DUNE

I’ve scored movie tickets for Oscar Week. Cinemark Theatres will show the Best Picture nominees and the live-action shorts the week before the Oscars. I won’t be seeing WEST SIDE STORY and DUNE; I can’t work WSS into my schedule, and DUNE I’ve already seen—twice. So let me kick off Oscar Week with a review of DUNE.

I had to go back and reread the book by Frank Herbert because I couldn’t really remember the story. It’d been decades since I’d read it. I didn’t realize the novel started existence as two novellas. That’s probably why there’s such a sharp break between Paul Atriedes,the clueless boy who goes to Arrakis, and the boy who becomes Paul-Maudib after being taken in by the Fremen.

Denis Villeneuve was smart to honor that break. He also understood that for all the mysticism, the first part is really a coming of age story crossed with a hero’s journey. Paul has got to grow up before he can become a hero. What kind of hero? Paul turns into Paul-Maudib who sifts all his visions, all the timelines to AVOID becoming a messianic figure, the Mahdi. Eventually, he realizes he cannot avoid that fate (rather like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane) and embraces it.

In this first part, Villeneuve and company have concentrated on Paul and his world—worlds, really, but they place the emphasis on Arrakis, the desert planet. Paul’s only fifteen and leaving everything he’s known when the Emperor transfers Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, from Calladan to Arrakis. It’s hardly a fair trade. Duke Leto knows he’s walking into a trap, but he doesn’t know really what kind of trap. He wants to make an alliance with the Fremen, undo the damage of the brutal, oppressive Harkonnens. He wants to use desert power. The Harkonnens want their planet back with all the riches spice brings from fostering space travel. The Harkonnens wrest back control of Arrakis and destroy House Atreides in the bargain. Or so they think.

Villeneuve and company dispensed with most of the intricate politicking, keeping only what was essential to the story. There’s no belaboring the point, just move, countermove that ratchets up the tension. Everybody’s on edge because they know House Atreides is screwed. Everybody wants Paul to grow up, to be the man, the leader, the Messiah that everybody wants, but fears.

The screenwriters stripped most of the religion from the story. Frank Herbert genuinely engaged with Islam and Islamic culture; yes, DUNE, the novel, is open to the charge of orientalism. Perhaps to avoid charges of cultural appropriation, the screenwriters removed most references to Islam. Simultaneously, they omitted reference to Christianity, giving one quick visual of the Orange Catholic Bible. They soft-pedaled the references to Paul being the culmination of prophecy, either the Bene Gesserit Kwisatz Haderach or the Fremen Mahdi. If Villeneuve “were fixated on science and religion, both linked by faith”, as he says in an article in VANITY FAIR, (Hollywood 2022, 72), then I think he missed the mark, except in a generic fashion.

The Bene Gesserit order remains mysterious and fear-inducing because people, men especially, don’t understand them. They’re on their own side, playing their own long game, which Lady Jessica has screwed up because she gave birth to a son, not the daughter commanded. In a distinct improvement, the screenwriters eliminated most of the witch insults; they’re more than gratuitous in the book.

This is Paul’s story. In the book, Herbert employed an omniscient point of view, carefully handing off to each successive character to avoid head-hopping. Under Villeneuve’s direction, the story is mostly from Paul’s point of view. Only a couple of scenes don’t involve him, so the audience really gets to concentrate on Paul.

The acting was so much better than any previous attempt to film this novel. I’m not a great fan of Timothée Chalamet—I think he’s a cold actor—but he’s great as Paul. (So much better than Kyle MacLachlan, but that wouldn’t have taken much.) He plays young, and that’s key here because we watch a sheltered boy grow into himself. Chalamet is pitch perfect in his performance.

I’m not sure about Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica; she frequently appears too young to be Paul’s mother. Oscar Isaacs’s Duke Leto comes across as caring, competent, and honorable, but he doesn’t get much screen time. Josh Brolin (rugged but still better looking than book Gurney) and Jason Momoa stand out as Master of Arms, Gurnley Hallock and Duncan Idaho.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster was an interesting casting choice for Dr. Kymes. An androgynous rendering—but with the stillsuits and the lean, lithe nature of the Fremen, how could anyone detect anatomical differences? Do we need to know? It won’t make a difference to Chani (played by Zendaya); she’s still going to be Kymes’ daughter and Stillgar’s niece.

Villeneuve may’ve simplified the politics and the prophesying, but he mostly left the characters intact. That is not true for the Harkonnens. Yes, Stellan Skarsgård faithfully reproduces the fat, gross pig that is Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. However, the Baron’s only got one nephew, and that’s the beast Rabban, portrayed by Dave Bautista. It doesn’t take much to hate the debauched Harkonnens, and while their screen time is brief, the actors make the repulsive most of it.

Beautifully shot with gorgeous cinematography and special effects that don’t overwhelm, DUNE is a fabulous, mostly faithful adaptation of one part of a long, intricate novel. Villeneuve knows who his audience is—science fiction lovers and fans of the book. His vision is spare but natural, as if giant spaceships, omnipresent ornithopters, and massive sandworms were everyday occurrences. Because Villeneuve has crafted a believable, far-future world, the audience can concentrate on the robust, flawed characters, vividly rendered by excellent acting.

When VANITY FAIR’s Hollywood edition went to bed, Villeneuve was finishing the screenplay for part two of DUNE. He expects to start shooting this summer. Yes, please. I cannot wait. Villeneuve wants to adapt DUNE MESSIAH, tho’ he has to wait until Timothée Chalamet gets older. That may prove to be more problematic. Yes, it completes Paul’s character arc, but it deals with the consequences of being a messiah. We’ll see if Villeneuve gets his wish.


Copyright KG Whitehurst
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