2021, PG-13, 155 min. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 22, 2021
As The Lord of the Rings is to literary fantasy, so Dune is to science fiction. Its impact was so massive that there was a before and an after, reshaping the genre across media. At the same time, they were both generally regarded as unfilmable, even in the wake of adaptations that missed the point.
Dune has proved to be a particularly treacherous sandbar, impossible for adaptors to truly traverse. David Lynch's film version was cursory, and, while pretty, never truly grasped Herbert's themes of power and manipulated destiny. Similarly, the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries was as arid and lifeless as Arrakis (as for Alejandro Jodorowsky's incomplete attempt, while nice for cineastes to discuss his script had little to do with the actual story).
Yet, just as Peter Jackson finally conjured up Tolkien's mythology, so Denis Villeneuve (who dared to tread on similar holy ground by making a Blade Runner sequel) embraces both the mysticism and court intrigue of Frank Herbert's vast space saga.
The story, convoluted as it is, is familiar to many: In a very, very far future, interstellar space travel is made possible by spice, a mysterious powder found only on the desert planet of Arrakis. The noble House Atreides has been given the planet by the unseen emperor, but it's a trap, as he unleashes the vile and brutal House Harkonnen to cut them (and their political influence) off at the throat. The wrinkle is the presence of young Paul Atreides (Chalamet), the unwilling center of a sinister plan to produce an almighty celestial messiah to be bent to the will of the Bene Gesserit religious order. But prophesies are convoluted, as Paul may also be Maud'dib, the savior of Arrakis' native Fremen.
Dune has influenced countless books and films (most overtly Star Wars), but it's hard to imagine that this version would have been greenlit without the success of Game of Thrones. At the same time, Villeneuve shows how much fealty George R. R. Martin owes the original, not least in the framing of the doomed Duke Leto Atreides, with Oscar Isaac evoking the same pathos as Ned Stark seeing the blades coming toward him but never able to avoid them. Meanwhile Chalamet embraces the callow youth of Paul, born of conspiracy and trying to navigate how his mother, Jessica (Ferguson), wove him into grand schemes, and what his visions of Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya) mean.
If Villeneuve's grand and epic take evokes any earlier cinematic vision of Dune, it would be the first failed take, which would have seen director David Lean and writer Robert Bolt cross similar wastelands as they did in Lawrence of Arabia. Power and destiny, rapacious imperialism and ecological devastation, colonialism and Indigenous rights, all implicit and explicit in Herbert's work. If anything, Villeneuve and co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts plant the seeds of deeper complexities that Herbert didn't develop until much later in the six books he authored. This Paul rebels against the legacy that was set in motion centuries before he was born, a well-structured foreshadowing to future events (this being only part one of what has been discussed as a trilogy adapting the first novel and first sequel, Dune Messiah).
This inevitably means that Dune part one is an epic tragedy, and Villeneuve makes the fall of the House of Atreides both beautiful and inevitable. The characters that meet unjust ends due to machinations, and the pain etched on the faces of the survivors (most especially Ferguson, who wears each loss until she will either crack or strike back) adds heart. Yet Villeneuve also makes both the convoluted mythos and the intricate politicking accessible. At the same time, the war waged by the sinister Harkonnens (headed by Skarsgård channeling Apocalypse Now Brando) is where he may most invoke Lean, the mixture of high-tech bombardment and hand-to-hand combat harkening back to Lawrence's battle of Aqaba. It's that same mix of grandeur and folly, this time on a cosmic scale.