Dune 2021: Half-Way There

My first knowledge of Frank Herbert’s Dune came from the video game Dune II: Battle for Arrakis which to this date, I have never played. I had only heard of it and that was usually mentioned in conjunction with Westwood Studios’ follow-up Command & Conquer. The latter built on the gameplay of Dune II sans the source material and is far more successful and better known today — as a game, that is. Next was the 1984 David Lynch adaptation which I watched once over twenty years ago and have no plans to ever watch again. I  thought it was (and would still describe it as) weird and disgusting. 

This was a strange introduction to the franchise but on balance, it probably left me with a better impression of the 1965 novel when I first read it about a decade ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it though I didn’t read any of the sequels afterwards. A few months ago this year, I re-read the original novel and the first two sequels. I enjoyed the original even more but was less enthusiastic about the sequels (though they’re still good). The original novel really stands on its own and has some of the most immersive world-building I have ever encountered in a novel. Though it is usually classified as science-fiction, there are significant fantasy elements and this successful fusion is what appealed to so many readers. The blurring of genres has of course not been lost on critics and one thing Lynch did get right was that it is also very weird — just not his style of weird.

The subject of this post is not the novel or any of this but the 2021 film adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve

When re-reading Dune earlier this year, I did have in mind Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation though I didn’t see it until quite recently. I have since watched it two more times which should be enough indication that I enjoyed it. To get the obvious criticism out of the way it is important to point out that this is really Dune – Part One which covers a little more than half of the events of the novel. This will not be unexpected to anyone who has read the novel and it is only that it was not clearly advertised as such that I have a problem with. “Part One” was absent from posters and trailers and in the film it only briefly indicates this in a quickly vanishing title.

I have seen a number of Villeneuve’s previous films including Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. I enjoyed aspects of all these films but I wouldn’t say I particularly liked any of them. Dune has all his signatures but — perhaps more because of the source material — is the best film he’s done. In contrast Sicario had a few nice action scenes and everything else was boring. Arrival was as anticlimactic as every film involving aliens coming to earth. Blade Runner 2049 was a pointless sequel that could have been interesting if fleshed-out as a stand-alone film. Dune had a significant pedigree to work from and is much better as a result.

What impressed me immediately was the set design, costumes and the visual style in general. I think this is a much better imagining of Herbert’s work from the contrasting uniforms of the Atreides, Harkonnen and House Corrino’s Sardaukar warriors to the unique designs of the spacecraft. The ornithopters were just what I imagined and the spice harvesters and other technology had a rough, industrial but realistic look. Even the sandworms though only appearing briefly, have an imposing and organic appearance.

The casting was also almost uniformly excellent. The main problem is Timothée Chalamet as Paul who while suitable for a young teenage Paul; will have to bulk up for the sequel to be convincing. Paul isn’t described as huge or muscular but Chalamet has too slight a frame to be a convincing leader and warrior. The choice for Chani is great though she is only appears for a few moments in the film. Given Dune‘s setting, the need for “diversity” is satiated but they still made some odd choices. The planetologist Liet-Kynes who “went native” with the Fremen and was Chani’s father in the novel, has had a race and gender swap and is now a black woman in the film. Many of the Fremen are also black though they should look more… Arab given the strong Levantine and Islamic influences in the novel. Zendaya (German/African) and the Spaniard Javier Bardem (who plays Stilgar), can pull this off but it is odd how few Arabic or even Persian actors they seem to have cast. Maybe they aren’t considered diverse anymore? 

Liet-Kynes now identifies as a black woman

Zendaya is a convincing Chani

The Harkonnen are all “white boys” but then they’re the ruthless, murderous evil, capitialist House led by an obese pedophile so this was to be expected. What is surprising is how European the Atreides were allowed to be though there is still a token sprinkling of vibrancy for good measure. Overall though, no complaints for Duke Leto, Lady Jessica, Gurney Halleck or even Duncan Idaho the latter played by Jason Momoa who really does fit the role. I’m sure people could quibble with many choices but it could have been much worse.

A surprisingly good choice!

As is to be expected, there is quite a lot cut from the novel. There is little exposition on a number aspects of the universe so people seeing it without knowledge of the source material might be confused at times. There is for example, no explanation of what mentats are or why there are no computers. There isn’t much background given to the political structure of the universe and I don’t recall it being explained why melange “spice” is important for ship navigation. The Bene Gesserit are given some background. Other things are present like Atreides battle language and the necessity of avoiding rhythmic movement and noises so as not to attract sandworms is overexplained. A lot of this could be covered in the sequel but as that will focus more on Fremen, there will be less opportunity to do this world-building organically. There are also a number of missing characters though some of these will be introduced in part two. I could think of many other examples but there is nothing egregious and it even includes some of the internal monologues prevalent throughout the novel. 

As it is only half the book, the climax comes just past the half-way mark when the Atreides are betrayed and Arrakis is attacked. This was one of the most visually impressive parts of the film but after that, Jessica and Paul’s lengthy escape is all that is left. This was still engaging but there was no neat way to end the film which means people who enjoyed it will be left wanting more. This film will require the second half meeting expectations to be considered great as a whole. As of writing it is being filmed so this remains to be seen.

I didn’t see this in the cinema as I mostly avoid supporting the film industry but I would have liked to in hindsight as it is one of the best new films I’ve seen in years. It doesn’t better the source material of course but even half-finished, it is much better than previous efforts.

This entry was posted in Film, Literature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.