When it was announced that Denis Villeneuve was going to direct a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic and foundational science fiction opus Dune, I remember jumping in excitement, if not physically in spirit. I couldn’t dream of a better or more perfect match between filmmaker and source material. Even if I hadn’t read the book (and still haven’t as of this writing unfortunately), I was familiar with it based on stuff I had read about it and from having seen David Lynch’s admirable but disappointing and heavily compromised 1984 version. I was much more familiar with Denis Villeneuve’s work though, having seen Prisoners and Arrival at the time, and I remember thinking he would be the perfect choice to direct Dune. And upon seeing Sicario, Incendies and Blade Runner 2049, that feeling was confirmed. But I also remained skeptical of it ever happening. I realized that Dune is a big and complicated story to adapt to film, and none of Villeneuve’s films have exactly been box office hits. And with the middling commercial reception to Blade Runner 2049 I feared we would never see Denis’ vision of Dune. But that was not the case, and even with COVID-19 pushing the film back one year, it has now arrived onto our screens. And let me tell you, it’s been worth the wait.
Within seconds of the film beginning, I felt that rare yet incredible self-assuring feeling of being firmly in the hands of a filmmaker who’s in control of their aesthetic and knows exactly what they’re going to do. It’s the same feeling one gets at the end of the two-part pilot episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, where you put aside all of your fears and suspicions with the knowledge that the filmmaker won’t fuck it up. That is just such a satisfying and comfortable feeling I can’t even begin to tell you how great it felt to be seated in a theatre in the hands of a master (yes I will indeed use that much maligned word) like Denis. Even before this film, he’s affirmed himself as one of the great filmmakers of our time and I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes down as one of the greatest and most influential.
The story of Dune is mighty complicated, making it notoriously difficult to adapt to film. Alejandro Jodorowsky notoriously attempted to turn the story into a 14-hour film in his unrealized adaptation, and Lynch’s original three-hour version had to be edited down due to contractual obligations resulting in rewrites and reshoots. The star of the latter, Kyle MacLachlan, has stated he thinks the book should’ve been adapted into a miniseries instead. And in the modern landscape of television rivaling and often surpassing movies in terms of their cinematic qualities and scales, I appreciate how Denis remained true to his vision of Dune as a big screen experience. And in some ways, I do think the story of warring feudal houses, empires and planets feels overall better suited for the big screen. And considering how relatively dark the story of Dune is (there are no jovial “this is where the fun begins” banter in this), I appreciate that a dark blockbuster can still get made in the contemporary hellhole that is Hollywood.
Now on this subject matter, I know we’ve joked about seeing movies on iPhones and our Apple Watches and whatever and that’s all fine and dandy, but why does that mean we should abandon the cinematic experience? Will most people see this on streaming or on home video? Probably yes. But in that case why don’t we just release everything straight to streaming and just kill all the cinemas right now. No more movie theatres, no revival screenings, no glorious IMAX, everything will now be digital streaming. Why not? One could make the same argument about vinyls, will most people listen to the digital stream or download? Of course but does that mean we should just scratch vinyl and physical releases all together, especially now when they’re doing so well financially? What’s the harm in making a movie for the theatrical experience, especially when said movie is a movie like Dune, that has the scale and weight to match that screen.
Now, earlier on the same day I saw Dune, I had a lecture in which he discussed Joseph Campbell and his monomythical “hero’s journey.” Campbell was a professor who studied mythology and religion, and after years of research wrote a book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces, with the thesis that every religion and every myth is more or less different versions of the same story, namely the so-called “hero’s journey.” Campbell’s work has gone on to influence virtually every major work of science fiction or fantasy of the last sixty years, including Harry Potter and Star Wars. So when I sat down that same night to watch Dune I couldn’t help but wonder if this fit Campbell’s criteria. And whilst it does superficially follow the traditional arc, there’s also clearly a subversion of said journey going on here. Paul, as played by Timothée Chalamet in a very strong performance, is someone who seems to dread the idea of being “the one.” This is one of my favorite aspects of the Dune story, how being molded and fitted to be this messianic figure can be such an uncomfortable and uneasy burden to bear, especially for such a young person as Paul. I mean, how would you feel if someone said that the fate of the world or whatever lay on your shoulders? You probably wouldn’t be jumping up and down in ecstatic joy, you would probably be terrified, as Paul is. And in some ways, I think Dune almost seems to bear resemblance to Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion. So basically in short, don’t let introverts be your saviour please, it doesn’t turn out well.
And even beyond the hero’s journey, there’s also a lot more thematic subject matter to deep dive into that makes it just ripe for analysis or investigations. Alongside the hero’s journey you could argue it comments upon the white savior ideal, but it also finds ways of commenting upon imperialism, environmentalism, religion, feudalism and capitalism as well. The villains of Dune, the Harkonnens, are vile, pale and clad in black, and their planet Giedi Prime is dark and gothic as their inner souls are. They’ve been responsible for ravaging Arrakis for almost a century, and Baron Vladimir (played by Stellan Skarsgård who plays the Baron with more sleaze than usual) is mainly concerned with positions of power, control and wealth. We see how ruthlessly the Harkonnens have ravaged the beautiful sand deserts of Arrakis in some really neat and awe-spiring slow-motion shots in the beginning of the film. There is so much more one can discuss in regards to Dune and all of its themes, but I simply don’t have the time or space to do so here. Some other time maybe.
When I got home, I realized that despite having just seen it, I wanted to travel back to Arrakis. I wanted to go back to that world beyond, that world which exists only in our imagination. A world given to us first on the page by Herbert, then attempted on film by Lynch, and now fully realized in its true cinematic form by Villeneuve. He has said that if Dune does well at the box office, they will make Dune 2. Even though the odds have been against Dune from day 1, even without Covid on anyone’s mind, I urge people to go see Dune in theaters just for my own selfish desire frankly to see what Denis and his team is going to do with the rest of the story. I will probably go back to this film a few times, probably in cinemas, and I will say this with all my heart: I fuck with this movie.