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.