Dune (2021)

Alright, I’ve waited a long time for this film. The expectations were high, the talent is there, the source is impeccable but the task is daunting. So the question is, did Denis Villeneuve manage to overcome the obstacles to making “Dune” into a cogent film that will be embraced by the public. The short answer is “yes, sort of”. but the more accurate answer is that there continues to be a density to the story that anyone would have difficulty cutting through without having to change elements of the story in some way. All movies made from books will reflect the sensibilities of the writers, the producers and ultimately the director. That means that this can correctly be described as Villeneuve’s Dune. It certainly contains enough of the Frank Herbert source material to keep fans of the landmark book and serial novels happy. 

The movie is two and a half hours long, and I have seen it twice. The podcast today spent more than an hour dissecting it. I have had multiple conversations with my daughter about the film, and I reread the novel a week ago. I also spent two and a half hours with the 1984 version form David Lynch. This commentary then comes from the perspective of someone who deeply cares about the source material and the films made from them. Denis Villeneuve has crafted a handsome, completely credible and mostly entertaining version of this story. Because the film is only the first part of the original Dune Book, I will have to withhold some judgements about the story elements that deal with the antagonists in the saga. Although the Harkonnen are represented on screen, their presence is minimal at the moment, and that is a bit of a letdown.

One advantage that the new film takes advantage of is the character development. Paul and Duke Leto are given more time to show their relationship in this film. The extra time on Caladan, the Atreides’ home planet will help put in contrast the stark environment on Arrakis. Caladan is lush with forests, meadows and lakes and oceans that indicate a thriving ecosphere. The Atreides have had it easy and they will be going into an environment dramatically at odds with their previous existence. The Duke tries to explain to Paul what desert power will be, but we can’t know until we are steeped in it, what all it will include. The relationship between Paul and his mother, the Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is also deeper here, providing a glimpse at how she is attempting to immerse him in the Bene Gesserit traditions and skills. At times, Timothée Chalamet as Paul looks like a lost emo kid, wandering across the hillsides in his black priests jacket. The few times he comes out of the dark introspection are when he meets with his mentor/stand-in older brother figure Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa. The actor has a charismatic persona that helps us shortcut our way into his relationship with Paul. There is an added sequence with Momoa and Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Keynes, that improves the story and does these two characters a bit more justice than they receive in the book or earlier film. 

One of the problems with adapting the book to film is that there are so many competing interests and political entanglements, that it would be easy to miss important components. David Lynch tried to cram this information into narration, internal thoughts and the equivalent of early Google searches. The script by Villeneuve and cowriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, doesn’t bother to worry about most of that. The story flows pretty smoothly as a result, but a lot of the rich detail that makes the book so intriguing is lost. There is just enough of the Bene Gesserit story to explain why Paul is unique and potentially the most significant result of their breeding program. The complex connection between the Harkonnen and Atreides clans is not detailed. Paul’s visions are inserted regularly but they are inconsistent and the reasons for that inconsistency are not really explained by the film, although readers of the book will understand. Thufir Hawat is treated as a cuddly teddy bear rather than the master of assassins, Dr. Yueh’s imperial conditioning is not explained, nor is the manner of that conditioning being broken. The importance of his role as the traitor is minimized as a result, making the conspiracy a lot less interesting. I did think there were some good hints at the poet in the warrior Gurney Halleck, played by Josh Brolin. Some of these characters disappear from this film, but they should be a part of the second film when it arrives. It does make it hard to evaluate this as a stand alone film because of those threads that are dangling.

The greatest improvement from the 84 film, is the use of the Fremen culure, especially in the sequence where Paul and Jessica are discovered in the deep desert after their escape from Arrakeen. This is basically the climax of the film, although we did just have a complete invasion of the planet by hostile forces. Paul’s acceptance into the sietch led by Stilgar is an important step on his ascension to power. If you know the book, you know how Paul hesitates not merely because killing is new to him, but he foresees each act of violence on his part as cementing the path to a bloody jihad that he is trying to avoid. I was not sure that the film clarifies this as much as might be needed by audiences unfamiliar with the book. 

I’ve already made some passing comparisons to the David Lynch film, so inevitably there are more. On the favorable side of the ledger, the ornithopters in this version are more interesting and certainly more dynamic. They also more closely resemble the craft described by Herbert’s prose. While CGI can often ruin our engagement with a film, when it is used correctly, it enhances the visions we see. The sandworms of Arrakis are much more believable in this new edition of the story than the mechanical miniatures used back in 84. There was only one brief image of a sandworm being ridden in the film, but it looks like this will far outpace to somewhat clunky techniques that were requires thirty-seven years ago.  Even though it looks less realistic, I still prefer the animated shield work of the 84 film to the digital distortion of the new version. It just looks more interesting, even if it seems less realistic. The costumes and production design from the older film, also seem stronger to me, maybe because the colors pop and the detail is rich. Villeneuve has created utilitarian props and sets to present the characters in, Lynch’s vision is soaked in the mythology of each of the settings. Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen home planet is dark and fuzzy in Villeneuve’s film, Lynch’s industrial sensibility was so well matched with this location in his film that it is indelible and far superior. Little things like the box the Reverend Mother uses to test Paul, are more ornate and interesting in the 84 film.  

It is certainly a matter of style and taste so with the minimalist leanings of contemporary design, Villeneuve’s choices are probably fine. I simply like a broader color palate to look at. While the design of the Bene Gesserit gowns was not stupendous in 84, the 2021 outfits look like they come from dead nurses in a hospital from 1883. 

We have lots of things to look at that are superior in the new film, but let’s not dismiss the unusual and intriguing from the Lynch Film. Of course the two movies are great ways to see the difference a director can make in a film. The aesthetics in particular matter with these two directors. The action sequences in the current version of the film are more coherent and visually spectacular so that is another selling point to the new version. 

To complete the current review, I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is completed. For now let me say I am happy with the new version of Dune. I don’t think it cracks the nut entirely on the intricate internal thoughts from the book, but it does streamline the story and make it very accessible to the audience. Every time one of the IMAX shots arrived, I was reminded of the work that David Lean did in “Lawrence of Arabia”. The film looks amazing in the macro sense but loses a little in the intimate scenes. We will be getting more of some of the characters in the second part so I will wait until then to expand on Stilgar and Chani. 

By all means, see this on the big screen. Save an HBO Max viewing for your fourth or fith time seeing the film. You will be glad you paid to go to a theater. 

Jodorowky’s Dune

I read “Dune” when I was the same age as Paul in the story, and it was one of the best things I ever spent time with. I’d heard that the movie was being planned but in 1974 or 75, I did not follow the trades, keep up with gossip and of course there was no internet, so I had no idea what was going on. This movie reveals exactly what happened. Along with the Kubrick version of Napoleon, Jodorowsky’s Dune is one of the great movies that was never made, and to hear him tell it, it is the greatest movie in history. After watching this documentary, you may very well agree with that assessment.

Alejandro Jodorowsky was an avant garde artist in the sixties who turned to film making and was responsible for El Topo, the original midnight movie cult classic.  He has a dramatic visual eye and on odd philosophical perspective. After he had another smash hit in Europe with “The Holy Mountain” (a movie that features a character who can poop gold) he was asked by his producer what he would like to do next, and his answer was the Science Fiction classic “Dune” a book that he had never even read. If you were a fan of the book, you were likely to have come across drawings by H.R. Gieger that imagined what some of the worlds of “Dune” would look like. Those images came from the project that Jodorowsky was trying to put together in the mid-seventies. This movie is a compelling story about the man who tried to make a film he thought would be transformative and instead ended up being invisible for almost forty years. No scenes were shot, but a whole crew of artists, craftsmen and unlikely actors were poised to make what might very well have been an amazing movie, when the money simply did not show up to execute the project.

This film works because Jodorowsky is a natural raconteur, who has incredible stories to share about Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd and a half dozen other major figures of the pop culture at the time. This movie is full of talking heads but they are all saying something interesting and Jodo, as he is referred to as, says some of the funniest things with a dry wit and sardonic smile. Even though his heavily accented English needed subtitles at times, you knew what he was saying and how he wanted you to respond to that story. For the most part you can see that he is a passionate madman. The ethos of the early seventies possessed him and he believed that he was searching for spiritual warriors to accompany him on this quest to make a movie that would enlighten the world. Yes, he really did speak that way and he did so with a fervor that might even convince you that he was right. However, the money men in Hollywood must have looked at him aghast because he is a missionary rather than a maker of product. When he does react on camera, to the unwillingness of Hollywood Studios to back his project, you can see the messianic nut job that the studios probably feared. His fit does not last long, but coming here forty years after the experience, it was intense, I imagine it was even more so in 1975.

The director of “Drive”, Nicolas Winding Refn, shares an experience of visiting Jodorowsky at his home and being invited to watch “Dune”. What happened is that Jodo, got out the elaborate production portfolio he had created to guide the film he planned and then led Refn through the story of the movie, using storyboards, costume designs, publicity photos and assorted other minutia. Refn may be the only person in the world to have seen “Jodorowky’s film of “Dune” even though it was only in this form, but as he puts it in his interview, “it was awesome!”. We are given glimpses of how terrific it could have been by creative photography of the story board drawings. The opening sequence was to have been a long shot like the take Orson Welles used in “Touch of Evil” only it occurs as the whole Universe is explored and then we pull in on a battle with a pirate spice freighter in space. The way this was shown in the film, makes your mouth water for the complete visual experience. There are several other sections that are also nicely brought to life, even though they are just still frames of drawings and Jodo speaking passionately.

Towards the end of the movie there is a montage of images from films that were made after this version of “Dune” collapsed. Many of the elements in the visualizations from the “Dune” portfolio appear to have influenced two decades worth of film makers after this, including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and the King of the World himself, James Cameron.  Jodorowsky takes admittedly self satisfying gratification in the failure of David Lynch’s version of the story. That is another story that could be told in a different documentary, but it could not be nearly as entertaining as this movie was, because it would lack the insane vision and story telling prowess of the completely nuts but utterly charming Jodorowsky himself.