Well, half of it anyway.
For Halloween 2021 Roberta and I went to see Dennis Villeneuve’s rendition of Frank Herbert’s Dune. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Dune is about the battle between two noble houses for control of ‘The Spice’, a drug which enables human pilots to navigate the mind-bending space facilitating travel between solar systems at speeds faster than light. This drug, which cannot be manufactured, only refined, is found naturally in only one place, on a desert planet known as Arrakis, home of giant sandworms and the indigenous people who worship them, The Fremen. It is a poignant story of a people, their land, and its natural resources being exploited by outsiders who feel they have the right simply because they have both the greed and the power to do so. Sound familiar?
I first read the book when I was in grade 9 and like many longtime fans of the Dune series of novels, I have been sadly disappointed by previous attempts to bring it to the big screen. Based on the hype and foreplay the Internet was providing before the release, I went in with a guarded hope for a better outcome. Thankfully, I was NOT disappointed.
They Nailed It!
Villeneuve’s life-long love of the story (he first read it when he was 13) and his dedication to getting it right comes through scene after scene. It is every bit as epic in scope as the novel, presenting for us Herbert’s iconic universe, where imperial rule and feuding noble houses have endured across not just thousands of years, but tens of thousands of light years as well. The desert vistas, the massive interstellar constructs, and the sheer bulk of the architecture make streaming this on your iPad totally inadequate. If you are thinking of seeing it, do yourself a favour and don’t wait for the streaming release, well – unless you have a 90-inch TV with 7.1 surround sound. This movie was definitely made for theatre release; it needs to be seen on as large a screen as you can manage in a room that will immerse you in the soundscape.
A huge difference for those of us who endured the 1984 version is the cast. Dune (2021) is populated by an ensemble of actors who bring out not only the humanity of the characters, but their inhumanity as well. And, in the case of the House Atreides, their insecurities.
I found myself fully impressed with Timothée Chalamet (Homeland, Call Me By Your Name) as Paul Atreides. The young heir to Duke Leto is torn by his duty to his father, his love for his mother, and his own feelings of inadequacy, all lathered in the realization he is being played like a pawn in someone else’s game. Chalamet navigates this storm every bit as well as Jason Mamoa‘s character, Duncan Idaho, pilots an ornithopter.
Can it really be this good? Yes, but then, I’m biased. As I said I’ve been in love with this story most of my life. Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune are books I’ve gone back to numerous times. To see it made large with such skill is a joy to behold.
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, however. I want to address a couple of things that I think are responsible for many of the negative responses to the film I’ve seen on ‘anti-social’ media.
First off: This is only half a movie.
That’s right; in fact, it says “PART ONE” right at the start and I think at least some of the people who hated the movie or found it boring seemed to have missed this point. The big reason the 1984 version failed (other than being underfunded and over-acted) was David Lynch tried to squeeze 600+ pages of novel into a two-hour movie. (OK, fine – it was 137 minutes. Still WAY too short.) Even Patrick Stewart couldn’t save it.
Villeneuve doesn’t make that mistake. He spends three hours showing us the first half of the first book, and even then, choices needed to be made. So, if you are looking for the exciting triumphal climax and denouement, you’re in the wrong theatre. What you will get here is universe building, a bit of backstory, and establishing the crisis our hero must contend with. As noted, that’s why it’s called “Part One”.
Second: This movie was made for fans of the book.
I say this because Villeneuve’s doesn’t spend a lot of time on exposition. Now, too much exposition is indeed a bad thing; character voice-overs are best in small doses. However, sometimes the uninitiated need a little help making the transition.
For example: (Kinda, sorta, but not quite spoiler alert.) If you’re coming at this cold, especially from a world where not only Sci-Fi but real life are so inundated with computers their presence is pretty much a given, it might help to understand that computers, as we know them, don’t exist in the Dune universe. Instead, human abilities have, over 10,000 years of civilization, evolved to the point where doctors can assess a patient largely by touch and sight alone (no scanners needed), those who manage vast financial concerns can roll their eyes into the back of their heads and perform complex calculations with the speed of your laptop, and interstellar pilots can navigate the hazards of faster-than-light space with only the mind-altering assistance of The Spice. The movie could communicate this fact a little better.
Now, making movies for a niche market can be risky, and finding creative methods of exposition is certainly challenging; but then, when that market contains millions of individuals who grew up with Dune as part of their most formative years, a director might not feel the need.
One more thing.
This is not so much about the movie Dune, but about film making in general. When are we going to get over this tendency toward “dark” cinematography? I get it, it’s a dark story with dark themes, but really, does that mean we can’t dial back the f-stop a little and let us actually see all those wonderful details you worked so hard on? Or is that the point? You cheaped out on the set details so we’re turning down the lights.
In the case of Dune (tiny spoiler) floating light globes are the main source of lighting in many parts of the house/mansion/castle. Fine. I get it. But why do these high-tech lighting globes have the lumen output of the nightlight I have plugged into my bathroom outlet? “Film noir” does not mean closing the blinds and dimming the LEDs!
All that said…
In the final analysis, there’s no such thing as a perfect adaptation, but I think this one comes really close. In fact, for all its limitations, the worst part of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One is the excruciating wait for Part Two in October 2023.