Dune: Then, now, and beyond
There’s a saying about the topics of religion and politics, and how they may make polite dinner table conversation trickier. Maybe so, but they do make great topics for science fiction, as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, Dune, and a lot of other examples show. The 1965 novel Dune is deservedly regarded as a classic, and I had been looking forward to the new Dune movie for a while. That’s not because I wanted to see an adaptation done “right” to make up for the 1984 film version; far from it. Actually, before I go further into the 2021 film, I have a confession: I like the original, David Lynch-directed Dune.
I don’t mean that I like it in a guilty pleasure way, or in a “so bad it’s good way,” but I genuinely like it a lot. It’s got a terrific cast with enjoyable performances, great imagery, effects that mostly hold up, and it has an outstanding soundtrack as well. I can recognize the film’s flaws, but they pale in comparison to the positive attributes. It also has a difficult task that it performs well, taking a lengthy and complex novel and condensing it to a film’s length while keeping the book’s structure and important points.
And further, I don’t get the common criticism that it’s hard to follow or incomprehensible. If anything, it’s probably overly explained, with a lot of opening exposition and narration, and frequent voiceovers for characters in the film. So my expectations for the 2021 movie was more that there would be another good version of Dune on film to enjoy, and for me, that expectation was mostly fulfilled.
First though, to get this out of the way, Dune (2021) is a part one, so the story isn’t complete yet, and must be judged on that basis. I guess this isn’t surprising, given the current trend of turning movies or novels into cinematic franchises, and expanding a popular sci-fi or fantasy novel into two parts or even a trilogy of movies. Plus, there are a lot of Dune novels to use as material for future potential films beyond the adaptation of the original, and a lot of sand. But as for how this affects this particular movie, I think it means a little slower pacing, since it can take its time with another film to expand on things. To me, I thought this was especially noticeable in the second half of the movie.
As far as the performances go, they’re good for the most part, with some standing out more than others. But I don’t intend to make this article into a direct comparison of the 1984 version and the 2021 version. For one thing, it’s not like comparing the relative merits of, for example, the Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland versions of Spider-Man, where the movies all came out within a fairly short period of time. The distance from 1984 to 2021 in film and popular culture is pretty far. But I guess it makes sense that the comparison would come up. Both performances of Leto Atreides, by Jurgen Prochnow in the 1984 film and Oscar Isaac in the 2021 film are good, as are both versions of Gurney Halleck, by Patrick Stewart in the original and Josh Brolin in the new one. Jason Momoa is a more memorable and charismatic Duncan Idaho than Richard Jordan was in the original.
A big difference with the 2021 film is with the treatment of the Harkonnens. The David Lynch film made them come off as grotesque and repulsive, but also goofy and over the top. In the Denis Villeneuve film, in a clear improvement over the original, the Harkonnens have no trace of silliness or campiness. They come off as darker, scarier, and more effective thanks to this change.
Many of the reviews of the new film have praised the visuals, and I would agree that it’s a good looking film, although perhaps not memorably so. I can’t think of a specific visual that I was dazzled by, and I don’t even think that the sandworms are that much more impressive than they were in the 1984 film.
Standout scenes in the new film include the Gom Jabbar test, and Paul and Jessica’s escape sequence from the Harkonnens with the use of the Voice.
Of all the different themes running through the movie, one of the most prominent is that of family. A large focus is given to the relationship between Paul and Jessica, and that between Paul and Duke Leto, and of course, rival families are at the core of the conflict of this story. As sweeping of a space opera as this is, and as the pieces are put in place and set up for the next chapter, the importance of family and relationships at the heart of it shouldn’t be neglected. The first film looks like a success, but let’s hope there’s not a letdown when this adaption is complete.