Note the title of this post does not include the word “review.” This isn’t a review in the typical sense. It’s long and rambling, even by my standards. But I promised Trent Lewin that I would share my thoughts on it when I finally saw it. (You can read Trent’s take here.) So, here goes.
I reviewed the book Dune here, on what was originally going to be the release date for the movie. I won’t bother rehashing everything I said there. Instead, I’ll just say that Frank Herbert went to write an article about sand dunes in Oregon, got fascinated with ecology and messianic leaders, and did a bunch of magic mushrooms. The resulting book is about what you would expect. It is interesting, multifaceted, and more than a bit bizarre. In some superficial ways, it’s just a good ol’ fashioned Sword and Planet adventure, with a hero who defeats his enemies, claims his birthright, and marries a princess… but if you’re expecting an Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn, your reaction is likely to be “WTF did I just read?”
Actually, that will probably be your reaction no matter what. It was mine, and I even (mostly) liked the book. It’s different, and I respect that. My biggest problem with the book is also a problem with the movie, so I’ll hold off on discussing that until later.
In the early 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to adapt the book into an epic film. The project never got off the ground, but did result in a sprawling collection of interesting storyboards and concept art, which you can see here. The artists appear to have taken the magic mushroom elements and run with them. The project spawned a documentary, which I have not seen, but which Josh Sawyer describes the ending of as follows:
“Alejandro says that in the end the actual making of the film would have ruined it, because it was absolutely perfect in his mind.”
After Jodorowsky’s attempt failed, Dino de Laurentiis bought the rights, and hired David Lynch to direct an adaptation, released in 1984. This film is a cult classic, but in my opinion, it’s a mess. The worst part is the constant voice-overs used to convey characters’ thoughts. This is in keeping with Herbert’s writing style, but it just goes to show you what worked on the page won’t work in a movie.
All that said, the film does have a unique and unsettling aesthetic, which is probably the most essential quality for any Dune adaptation. There’s no doubt Lynch had a vision, though it was a weird and probably not mass-marketable one. Not to mention that the special FX of the ’80s were just not up to creating the stuff he was trying to portray.
Psych! First, I have to talk about some other Villeneuve movies. This is the third one of his I’ve seen, the others being Arrival, which was pretty good, and Blade Runner 2049, which was turgid. It’s hard to make something cyberpunk that I don’t like, and yet 2049 managed to do it. So, I can’t say I was super-optimistic going into Dune.
But I watched it. I even got the “limited edition pain box” version, because, well, how could I not, with a name like that?
So what is the deal with this movie? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? Come to that, what is it supposed to do?
Uh oh. It looks like we’ve run into a problem before we’ve even started. We can’t analyze Dune without understanding what a movie adaptation should be doing. So I guess more work is needed. Hold the phone, everybody!
Before Lynch, even before Jodorowsky, Sir David Lean was offered a chance at directing Dune, but he turned it down.
I sort of understand this, because Lean wasn’t a science fiction guy. But nevertheless, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. Because Lean was the director most qualified to direct Dune. Of course, I should stipulate that he would need his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Bolt.
Lean and Bolt created one of the greatest desert epics ever made, Lawrence of Arabia. If you read my review of the Dune novel above, you know my thoughts on Lawrence‘s influence on the entire Dune universe as Herbert conceived it. It’s profound. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible adaptation of an extremely complex book, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In fact, it’s pretty much the gold standard by which I judge all other cinematic adaptations.
It’s a completely faithful adaptation, but not in the sense that Bolt took every single thing in the book and included it in his script. That would be impossible. Rather, it’s faithful in the sense that it captures everything Lawrence records in his memoir: his initial hopes for a grand future for the Arab revolt, his own conflicted psychological turmoil, and his ultimate disillusionment at the cynical manipulation of himself and the men he led by the generals and politicians of the Great Powers. You feel all of it in the final scene as the broken Lawrence rides off to return to England, a motorcycle engine growling ominously nearby as the screen fades to black.
Ultimately, Lawrence of Arabia is about how an introverted, troubled, brilliant officer tried to accomplish something great by playing the role of a leader that deep down, he knew he never could be. And Dune, as a series, is about much the same thing. Frank Herbert said:
“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”
“Lawrence of Arabia” was a hero. “Paul Muad’dib,” the “Kwisatz Haderach,” is a hero. But at some level, T.E. Lawrence and Paul Atreides know, more than anyone else, that it’s just a role; a story created to fit a preconceived pattern in the minds of the masses.
In a sense, Dune itself is an adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia, just in space, with psychic witches and sandworms.
On Heroes and Hero-Worship
Okay, I’m cheating now. That’s a book by Thomas Carlyle, which I have not read, although my understanding is it’s a series of essays about historical figures like Cromwell, Napoleon, etc. who rose to power. I suppose I should have picked a more creative title for this section, but what I actually want to talk about is hero-worship.
It so happens I’m reading Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic by George MacCaulay Trevelyan at the moment. It’s pretty much the definition of a hagiography, as Trevelyan makes no effort whatsoever to hide his blind adoration of Garibaldi.
Garibaldi is an interesting figure, with his own parallels to Paul Atreides. He too led a guerrilla war that battled great dynasties and inspired an impressive cult following in England with tales of his heroics. Indeed, he is one of those romantic figures of Mediterranean politics that should, I think, inform any interpretation of Dune, because Dune is heavily influenced by a powerful strain of Machiavellian political theory in its depiction of warring aristocratic houses and shifting family alliances.
Really, almost everything in Dune has some analogue in actual, if mostly forgotten history; which I suspect is why its world is one that so many people get absorbed in. It has echoes of things dimly remembered, or not even remembered, but somehow with a feeling of eminent plausibility, like having a dream that you think you’ve had before.
Villeneuve‘s Dune (For Real This Time)
Having established all that, we are now finally prepared to attack the question of whether the new Dune movie is any good or not. The answer will ride on whether or not it conveys the theme and mood of its source material.
The answer is… well, sorta.
Dune gets most of the little things right. The art direction is excellent. The acting is good. The atmosphere generally feels alien. Almost everything shown is a scene depicted in the book. Not only does it copy the things I liked about the book, but it even conveys the things I didn’t like. One of these is that I find Paul unlikable in the book, and I find him unlikable in the movies. Now, given the Herbert quote above, I think that may be deliberate. Because Paul isn’t a hero, but everybody worships him as such, you come away with the feeling that he’s a fraud. In every depiction, Leto is so much better and more interesting, and in both book and film, I feel like the story starts running out of steam at the point where he dies.
That makes the story weaker in my opinion, but I’m willing to give the movie a pass on this since I have the same problem with the book.
More significantly, though, there are places where Dune still feels like a product of the cinematic fads of the 2020s. One example is the damned washed-out lens filter. The scene that highlights this most is when Duke Leto and Gurney Halleck are looking over their newly-acquired holdings on Arrakis. Halleck tells Leto the sun is getting too high, and they can’t stay out. And sure, you can see there’s some sun, and imagine it’s probably hot.
But you don’t feel the heat. You don’t viscerally sense the sun beating down on you. In Lawrence of Arabia, you do.
This is the feeling I had throughout the movie. It’s good, it’s solid, but it’s also just not quite willing to take that extra step that propels it into timelessness. And timelessness is a very important quality for Dune.
If there’s one place where Lynch’s Dune has an advantage, it’s that the aesthetic is so weird it creates a uniquely alien vibe that really does convey the feeling that you’re in another world. I’m not saying that it’s a better film. It’s seriously not; it’s kind of a 1980s cheesefest if I’m being honest. But I am saying, Dune, more than most films, is one where a sense of aesthetics is incredibly important.
This is probably a little bit harsh on my part, I’ll admit. Every movie is of course a product of its time. Even Lawrence of Arabia, for as well as it holds up overall, has a few elements that date it as a 1960s Epic Motion Picture, like Maurice Jarre’s occasionally over-the-top soundtrack. If the problem could be reduced to a matter of lens filters, I wouldn’t complain about it. (Much.)
No, the problem here goes even deeper. And it goes right to the heart of what the core appeal of Dune is.
“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.”
The universe of Dune is effectively a post-Enlightenment society. It’s not a coincidence that much of the book draws inspiration from pre-Enlightenment societies. In fact, the central idea of Dune is the rejection of rationality, from the Butlerian Jihad that destroyed Artificial Intelligences to the heavy emphasis on mind-altering drugs and visions. There is no evidence of Enlightenment concepts like “constitutional government” or “individual liberty.”
In my opinion, this is why the whole thing feels so weird and foreign. We are a society based on Reason, and on encountering a society that is not based on Reason, but on instinct, superstition, heredity and above all else, power, we feel like we have stepped into another universe altogether. (Although, if you think about it, considering the Enlightenment began in the 16th century, such societies are actually the norm, and we are the exception.)
This comes through very clearly in the book, which is one reason there are things in the book that, to be blunt, make absolutely no sense whatsoever. They’re not supposed to. Remember: magic mushrooms.
This movie, although it has no shortage of visions, hallucinations and other weirdness, doesn’t convey that. I’m not sure exactly why. Arrival did a good job of messing with the viewer’s mind to the point that if you want to understand the plot, you have to perceive time as a Möbius strip, which is also basically the state Paul is in by the time he meets the Fremen. Yet, I never got that feeling of otherworldly eeriness that’s so integral to the Dune experience.
Actually, no. There was one scene where I did get it. The creepy chant that plays while the Sardaukar soldiers are gearing up to attack Arrakis gave me the uncanny feeling of witnessing something completely alien to my own perception of reality. I liked that scene a lot.
Otherwise, though… it was an unremarkable movie. Not bad by any means, and with some enjoyable visuals and interesting shots. It just felt hollow and meaningless, which is in a way tragic because it tried so hard to be faithful to its source material that it lacked the boldness to do something truly unusual… which, paradoxically, is exactly what made its source material good to begin with.
But recall the words of Jodorowsky paraphrased above. Perhaps there can never be a perfect Dune adaptation because the universe of Dune can only be formed in the mind of the reader. And for every reader, it compiles slightly differently, as a unique and fragile structure, and to try and preserve or share this creation is a fool’s errand.