Call off the search: There is, finally, a definitive movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune. Or at least, a definitive adaptation of the first half of that 896-page paperback monster.
Denis Villeneuve has made a big, rich, moody sci-fi tone poem in the style of his previous outing, Blade Runner 2049. If you liked that — and we did — you’ll love this, and its 150 minutes will fly by in a kind of pleasant hypnotic trance, with a few flashes of humor to relieve the ever-present tension.
Dune launched Thursday night on HBO Max. Villeneuve would prefer you risk rousing the giant sandworm named Delta-variant COVID by seeing it in theaters if you can do so (relatively) safely, as home viewing would be “a diluted experience”. He’s got a point: Like many desert movie classics, this is best seen in an epic setting. And best felt there, too, with Hans Zimmer’s portentous, bass-heavy score rattling the seats. A good chunk of the early third is dimly lit, which makes for a nice contrast when we reach sunlit Arrakis, but also means home viewers with sub-$5,000 TVs may have another Battle of Winterfell situation on their hands.
Beyond the audio-visual artistry, however, how you feel about Dune may depend on how you feel about Herbert’s book. If you’ve never read the sprawling original, Villeneuve’s script does just enough hand-holding to keep you afloat — though you may wonder why we’re asked to sympathize with the aristocratic, militaristic Atreides family at its center. If you read it and loved it, Villeneuve’s your guy. If you read it and were ambivalent, like me, then you may appreciate the small updates and omissions and flash-forwards that make it seem less like a story about a colonizing white male savior.
Trouble is, Dune is still a story about a colonizing white male savior, especially in its first half. To put it in 21st century terms and with only spice-sized spoilers, book protagonist Paul Atreides is a somewhat creepy rich religious mama’s boy who steps into his fated role by taking a bunch of drugs during a desert outing that goes horribly wrong. (Burning Man, anyone?) He then joins a bunch of locals, his former servants, all examples of the noble savage trope. The rest of Herbert’s tale is more quirky and interesting, but since Villeneuve has paused there, so shall we.
Trouble is, Dune is still a story about a colonizing white male savior.
Some of this one-percenter crudeness was Herbert’s intent. Paul was supposed to subtly subvert a lot of expectations about saviors — but in 2021, our expectations have evolved. It’s easier now to see through the beautiful language and intriguing world-building grafted on to his problematic arc. By being faithful to the story, Villeneuve — who says he loved the book as a kid, and identified with Paul Atreides — unintentionally reveals that the story has not aged well.
The native Fremen get more respect and screen time than in the 1984 Dune, but only by a few precious scenes. Were it not for Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and his screen dad Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) both looking so goddamn pretty and puppy-dog sad all the time, you might wonder who to root for.
Chalamet may be the most fitting big-screen Paul yet, with apologies to Kyle MacLachlan. The characters arrayed around him may help provide some much-needed warmth. But you are still, by design, going to get some serious Bran-in-Game-of-Thrones vibes here.
Dune it right
The long and tortured story of Dune adaptations is familiar to many movie nerds by now. First in the 1970s came Alejandro Jodorowsky, a brilliantly batty Chilean indie auteur with a very specific vision of the book — one that could only be fulfilled with Salvador Dalí playing the Emperor of the universe. His Yankee studio bankers pulled the funding, so we never saw the up-to-12-hours-long film he wanted to make. We did at least get the documentary Jodorosky’s Dune, which is so off-the-wall entertaining, it may win the all-time award for best piece of celluloid to cover Herbert’s story in some way.
Then in 1984 came David Lynch’s attempt at Dune, which is best remembered these days for nearly-naked Sting’s turn as an evil spike-haired assassin. Lynch lost control over the final cut and disavowed the film; like Jodorosky, he wanted it to be as long as he wanted it to be. But you can still blame Lynch for the way the characters are oddly static in scenes, for the way they talk in endless internal narration, and for his campy, gross and homophobic interpretation of Baron Harkonnen.
To be fair to Lynch, the Baron is a tough nut to crack. He is so cartoonishly villainous in the book, floating through the air like a bad guy in a cliched kid’s adventure, how do you not put him on screen to laugh at rather than to fear? Even Villeneuve’s Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) tends a bit towards the gross-out side of things. Only the combination of lighting, score and Skarsgård’s sinister, subtle grumpiness prevents this Baron from being too two-dimensional.
But overall, Villeneuve has done what his auteur predecessors failed to do: He has translated Dune to the screen in a basically reasonable way, with clear exposition, no Emperor, and enough diversity to bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. He could have paid more attention to what keeps happening to his characters of color; there is going to be more discussion of that once more of us have seen it. But he made the Atreides clan likable, which these days is a feat in itself. Now let’s see what Villeneuve can do with part 2, which could soar higher than any sandworm.