CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK: SOME THOUGHTS ON DUNE (2021)
Neither a “hot take” nor a full-blown movie review, this essay is more inchoate and formless. More a chance to ruminate on the current blockbuster. Media analysis at its most impressionistic; less a finished product than a sketch.
THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE
Dune (1984, David Lynch)
Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000, John Harrison) & Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune (2003, Greg Yaitanes) [aired on the Sci Fi Channel]
Dune: Part One (2021, Denis Villeneuve)
The new Dune movie is as much as re-imagining of the 1984 David Lynch cult classic as it is an over-correction. Maligned by critics and a commercial flop, Lynch’s Dune was a science fiction space fantasy epic designed to fill the gap left by the original Star Wars trilogy. Despite its numerous flaws and characterizations that haven’t aged well (especially Baron Vladimir Harkonnen), it remains a favorite film of mine. What Lynch did and what Denis Villeneuve recaptures was a sense of alien-ness.
At the same time, because Lynch’s Dune was both problematic and a commercial flop, Villeneuve’s vision involved some over-corrections. On the plus side, this is Dune: Part One, part of a projected trilogy and possible TV spin-off. As has been said elsewhere, Lynch’s Dune felt like a Cliff’s Notes version of the book. Regardless of any director’s inherent talent and vision, it is a challenge to distill a 500+ page book into a feature length film.
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen doesn’t do any scenery chewing, which is unfortunate. Nobody really does. All the acting is subdued. In Lynch’s film, he’s depicted as a disease-ridden, morbidly obese homosexual pedophile. In the current film, he just seems sleepy. And Geidi Prime, while appearing like a hyper-industrial hellhole, doesn’t reflect the excessive wealth of House Harkonnen. They reaped the financial benefits of spice mining for 80 years. For lack of a better expression, Geidi Prime should at least have some element of “Dubai on crack.” The subdued performance, as a counter-reaction to Lynch’s film, also reflects our present political environment, where a fatass psychopath became president and attempted a self-coup to appease his toxic narcissism. He was a patriarch of a disgusting family full of morally repellent sycophants and sanctimonious fakers. (Do I need to mention the name?) All these various factors led to a Baron Vladimir Harkonnen who is rather dull. He should, at very least, be played like a perverse combination of Shakespeare’s Richard III and bawdy John Falstaff.
The soundtrack rocks. Hans Zimmer weaves together his previous work on things like Villeneuve’s Bladerunner 2049 and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. It is a delicious combination of futuristic and tribal, a futurism imbued with Middle Eastern influences.
Will any adaptation ever get Caladan right? It seems less like a world than a coastal castle. Where are all the people? The culture? The same goes for Arrakis. Only the Sci Fi Channel’s miniseries gave the everyday people their due share of screen time. Arrakis, like Caladan, seemed empty except for a few hundred extras. More time should have been devoted to showing the daily lives of the “urban Fremen.”
Javier Bardem kills it as Stilgar. Bruce McGill, a David Lynch regular, seemed woefully miscast in the 1984 film. Sharing screen time with Josh Brolin, both from No Country for Old Men – another film about desert slaughter, ill-gotten money, and drug cartels – was gratifying. Bardem seemed to channel Chigurh’s single-minded monomania and molded it into a character used to hard life in the desert and a life of constant insurgency against colonial occupiers.
Chani’s voice-over at the beginning of the film spoke about “exchanging one oppressor for another.” Science fiction is as much as a reflection of the present as speculation about the future. Her comment reminds one of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other imperialist misadventures by Cold War superpowers.
It is also great to see Chani’s character de-exoticized and de-sexualized. The new stillsuit design bespeaks its utilitarian origins. It doesn’t need to be fitted to one’s boobs (see Sean Young’s stillsuit in the David Lynch version). And in terms of stillsuits, the masks used didn’t seem strange at all, given our state of permanent pandemic. The movie viewer can identify with the Fremen on a personal, physical level.
Finally, where is the Padishah Emperor, the Spacing Guild, and Princess Irulan? Imperial politics are hinted at, when Paul Atreides strategizes about marrying one of the Emperor’s daughters. The Spacing Guild might have been represented by the unexplained helmeted figures surrounding the Herald of the Change. Hopefully the various pillars of Imperial society – The Guild, The Golden Throne, The Landsraad, CHOAM – will be revealed in future films.
Despite its shortcomings and peculiar changes, I am excited to see more. I respect Villeneuve’s creative vision. As I have stated elsewhere, the director is not a stenographer. It is ultimately his vision of the source material.
WHAT IS DUNE? MEDITATIONS ON GENRE
My personal reaction to Dune has been one of confounded genre expectations. David Lynch worked in a movie business environment reacting the global phenomenon of Star Wars. It sought to fill in a genre gap and failed miserably. Villeneuve’s version came on to the scene with Star Wars clearly re-established and existing in its own market space. Star Wars is one of the crown jewels of the Disney+ streaming octopus, a media conglomerate version of United Fruit.
But what is this current adaptation of Dune, specifically what genre is it? David Lynch’s version was a kind of Adult Star Wars with a Prime Time Soap Opera Feeling (Dynasty … IN SPACE!). Villeneuve version is unambiguously an action movie. Unfortunately, this left out entire swaths of the Dune Universe, including the Padishah Emperor and the Spacing Guild. (But this is the first movie in a proposed trilogy, so hopefully more will be revealed in future installments.)
A MODEST PROPOSAL
With the proposed trilogy and potential spinoff series, I am hoping the Dune series will continue into the later books, especially God Emperor of Dune. The first three novels have a great momentum and clear narrative thrust. God Emperor is where things get weird. Emperor Leto II has ruled Dune for 3500 years and the planet is completely altered. From an industry angle, God Emperor wouldn’t really work as a film. One of the few positive things to come out of the still-ongoing pandemic has been turning the once separate concepts of “film” and “TV series” into something more malleable and porous.
Length has been challenged in media as varied as the Synder Cut of the Justice League movie and limited-run miniseries like Queen’s Gambit. This is also against the background of Marvel Studio’s Phase One multiple series of movies, the Harry Potter movies, and streaming services’ glut of content (see Marvel, Star Wars, etc.). It is my humble assertion that there is more than enough room and an already dedicated Dune fandom to establish a viable Dune-verse. God Emperor would be a great test case. Unlike the previous three novels, God Emperor is a slow-moving philosophical novel and a Cronenbergian court romance. The subsequent novels – Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune – only get stranger. My wife wants to see on-screen versions of the Honored Matres, the inheritors of the Bene Gesserit tradition following the Empire’s collapse after Emperor Leto II’s untimely death.
Thus: My Modest Proposal: Creating a Dune-verse that can begin as a “movie trilogy” and end as several “limited-run TV series.”