Dune Is an Operatic and Grandiose Film That Demands to Be Seen on the Big Screen
It would be a mistake to call Denis Villeneuve’s Dune a masterpiece. For starters, it’s only half a story. The two-and-a-half-hour epic opens with a title card that says ‘Part 1,’ preparing audiences for a cliffhanger ending that isn’t going to be resolved until at least October 2023. It wouldn’t be fair at all to judge Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, a work many have deemed to be unadaptable, because so many efforts before it have failed.
David Lynch tried in 1984. The Sci-Fi Channel, before rebranding itself as SyFy, made a nearly five-hour miniseries in three parts in 2000. Lynch’s film is largely considered to be a failure, attempting to condense Herbert’s sprawling epic into just over two hours. Although a cult favorite that gave us one of rock icon Sting’s few cinematic appearances, Lynch’s Dune was a confusing mess that tried to jam everything into one film.
The miniseries fared better, winning a few awards along the way and spawning another three-part miniseries based on Herbert’s Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, giving audiences a sense of the scope and scale of Herbert’s work demands time.
Only Part 1
Villeneuve already knew it was impossible to tell the story with one film and knew his version would need two parts. Therefore, any effusive praise of this latest attempt needs to be tempered with the fact that it is, in fact, not at all done. Herbert’s seminal novel is beloved by sci-fi fans and its influence is seen in many vastly popular franchises such as Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Before the Starks or Targaryens, there was House Atreides and Harkkonen.
One could also argue that George Lucas ripped off Dune wholesale, what with desert planets and evil emperors and a young hero destined for greatness. The irony being that most audiences today would probably watch Dune and think that it’s a rip-off of that tale from a galaxy far, far away.
This was Villeneuve’s challenge. How do you present a 60-year-old novel, a reflection of the time it was written, as fresh and relatable to audiences who likely have never read or even heard of the book? Compound it with the fact that, on the surface, Dune appears to be another white savior trope with Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) fated to be the great leader of the Bedouin-like desert people of Arrakis, the Fremen.
It’s almost, if not downright impossible to give context to Paul Atreides’ assimilation to the Fremen without understanding the multilayered, complex politics and machinations of the numerous players in the world of Dune. Paul’s father Leto (Oscar Isaac) is the head of House Atreides, which is awarded by the scheming Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV—who manipulates everything offscreen—the duty of overseeing spice production on the planet Arrakis. Spice melange, simply known as spice, is the most valuable substance in the universe.
It’s basically drugs, an awareness-altering, life-extending, latent power-awakening narcotic that is the center of trade and power in the world of Dune. It is produced solely on Arrakis, which makes control of the planet extremely profitable.
House Harkkonen used to be in charge, making them resentful of House Atreides and the rivalry between these houses is what drives the main conflict of the film. Fremen are the native peoples of Arrakis, and when the duplicitous Harkkonens move against House Atreides, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), find refuge among them. The film ends somewhat anticlimactically with mother and son fleeing their pursuers, setting up Part 2 rather nicely if cruelly because it’s a two-year wait.
A substantial part of Herbert’s book are internal monologues of the characters, exploring their thoughts and motivations. Lynch, or, more accurately, meddling producer Dino de Laurentiis in 1984, translated this with over exposition, voiceovers in every conceivable scene, even in ones that didn’t need it.
Showing, not telling
In contrast, Villeneuve utilized minimal voiceovers, with the notable use of Chani (played by Zendaya) as the narrator instead of the book’s Princess Irulan, who is absent from the film. Chani actually doesn’t appear at all in the first half of Herbert’s novel but Villeneuve folds her early into the story by means of Paul’s prescient dreams and visions.
This is where Villeneuve truly shines. He is master of showing, not telling, and his Dune unfolds the story with minimal exposition. While Villeneuve stays true to the spirit of the book, he cuts out most of the fat in order to tell a better story. He leaves out numerous side characters and subplots that would only have served to confuse audiences even further.
For example, Sting’s character in the 1984 film, Feyd-Rautha Harkkonen, isn’t in the film at all and may or may not be in the sequel. Instead, Villeneuve focuses on the Atreides family, namely Paul and his great reservations about being the chosen one.
While Paul on the surface appears to be just another white savior trope, anyone who has read Herbert’s books understands that Paul Atreides is actually a critique on the white savior narrative and that the Fremen, rather than being depicted as a primitive people who need rescuing, are a formidable martial tribe that have been engineered to expect an outsider to lead. It’s complicated.
What’s important is this: Dune is a breathtakingly beautiful film that attempts to capture what realistically cannot be captured. Herbert’s Dune is simply too complex, too multi-layered, and too grand to be depicted in one film. But Villeneuve gets close. By judiciously pruning elements from the book, Villeneuve distills Dune to its essence. The result is arguably the purest interpretation of the story told in the most cinematic way.
Villeneuve’s Dune is operatic and grandiose, it is almost criminal to watch it on anything smaller than a widescreen television. If you watch it on a laptop or tablet, or god forbid, a mobile phone, you should be ashamed of yourself. Dune is the kind of film they made IMAX for, a magnificently beautiful spectacle that takes equal time in showing sweeping vistas of spice-laden sands as it does the austere architecture of doomed houses.
That said, Dune demands a commitment from the viewer that other films don’t. The minimalist storytelling and, at times, languid pacing can test one’s resolve. The film is rewarding but, at the same time, a challenge to sit through. It is as tempting to call it a masterpiece as it is to dismiss it, but seeing it through will ultimately pay off. Now, like Paul with his hand in the Reverend Mother’s Pain Box, we wait in agony for 2023.