Dune is More Than a Pile of Sand
October 23, 2021 | By: Blaize
Movie reviews aren’t my thing, but given that I absolutely love the book Dune, I felt almost compelled to do one about the most recent attempt to make this masterpiece novel into a film worthy enough to bear its name—and the most recent make does.
Dune is a rare example of a novel that has the broad appeal of genre fiction and carries the high praise of literary fiction. Since its writing in 1965, there have been three attempts to make the movie: 2021 attempt by Dennis Villeneuve, the 1984 by David Lynch and the 2001 by the SciFi channel in a mini-series. It has also spawned dozens of sequels, prequels, comic books, and video games over the years. Suffice to say, Dune is one of the best unknown media franchises out there. It is minuscule next to giants like Star Wars and Star Trek, but it still has a following among science fiction lovers everywhere.
While spawning a media franchise, the novel has remained at the top of many lists as one of the best science fiction novels ever written. One thing that makes it rich is that it focuses on characters and themes more than it does on the “sciencey” stuff. In fact, in the world of Dune, technology is largely downplayed. If it wasn’t explicit, one could easily set Dune in a world that does not require spaceships or otherwise. By focusing on themes and characters to drive the story forward, it manages to craft a story that invokes deep thought and analysis of cultural themes for when it was written and can be applied in other contexts—something that literary fiction often does.
The first two attempts at Dune as a movie or show suffered in different ways. Dune in 1984 was made in a day and age where studios were greenlighting any project that would attempt to create something like Star Wars. Dune had been pitched as a movie before, but it was never picked until Star Wars showed that big-budget science fiction could have mass appeal. But Star Wars and Dune are worlds apart when it comes to science fiction. When the 1984 film came out, it seemed like it was trying to remain faithful to the essence of the story with its nuance and artistry while attempting to create a movie that would have broad appeal. This tension gave the impression that the movie did neither well and it shows. Unfortunately, this tainted the Dune’s future as a movie. The SciFi channel’s version did not have to contend with making a movie that would have mass appeal, given it was produced for television for lovers of science fiction already. Instead, it focused on telling the stories, and despite its small-screen budget, it remained faithful to the books. I was pleased with it from that aspect, but the lack of budget made the cinematography suffer—something the 1984 version did not have to contend with. The most recent version took with the SciFi channel did, a faithful telling of the story, and did it with a bigs-screen budget. It did not disappoint either.
Perhaps what I loved about this movie the most was the artistry in the filmmaking that tried to capture the book’s essence. They did this by creating a dramatic score, sets, and scenery that made the worlds of Dune come alive. Hans Zimmer’s score for this movie is amazing. It is hard to put into words the moodiness and trance-inducing music he wrote for it. It goes perfectly with the psychotropic description of what the spice in the book does to the characters, creating an almost dream-like or vision-like essence that the entire film carries from beginning to end.
Thematically, the movie is spot on with the book. They did not try to take liberties that attempted to reinterpret or modernize Frank Herbert’s themes. Truth be told, Herbert’s themes probably don’t need updating because they are timeless. This adaption focuses on the political conflicts between the warring factions in the fiction world of Dune with warring political families, religion, oppressors, saviors, exploitation, and many other things. Given that is heavy thematically, though, the movie is not a bully pulpit. I was pleased when the movie ended that it found a way to strike a balance between entertainment value, thematic content, and artistic expression through cinematography.
Perhaps my only dislike about this film was some of the casting choices. The noteworthy portrayals of Paul Atreides by Timothee Chalamet, Lady Jessica by Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac as Leto Atreides were spot on. I really didn’t like Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck. He seemed way too serious and stiff for the character. On the opposite side of that, though, Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Ducan Idaho was too “broish” and comical for the role. I like Jason Momoa as an actor, but it felt like Aquaman in the sand. We didn’t get much of Chani from Zendaya, but that’s to be expected because she doesn’t become prominent until later in the story. I also thought the villains were weak. Stellan Sarksgard as Baron Harkonnen was underwhelming. The Baron felt somewhat muted and less menacing than he is in the books or other Dune makes. Similarly, Dave Bautista as Beast Harkonnen was dull. The character is dull, but this was even worse as just a man in a costume dull.
While I think that this adaptation of Dune is fantastic, what I fear with this film is that it will have a hard time finding mass appeal like Star Wars did. Star Wars was simple in its approach, capitalizing on countless tropes and simple stories while delivering visually groundbreaking effects. The current installment of Dune shows that something as artistic as the novel can be made into a movie, but the audience for the novel and the film are still, for the most part, pretty niche. I am hopeful, and I think there’s a high probability that we’ll get to see Denis Villeneuve finish Dune with Part II to at least deliver the last half of the story. So far, the numbers look good, but I don’t think we’ll get to see a movie franchise from it like Star Wars, Star Trek, or other more approachable series. Still, I am satisfied with what we have so far, and I’m looking forwards to what we might get in the future.