Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 20th, 2021
Dune (Denis Villeneuve, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
Author Frank Herbert published the first book in his long-running “Dune” saga in 1965. Filmmaker David Lynch directed an adaptation of it in 1984. Then, in 2000, director John Harrison put out a three-part miniseries for the Sci-Fi Channel. There have been other versions and spinoffs since then (there are so many books, after all), but perhaps the most interesting of them all is the one that never was. That would be what cineaste Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to see to completion in the 1970s (for lots of reasons), the chronicle of which is masterfully told in Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Now comes Denis Villeneuve’s turn. Dividing the novel into two parts (it was, in fact, originally published as such) and presenting just the first half in a 155-minute space epic, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) does his best to craft a rousing tale of action and adventure wrapped up in the mystical tale of a messiah slowly rising. The result is a feast for the visual senses, but so dense in structure that it’s hard to swallow.
It is almost forty years since I read Dune (the only book in the series that I have read), and I had forgotten how it is the ultimate white-savior narrative. A fellow film critic reminded me, post-screening, that Herbert took his inspiration from the history of British adventurer T.E. Lawrence in the Arab world. Ah, yes, that guy, who led revolts against the Turks of the fading Ottoman Empire in the 1910s. David Lean gave Lawrence his own great cinematic treatment in the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. Here, he is embodied by one Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, Little Women) of the House of Atreides, who in the year 10191 (of whatever era) is brought by his family from his ocean-filled world of Caladan to the desert planet of Arrakis, to which they are posted by the ruler of their galactic federation. There, they are supposed to mine an element called “spice,” which is both a sacred hallucinogen to the locals (and turns their eyes blue) and an invaluable navigational aid to everyone off-world. Sounds like a wonderful deal for the Atreides folks, except that it soon becomes clear that the politics of it are fraught with danger.
Paul has been brought up by his priestess mother, Lady Jessica (of the Bene Gesserit)—played by Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep)—to use the power of “the voice” to control others. He’s not quite at the peak of his talents yet, but already has some ability. Jessica was supposed to only have female children, but went against the rules of her order to give a male heir to her lord, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, Life Itself). She has long had hopes that Paul would fulfill a prophecy of a messiah-like figure known as the Kwisatz Haderach, though the head of the Bene Gesserit (Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years) is not happy and puts Paul through a painful ordeal. That is nothing compared to what is about to happen once everyone arrives on Arrakis. There, the indigenous Fremen people have a prophecy of their own messiah, the Muad’Dib, which Paul also, strangely, resembles. He is fated for some kind of glory, this one.
Before Paul’s destiny can come even close to being fulfilled, tragedy strikes in the form of the rival house of Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir, a villain delivered in a delightfully hammy performance by the ever-watchable Stellan Skarsgård (Hope). Before long, Paul and his mother find themselves in the desert, trying mightily to avoid both the massive sandworms that are attracted to any rhythmic sounds (such as footsteps) and the Fremen, to whom they appear as invaders. Despite this latter fear, Paul has nearly constant dreams of one of them, a blue-eyed young woman named Chani (Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie). He is mysteriously drawn ever deeper into the dunes, where his future awaits.
All of this is rendered in gorgeous detail, the tactile production design creating a science-fiction landscape as seemingly real as it is fantastical. And even if the spaceships look a bit like recycled images from Villeneuve’s own 2016 Arrival, they still impress. The movie has an equally accomplished cast. Beyond those already mentioned, we find Javier Bardem (Everybody Knows), Dave Bautista (Army of the Dead), Josh Brolin (Hail, Caesar!), and Jason Momoa (Aquaman), among many others. If one is looking for escapist fare, Dune aims to please.
Unfortunately, the story as it is, especially without its second half (coming at some indeterminate time, however many years from now) is about a white man becoming the messiah to mostly black and brown people. In 2021, this narrative rings hollow and hopelessly dated. Some simple recasting could have remedied the worst parts of the Lawrence legacy. In addition, while Chalamet can usually more than hold his own, he does not quite cut it this time around. Furthermore, as that same fellow critic (Roxana Hadadi) reminded me, Herbert’s text, problematic though it may be, is at least steeped in Arab and Persian culture backed up by some respectful research. None of the actors portraying the Fremen, though dressed in desert gear, are themselves of such origins. It’s another issue that could have easily been resolved. “Dreams are messages from deep,” intones an opening voiceover, but in Villeneuve’s Dune, no deep thought has been put into the movie’s messages. It’s a shame, for there is still much to enjoy, and fans will surely love it. I, however, did not.