Gesserit Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson); his heir, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and their trusted servants and advisors, including swordsman Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), general Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Master of Assassins Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and royal physician Doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen) all making the trip.
They know they’re walking into danger but do not suspect that the Emperor has set them up for a fall, and House Harkonnen, led by the loathsome Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew, the brutal Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), are planning a terrible betrayal. But Paul, who is reticent about his destiny as the leader of House Atreides, has been dreaming of Arrakis, and a Fremen girl, Chani (Zendaya). Are his dreams actually prophecy? Is he the Kwisatz Haderach? And does the future of House Atreides lie in the deep deserts of Dune, with its warrior cults and giant sandworms?
That took a lot of typing, and here’s the thing: that’s half the book. The film released this year is Dune Part One, with Villeneuve leaving a big old sequel hook dangling just before the end credits. However, the film, as directed by Villeneuve and written by him, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, does an excellent job of relaying all that info above in clean and elegant ways, and more besides. Some changes to the source material have been made, but largely for the better; whereas the writings of the Princess Irulan (Miss Not Appearing in This Film) frame the narrative in the novel, and that character as played by Virginia Madsen delivered the opening voice-over info dump in David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation, here the duty falls to Zendaya’s Chani, who muses “Who will our new oppressors be?” before we even meet nominal hero Paul and his ostensibly honorable family. While the film goes to great lengths to illustrate Leto’s steadfastness and the nobility of the Atreides to the Fremen, they’re just another cadre of invaders who’ve come to plunder the planet.
That’s smart, and Dune the film is full of similar smart choices; the workings of the personal forcefields everyone uses are portrayed in a single, perfectly illustrative shot when Gurney is training Paul. Similarly, a shot of an ornithopter’s wings beginning to beat as it takes off, framed through the still wings of another ornithopter on the landing pad, communicates more about the aircraft of Arrakis than a whole speech could. We still get a speech describing the function of the stillsuits that are vital for survival in the open desert, though, but given it’s delivered by Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes, and Imperial Ecologist who has, to use a vulgar term, gone native, that’s just fine. Duncan-Brewster is stepping into the slip-fashion desert boots of Max Von Sydow, the character having been gender-flipped since the ‘84 film and novel, and to be honest, might actually be an improvement on the Swedish legend’s turn.
Narratively, two things stand out for me. One is the film’s clear and vital trust in its audience. Dune is a big, weird story full of bizarre customs and conceits, oddball characters, alien (in the broadest sense of the word) technology, and more, and yet while Villeneuve’s film is deliberately paced to evoke a sense of grandeur and gravitas, it rarely, if at all, stops the action to sit us down and explain things. Rather, it communicates with us visually, giving us the data we need to extrapolate a decent understanding of what we’re seeing. The occasional exposition extravaganzas are taken from the source novel, and that’s hard to complain about. For all that Dune has been sitting in the “unfilmable” basket for ages, this adaptation is a clear a distillation of Frank Herbert’s novel as you could hope for, without getting bogged down in reams of talking head “As you know, Bill” dialogue (looking right at you, early 2000s SyFy Channel miniseries).
The other thing that impresses is Villeneuve’s gift for locating the emotion in any given scene, a vital task in a film of this scale. It would be so easy to lose track of that small, human element in all the big, sweeping, epic action, but Dune is all about the interplay and contrast between the human and the infinite. Sometimes it’s a glance between Leto and Jessica, a shot of Paul looking at his father, a joke cracked by Gurney or Duncan. Often, it’s simply letting Ferguson’s Jessica drop her mask for a second and see how terrified she is for her son, as when the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) tests him in the film’s opening scenes.
The cast is great, simply wonderful across the board. I’m not sure if I can see Chalamet as the warrior prophet Paul later becomes, but he’s perfect as the unformed young man being put through the gauntlet. Momoa’s cocky charisma brings Duncan, a character previously poorly served on the screen, to remarkable life, and the same goes for Brolin’s gruff charm as Gurney, while Isaac brings a doomed nobility, Leto.
Other performers sketch out their characters with limited screentime; Bautista, a genuinely gifted actor, is stripped of all but his physicality in the role of Rabban, although Skarsgård is memorably grotesque as the horrifically corpulent Baron Harkonnen. Still, I think we really missed out on seeing more of David Dastmalchian as Harkonnen Mentat Piter de Vries — obviously, the process of adaptation is one of deciding what to cut. Though, I think his character suffers the most in this version.
I do love the feral intensity that Javier Bardem brings to Fremen leader Stilgar, especially in his brief scene with Leto, but I also think the film missed a trick by not casting MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) actors as the Fremen. I also don’t think the choice Villeneuve did make sinks the ship, but it’s a missed opportunity, and if MENA actors and activists are angered, it’s not hard to see why. While this Dune is less guilty of Orientalism and endorsing colonialism than its forebears, it’s not guilt-free, and while it’s a complex text and you can argue that the overall series ultimately works as a condemnation of colonialism and “white savior” tropes, it’s a bit weak for fans to complain when people are engaging with and critical of the text as presented in this form. (For the record, a few years ago when I was ruminating on how you’d do Dune, I landed on three ten-episode TV seasons, with MENA Fremen led by Alexander Siddig’s Stilgar, and a Hispanic House Atreides, largely due to the bullfighting theme, under Antonio Banderas’ Duke Leto).
For all that, I wish this Dune was weirder.
A part of me does, at any rate. When you’ve got the fingerprints of certified freaks like Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch on the clay, it’s hard not to wish that Villeneuve had let his own personal freak flag fly a bit higher. This Dune is the most accessible version of the source material, and that’s great, but I wonder if it plays it too safe. The film makes mention of melange being a sacred hallucinogen, but we don’t get any hallucinations apart from Paul’s very literal prophetic dreams (recall the nightmarish visions in Lynch’s version, which are not a million miles away in tone from the nightmares that plagued my childhood). Greig Fraser’s cinematography is gorgeous, as is the production design by Patrice Vermette and the costumes by Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West, but the color palette is so subdued as to be mostly beige — even the lush planet Caladan is in muted greys and dark greens. While the visual realization of the Dune universe is impressive, I’m reminded of the “Mexico filter” American filmmakers use to evoke suburban notions of life south of the border. For sure, it makes those blue-within-blue Fremen eyes really pop, but the lack of color and art and culture feels off and maybe a little paternalistic. Indeed, we’re talking about fictional cultures, fictional people, but they’re meant to remind us of or at least key off of real-world cultures and people, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that you’ve really got to be hard up against it to stop making art. It’s a niggle, not a deal-breaker, but it’s one I keep circling and poking at. When commentators complain that much of Dune looks like a perfume ad, I wonder if that’s partly down to the brightness being turned down on the cultures against which the action is set.
Perhaps I’m being precious, complaining about such things in what is, to my mind, a clear five-star film, but I think it’s a fair criticism, and besides, when so much is executed so well, any flaws are going to stand out all the more. Rest assured, Dune is a triumph of a film, certainly the best major science fiction film we’ve had in years (and the only real competition comes from movies also directed by Denis Villeneuve). It’s bold, ambitious, and staggering in scope, but that very ambition pushes it in a certain direction while leaving others less explored. Perhaps when Part Two rolls around, and we can watch the whole thing as one sweeping epic, even my minor gripes will prove unfounded. For now, we have this, and it’s great.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson