Published on October 26th, 2021 | by Craig Silliphant0
We’ve waited long and hard for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Does it stack up to the book and the previous versions of this dense sci-fi property?
I’m going to try and give you a succinct review of Dune, a property that doesn’t play nice with brevity or clarity. So, buckle up and let’s fold space together. The sleeper must awaken!
Disclaimer: I love Dune. A LOT. I first saw the 1984 David Lynch film when I was 14 years old. I didn’t understand much of it, but I thought it was pretty weird and cool. I fell in love with Dune when I read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel a year later. It’s complexity, scope, and themes blew my stupid teenage mind away. After seeing the movie and reading the book a few times, almost studying it (more than I studied actual school work), I finally grasped it on the deeper levels it demanded to be understood on.
(Side Note: here’s my article defending the indefensible Lynch version).
(Side Note II: Alejandro Jodorowski also tried to bring a version to the screen in the 70s. He failed, but we are left with Jodorowsky’s Dune, a great doc about his attempt).
(Side Note III: There’s also a Sci-fi Channel adaptation that made more sense of the story, but is dated by poor TV production value and effects. They also did a sequel that compressed the 2nd and 3rd books in the series into one movie).
(Side Note IV: There’s no side note IV).
We’re four paragraphs in and I haven’t started talking about the film yet, which seems about right for Dune. Anyway, I was pretty darn excited when it was announced that one of the most brilliant directors working today, Canadian Denis Villeneuve, was adapting the book for a new version. For those not in the know, Dune is the story of Paul Atreides, the son of a duke who may be the chosen one, leading desert fighters in a galactic war against those who would control the greatest resource in the universe; the spice melange.
After Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, it’s no surprise that Villeneuve’s Dune has some pretty stunning, sweeping visuals. Not just landscapes and rolling hills of sand, but everything down to the costumes and ship/tech designs. It mostly favours a brutalist point of view, no doubt to juxtapose the outworlders with the Indigenous culture of the planet Arrakis (otherwise known as Dune). A lot of the galactic design is weird and alien and scary and overwhelmingly huge, including the Atreides ships and costumes. After all, Harkonnen…Atreides…it’s all the same to the Fremen. I should also tack on a thought about the sound design and music; another element that does an amazing job of creating a brutalist environment that makes the universe seem vast and epic.
Geez, that cast though: Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling, Chen Chang, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, too many more to name, all do a great job. Javier Bardem steals a couple of scenes. Jason Momoa is a tough, likeable presence and anyone who says different is clearly a hater. Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgard are freaky (and Skarsgard unrecognizable) as our evil Harkonnens. Rebecca Ferguson plays a Lady Jessica we’ve not seen before. This one is unsure, scared, and not as together as previous incarnations (I thought this worked well, though someone also pointed out to me that her training wouldn’t allow her to be this fragile). Zendaya is sidelined a bit, which makes sense. She’ll rise in Part II. Here she’s mostly a slow-motion dream figure.
And how does Timothee Chalamet fare as young Paul Atreides? Well, he can goth brood with the best of them. He embodies Paul as a boy; hopefully he can pivot in Part II to grow into the man that Paul becomes.
I need to see the movie again, probably a few times, to know how I really feel about it. I mean, I loved it overall, but it’s a very different movie than the Lynch version I’m most familiar with. And while Villeneuve went back to the novel as the source for a lot of it, it’s still its own thing. It sacrifices a lot of the things that I love about Dune; the complex encyclopedic nature of its universe, the quotability of it. A lot of these details are given up for the sake of clarity. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it works well for people who aren’t indoctrinated into the Dune cult.
The Lynch film (and some of the other versions) are so representative of what Dune is in my head that it’s hard to separate them. It would be like remaking something iconic like Star Wars but taking out a ton of the dialogue and ideas.
However, look at another, more intellectual piece of sci-fi like Solaris. There’s Stanislaw Lem’s book, the old Russian film version, the Tarkovsky version, and the Soderbergh version. Each choose to focus on different aspects of Solaris, with different aesthetics, giving you several very different versions that are telling the same story. And it works. You take something distinct from each. So, I think I just need to live with this version for a while and accept that it’s doing its own thing. The Lynch version remains my favourite version for now.
After all, “without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens.”
Another question I have along these lines is that while the film had some strong themes, did it have enough feeling and emotion shining through the dust storms of brutalism and minimalism? There’s a lot of emotions involved in a teenage boy who sees his family attacked and has to discover whether he’s the chosen one or not. Smoldering Chala-glances can only take you so far; will future viewings reveal deep emotional resonance with me for these characters?
Further to this, it’s really only half a movie. Villeneuve was smart to make sure they chopped the story into two parts, a practice that really wasn’t done in 1984, but took on more weight with Harry Potter and Hunger Games adaptations, etc (Dune was originally published in two parts in Analog Magazine). Villeneuve’s film ended exactly where I expected it to end. It was touch and go when I realized they were drawing out a five-minute scene into 45 minutes, but that was obviously to create a climax and ultimately it worked. Now we just gotta greenlight the sequel or it was all for nothing.
Okay, so, we did get a bit long here, but you didn’t need to read it six times with a glossary to make sense of it, so I’ve got that going for me. Seriously though, go see Dune — and you should probably see it in a theatre. If one movie earns your hard-earned dollar this year, through sheer immersion, it’s Dune.