Back in the day, the two major counter-cultural science fiction novels were the libertarian division’s Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, which made the word “grok” a thing for years (not very much anymore; it barely even appears in puzzles). Why mega-producers and mega-corporations have been pursuing this ideal film adaptation of intellectual property for decades is a question beyond the scope of this review, but it is an interesting one.
As a pretentious teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t read much sci-fi, not even counterculture sci-fi, so Dune missed me. When David Lynch’s 1984 novel, backed by mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis, came out I didn’t read it either. As a pretentious twenties movie fan, not yet professional grade, the only thing that mattered to me was that it was a picture of Lynch. past—I read Herbert’s book recently. Yes, the prose is clunky and the dialogue is often more clunky, but I really like it, especially the way it ties up its social commentary with enough action scenes and dangling suspense to fill an old series.
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The new film adaptation of the book, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, visualizes those scenes superbly. As you know, “Dune” is set in a very distant future, where humanity has evolved in many scientific ways and mutated in many spiritual ways. Wherever Earth is, the people in this scenario aren’t there, and the Atreides imperial family, in a power game we don’t fully control for a while, is tasked with ruling the desert planet Arrakis. Which produces something called the “spice”—that’s crude oil to you environmental allegorists in the audience—and presents a multivalent danger to outsiders (that’s the West to you geo-political allegorists in the audience).
To say that I did not admire the previous Villeneuve films is an understatement. But I can’t deny that he makes a more than satisfying book film. (The filmmakers said it was halfway but I’m sure my guess was right.) The opening title calls it “Dune Part 1” and while this two-and-a-half-hour film provides a bona fide epic experience, it’s not shy about the connotations that there is more to the story. Herbert’s own vision fits Villeneuve’s own storytelling affinity in so far as he doesn’t seem compelled to graft his own ideas into this work. And while Villeneuve has been and will likely remain one of the most humorless filmmakers alive, the novel doesn’t laugh much either, and it’s helpful that Villeneuve respects a few lighthearted notes in its script,
series that evoke shameless sensations such as Gom Jabbar’s test, Shepherd’s rescue. If you’re not a “Dune” person, this list sounds like gibberish, and you’ll read other reviews complaining about how hard it is to keep up. No, if you pay attention, and the script does a great job with the exposition without making it seem like the EXPOSITION. Anyway, most of the time. But, by the same token, there’s probably no reason for you to be interested in “Dune” if you’re not a sci-fi fan. The influence of this novel is enormous, especially with respect to George Lucas. DESERT PLANET, people. Higher mystics in the “Dune” universe had a little thing they called “Sound” which ended up being “Jedi Mind Tricks.” Etc.
The big cast of Villeneuve embodies the character of Herbert, who generally speaks more of an archetype than an individual, very well. Timothée Chalamet leans heavily on callowness in Paul Atreides’ early portrayals, and brushes it off convincingly as his character realizes his power and understands how to Follow his Destiny. Oscar Isaac was noble as Paul’s father, the Duke; Rebecca Ferguson is as mysterious and fierce as Jessica, Paul’s mother. Zendaya is right, better than right, Chani. In a departure from Herbert’s novels, ecologist Kynes is gender-switched, and played with intimidating power by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. Etc.
Some time ago, complaining about a Warner Media deal that would put “Dune” on stream at the same time it hits theaters, Villeneuve said the film was made “as a After seeing “Dune,” I better understand what he means, and I kind of agree. The film is full of cinematic allusions, mostly to images in the High Cinematic Spectacle tradition. There’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” of course, because of the desert. But there’s also “Apocalypse Now” in the scene that introduces Baron Harkonnen’s bald-as-an-egg Stellan Skarsgård. There’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There are even debatable outliers but undeniable classics like Hitchcock’s 1957 “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and Antonioni’s “Red Desert.” Hans Zimmer’s let’s-test-the-subwoofer score evokes Christopher Nolan. (The music also refers to Maurice Jarre’s “Lawrence” score and György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” from “2001.”) But there are visual echoes from Nolan and Ridley Scott too.
This will tickle or anger certain cinephiles depending on their immediate mood or general inclination. I think they divert. And they do not detract from the main summary of the film. I will always love Lynch’s “Dune”, a highly compromised work of dreams that (not surprising given Lynch’s own tendencies) is of little use to Herbert’s message. But the movie Villeneuve is “Dune.”
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