I must confess, I haven’t read Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. If someone says the word “Dune” to me, all that comes to mind is the complete mess of a movie by David Lynch. Having only seen the 1984 film, I wasn’t looking forward to another adaptation, but, when I first heard that Denis Villeneuve was to co-write and direct, my interest piqued. The worst part of Lynch’s film, was of course, the incomprehensible plot, which involved something to do with royalty, a floating Baron (the best part of the movie), giant worms, “spice”, and lots and lots of sand. Thankfully, Villeneuve has managed to create a film with a discernible narrative which will surely make Herbert’s fanbase breathe a sigh of relief this time around?
The story of this first in a planned two-part filmic translation, is set in the year 10191. Dune (or Dune: Part One) follows our protagonist Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet) as his family, the “noble” House Atreides, become involved in a war on the desert planet Arrakis, between the native Fremen people and the enemy invaders, the House Harkonnen. This plot also involves the mining of Melange or Spice, which along with the desert location could be seen as a metaphor for oil, diamonds, or any other high-valued commodity which is extracted without financially or socially benefiting the country of origin. Given the synopsis, I was expecting this to be a straight-forward allegory about war, empire, and imperialism, and it kinda is but not in a focussed way.
The Harkonnen are depicted as brutal and evil, the Atreides on the other hand, are honourable and virtuous, but who are they supposed to be? Paul’s mother is from the female-led Bene Gesserits so is she supposed to be Jewish (who trace their lineage through their mother’s side)? The Bene Gesserit Reverand Mother (played by Charlotte Rampling) says “our plans are measured in centuries” which would make them closer to Satanists or possibly a form of Zionist mysticism if conspiracies are to be believed. On the other side we have Paul’s bloodline via his father, The Atreides, who play the bagpipe. So does that mean they’re British or Scottish (Freemasons perhaps)? They also have a history of “bullfighting” so are they representative of Spain? Or are they Bull-worshiping Canaanites? The Fremen warriors (or at least Stilgar played by Javier Bardem) refuse to relinquish their swords, so are they Sikh or Samurai? And while I’m questioning the contents, is a dragonfly native to the desert? Okay, so there may be a specific species that live there but why reference an insect that resides near water when it comes to craft or ship design intended for use over sand? Hey, maybe these tribes, races, families, and objects were never intended to mirror real-life creeds and cultures (maybe a Frank Herbert expert can elucidate). If they weren’t, then that explains the slightly unfocussed feeling of the film.
Oddly opening with a quote before the production company logos (“Dreams are messages from the deep”) this movie might just be (yet another) film about “The One”, a filmic depiction of Abrahamic religion’s “Second Coming” that has been part of contemporary cinema from Jet Li’s least famous to Keanu Reeves’ most famous character. The Second Coming here is called “The Mahdi”, and this is a direct reference to an Islamic messiah of the same name. This is another reason why I thought Dune to be a film about our most recent wars in the Middle East, and our armed forces fighting the native people (what America and the West non-affectionately call “insurgents”) as we “liberate” and “bring peace” to their region. Indeed, as the Harkonnens leave Arrakis at the start of Dune, Zendaya’s Fremen character Chani narrates and asks “Who will our next oppressors be?”. I suppose that’s a timeless question for most cultures around the world.
With Paul Atreides having visions and eventually becoming “Paul Muad’Dib”, the Fremen messiah, there’s a bit of the old “white saviour” creeping in here. Did Frank Herbert intend the Fremen people to be representative of various ethnicities of the Middle East? Did he write The Atreides to be Caucasian? He might have done, but since his novel was from the 1960’s, I’ll give the man some slack. There’s no ignoring however, that this outdated cinematic trope is the main part of Dune‘s storyline, a very Avatar-esque plot but even more obvious (and less blue). Given that the Atreides characters are predominately white in appearance, and the Fremens are generally brown and black, this is that tried-and-tested yet hackneyed white savior narrative, where people of colour are either too inept or too small-minded to overthrow an oppressor (tell that to the Afghani’s) and so require a white (more often male) to help them in their quest. From Lawrence Of Arabia to Dances With Wolves, this part of the Dune story isn’t exactly what I’d call “offensive” but it remains a worn-out concept, especially in 2021.
The cast for me are a mixed bag but Denis Villeneuve gets decent performances out of everyone, including Jason Momoa who is more of a male-model (as well as a bad actor in any of his Aquaman appearances) and ex-wrestler Dave Bautista who’s surprisingly good at both comedy and drama (and being a mean bastard as is the case here). There’s a couple of very talented actors such as David Dastmalchian and Javier Bardem alongside the bland performers including Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte Rampling. There’s a pair of decent but weird-looking actors at the centre (Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya who both look like reject Jim Henson puppets), and Stellan Skarsgård as the Baron isn’t a patch on his 1984 counterpart played by Kenneth McMillan (Stellan just looks and speaks like he usually does but with a fat-suit on). Whether the cast are good or average, the mere appearance of Chalamet is enough to give straight teenage girls punani butterflies, and anyone else watching this movie for someone they fancy (Momoa perhaps) won’t be missing much in the way of analogy as they slobber over him.
In terms of soundscape, Hans Zimmer’s sometimes brooding, sometimes rousing score is decent enough, but given that it tries to reference desert cultures and sounds, and includes what sounded like a digitised didgeridoo, this is nowhere near the likes of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack. Like most of Zimmer’s recent work, this is very same-same. Aside from the female vocals and blips of “ethnic” instruments, this soundtrack could easily be transposed to something like Interstellar.
Given that the Dune novels came first, I assume that certain creations like Tremors or Beetlejuice were inspired by the sand worms from Herbert’s books, and the telepathic or psychokinetic “voice” is like a precursor to Star Wars‘ Jedi mind tricks. That being said, Denis Villeneuve and co. have crafted a unique look that isn’t George Lucas or anyone else. The aesthetics including the costumes and sets are like Jean Paul Gaultier’s dreams or Terry Gilliam’s nightmares.
Like I said, this is the first-half of Dune, with another movie to come. After the various delays due to Covid-19 and the ability to stream-at-home via HBO Max, a sequel may not happen if this first offering financially under-performs. The finale quite clearly leads to a Dune: Part Two but if that doesn’t happen, watching Dune: Part One in the future will feel like viewing half of a film. Thankfully, this movie doesn’t resemble the crappy Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald which was all lead-up and no pay-off.
I watched Dune with a sibling of mine and they thought it was immensely entertaining. I didn’t. This is by no means a bad movie but it lacks that special something to make it stand-out amongst the hundreds and thousands of CGI sci-fi films. We’ve become desensitised to large-scale science fiction “epics”; space wars, hoards of fighters on a battlefield clutching weapons, massive explosions and the like. Aside from the glitching armour-slash-force-field, there isn’t a distinctive element to this movie that sets it apart from the plethora of otherworldly battles courtesy of Hollywood. Dune also didn’t move me like it probably should have (I even yawned a couple of times). As a fan of Villeneuve, I wasn’t transported to “another world”, even though he’s succeeded in doing so in almost every one of his other movies. Dune was closer to watching theatre or opera in filmic form; lavish, large-scale theatrics that didn’t feel weighty, deep, or real in any way.
With a newfound penchant for making bleak and depressing blockbusters (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) Dune is in the same desolate but not so gloomy vein. Personally, I think Denis Villeneuve makes better films when they’re smaller in scale, including his two lesser-known but brilliant pictures Polytechnique and Incendies. For me, he needs to return to make another Prisoners rather than back-to-back mega-budget flicks, but that being said, Villeneuve is a talented director and talented film-makers are needed to inject much-needed substance into what would otherwise be hollow, big-budget movies.
All Praises Dune.