The original Dune novel was released in 1965. David Lynch made a movie from it in the eighties, and John Harrison a three-part mini series in 2000. Now Denis Villeneuve created a new movie adaption. And I caught it in the theater.
The Dune Universe
Dune is not just a single novel, it’s a universe. It’s a cross between Game of Thrones and Star Wars, with noble houses fighting each other with supernatural powers and swords. And it’s decades older than either.
Frank Herbert originally wrote a set of serial short stories, which he eventually expanded to the first few books. That led to a total of 6 novels, after which Herbert unfortunately died at age 65. However, when Frank’s son Brian found some of his father’s notes, and together wit Kevin J. Anderson wrote another 16 novels in the Dune Universe (according to Wikipedia.
Aside from the novels, there are the movies and mini series. There’s also a comic book adaption, and a number of video games. In fact, I first learned of Dune from the original Dune video game. I loved this game so much that when I learned Dune 2 came out, that was one of the first video games I bought from my own allowance. Of course, Dune 2 is a very different game from the first, but was in fact a staple of the emerging real-time-strategy games, spawning Command & Conquer, Red Alert and a slew of other games.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
The planet Arrakis, known as Dune, is the most important planet in the universe. It is the only place where Spice is found, and Spice is used by the spacing guild to pilot ships between the stars. Whoever controls the Spice, controls the universe.
The great houses fight for power with the Emperor, while the Bene Gesserit order tries to control them from the shadows. The Bene Gesserit are also playing a game of genetic manipulation. They are breeding together bloodlines of the great houses to try and create a powerful seer.
House Atreides is one of the most powerful houses, matched only by the Harkonnen, and the Emperor’s House Corrino. At the start of the story, the Emperor has taken the lease to Dune away from house Harkonnen and given it to House Atreides. Duke Leto Atreides can do nothing but accept, but he fears this gift. The Spice must flow, or the Emperor can destroy house Atreides. Leto has a plan, though, He seeks to use the native Dune inhabitants, the Fremen, to fight the Emperor.
Paul Atreides is the heir to the house, and he and his family travel to Dune to take control. Paul is not just some noble, though. His mother Jessica trained him in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, his tutors Gurney and Duncan in the ways of war. He will need every advantage he can get as the shit hits the fan on Dune.
Giving Dune to House Atreides seemed like a gift, but it is in fact, a political death trap, as Paul and his family soon learn.
The movie covers only the first half of the first book. A good choice, but I do hope there will be second movie. The first novel is a relatively closed story, and it would be a shame if it was left half-done.
The reason to cut the novel in half is the dense storytelling and universe-building. You can’t fit all of that and the entire story in one movie. David Lynch actually wanted multiple movies in 1984, but at some point it became one movie. His rough cut of three-and-half hours was recut to about two, making the 1984 movie a messy affair filled with info dumps. The new movie tries to avoid the rushed feel you got from the David Lynch film, with success.
Denis Villeneuve cleverly focuses on the lead up and aftermath of the showdown of House Atreides and House Harkonnen. The movie projects a sense of calm. It slowly builds the tension as the political intrigue ratchets up. The panning shots of the environments on the varying planets and of the weird giant spaceships in the Dune universe help to highlight the importance of the setting.
Then, things escalate into a massive conflict that ends… well, with a hell of a cliffhanger.
By leaving out the second half of the movie, some of the characters could be left out (princess Irulan, Alia Atreides, and others), but there are still a lot left. If there is one problem, it’s that the scale of the fighting and the number of characters still undercuts the emotions. There are no fights that pack a real emotional punch, but maybe I’m just asking for too much. Ten again, the story focuses on Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica and they both shine.
The main characters
Paul Atreides — played by Timothée Chalamet — is a hard character to get right, I think. He’s a very powerful individual, making him almost a Marty Stu. However, he is haunted by both the responsibility placed on him, and visions of a future he seeks to avoid. He learns the Bene Gesserit have been preparing the universe for the coming of a messiah, but from his visions he knows that as that messiah he will lead a bloody crusade. Events railroad him into a horrid future he does not want. The movie manages to bring across this tragic struggle very well, where David Lynch failed pretty miserably.
Lady Jessica — Rebecca Ferguson — is Paul’s mother. She is a Bene Gesserit witch, possessing nearly magical powers. In light of the breeding program of the order, she was to bear Leto Atreides a daughter. For love of him, she bore a son instead, risking the wrath of her order and his life. She is a complicated character: she is concerned for her son’s life, trying to teach him what he needs to survive, and navigating a complex political mire. Her struggle collides with Paul’s, and that forms the backbone of this movie.
And the other characters
Leto Atreides — Oscar Isaac — is Paul’s father. He knows the Emperor gave him Dune to fail, but he seeks a way to escape the trap using the Fremen. Everything is noble about him, almost nauseatingly so. Like all tragic heroes, though, he is destined to fail.
The other side of the conflict features Baron Vladimir Harkonnen — Stellan Skarsgård in a lot of make-up — and his nephew Rabban ‘Beast’ Harkonnen — Dave Bautista. The two are truly evil, but in different ways. Vladimir is the brains and Rabban the muscle. The first manipulates and subtly threatens, while the latter is a sickening psychopath. However, neither succumbs to the big fail of evil villains. Yes, they are manipulative evil psychos, but they don’t randomly kill their own.
There is a lot more to the cast: Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho spring to mind, as well as Zendaya as Chani and Javier Bardem as Stilgar. The last two get very little screen time. They all do well in their roles.
This is really a star-studded behemoth of a movie.
This movie is a bit slow, but very awesome. At least it is for me, as a Dune fan. If you dislike Game of Thrones in space, though, this will not be for you.