DENIS VILLENEUVE’S “DUNE” FILM: It is time to ride the worm (again) and ask the eternal question, “Shall I try the spice?”

    Once more the sandworms burrow and crysknives glisten.

    And remember: “Fear is the mind killer.”

    “Planetary feudalism is the best social form for an interstellar civilization. Its success stems, from the ancient human demand for hierarchy, for a world where every person knows his place. I now know that all humans are not created equal and that any attempt to equalize them rebounds.” – Frank Herbert

    “Dune” was initially received as a countercultural parable warning against ecological devastation and autocratic rule, but geek fascists, white suprematists and alt-right see the novel as a blueprint for the future, even that the late Frank Herbert, a hack, was a bigoted reactionary fantasy author who wrote a kitschy ‘Lawrence of Arabia in Space’. His prose is horrid, offensively awful (Ruritanian house style).“

    “Such pseudo-spiritual sci-fi adventures (blending SF with mysticism and fascism, psychedelic drugs, mystical prophecies, orgies, back-to-the-land survivalism, Indigenous ways, anticolonial rebellions, Aboriginal nationalism) often teeter on the edge of the ridiculous, but ‘Dune’ mostly stays on the right side of risible… Paul Atreides is a young white man who fulfils a persistent colonial fantasy, that of becoming a God-king to a tribal people. Herbert’s portrayal of the “Fremen” (the clue’s in the name) owes much to T.E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger’s enthusiastic portrayals of the Bedouin of Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Fremen culture is described in words liberally cribbed from Arabic. They go on “razzia” raids, wear “aba” and “bourka” robes, fear a devil called “Shaitan” and so on. If Paul is one-part Lawrence of Arabia, leading his men on to Aqaba, he is also the Mahdi. Dune glosses this word as “in the Fremen messianic legend, The One Who Will Lead Us into Paradise.” In 2021, the story of a white prophet leading a blue-eyed brown-skinned horde of jihadis against a ruler called Shaddam produces a weird funhouse mirror effect, as if someone has jumbled up recent history and stuck the pieces back together in a different order.

    If you’re already knee-deep in Frank Herbert mythology (the Dune cultists), you’ll thrill to every whispered word; if you come in not knowing the difference between a Holtzman shield and a hole in the floor, it’s a longer walk.

    Part hero’s journey and part survival story, the film keeps throwing arcane details at you, which might thrill the Frank Herbert geeks but will have most everyone else zoning out.”

    Denis Villeneuve’s big-budget, A-list version of Frank Herbert’s cult SF novel has premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.

    But will it succeed where others have failed?

    Science fiction offers a different, particular challenge to directors: that of recreating elaborate worlds and complex plots without becoming confusing or bogged down in exposition.

    First there was David Lynch’s “Dune” (1984), a turkey remembered principally for putting Sting in a nappy.

    Then came the television mini-series in 2000, which had the running time but not the budget to do Frank Herbert’s beloved novel justice.

    And of course, there was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal vision, which was famously never made.

    Now at last we have what should, in theory, be the definitive “Dune” film, a mega-budget epic with cutting-edge visual effects, an A-list cast and crew, and a director, Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”, “Blade Runner 2049”), who has dreamt of adapting the book for decades.

    Can he succeed where others (well, David Lynch and Jodorowsky) failed?

    His biggest challenge, it turned out, was to stop the film looking like a “Star Wars” rip-off.

    I know, I know, Herbert’s novel was published in 1965, more than a decade before George Lucas’s first “Star Wars” film came out, but Lucas borrowed so much from “Dune” that it’s difficult now to watch any screen adaptation without being reminded of what you’ve already seen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

    “Dune” is distinct from “Star Wars” is in how sombre it is.

    This is a self-consciously grandiose epic, with a doom-and-gloomy mood, a dusty, brown-and-grey colour scheme, and a Hans Zimmer score that stacks up layers of deafening squeals, drones and pounding thumps. There are no zany robots or cuddly aliens, and I counted a total of two jokes. Not everyone will be able to take its complicated mythology seriously, but Villeneuve does. That comes as a relief.

    Most of today’s blockbuster entertainment is artificially sweetened by spoonfuls of irreverent one-liners, so it was courageous of the film’s producers to make a colossal science-fiction blockbuster that has no snark or sarcasm, and no characters who do anything stupid.

    As it is, a film with this scope and richness is a splendid achievement, but it’s easier to admire than to love. There is some humanity in there somewhere: at heart it’s a coming-of-age story about a boy becoming tougher and more cynical on his way to becoming a leader. But will anyone care about the shallow, po-faced characters? They’ve got exotic names and elaborate costumes, but none of them has much warmth or personality compared to those in a certain other space opera which I won’t mention.”

    “Denis Villeneuve has managed the impossible. ‘Dune’ is an intelligent and satisfying film adaptation with the depth and scale it deserves. And it’s great fun too.”

    “In the main ‘Dune’ is a stately film, exacting and elliptical, more in the slow-release tradition of David Lean than the candy-coated insta-high of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).”

    “The new “Dune” should be a smash hit. It’s a big old epic, the kind we need right now, to sweep us away from viruses, hurricanes, and wars in real life.”


    Latest articles

    Related articles