The context to Dune is fairly simple. It’s a sprawling space epic, a science fiction version of Lord of the Rings. But it’s much bigger in scope and scale, and when you give something like this into the capable hands of Denis Villeneuve, a wonderful director, only magic can ensue.
Villeneuve proved himself to me with Blade Runner 2049. The original Blade Runner, released in 1982, has become a cultural milestone of cinema, even the original theatrical cut with its voice-over monologue (which I much prefer, actually). Making a sequel to a true classic is hard, but Villeneuve took this on a few years ago, and succeeded wildly. The sequel was atmospheric, dark, honoured the original, but took it in a strange, feral direction without absolute fearlessness. The best art, I think, is fearless.
The original incarnation of Dune in cinema is David Lynch’s 1984 version, starring people like Sting (yes, that Sting) and Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks). It’s regarded as a complete, ineffectual mess, incoherent, self-indulgent, over-the-top, forgettable. There was a mini-series version in-between, but I’m not qualified to speak on that, as I never saw it. In any case, when you take a top talent like Denis Villeneuve and revisit Frank Herbert’s seminal book, you know that you will have something special on your hands.
Only you don’t. You don’t have something special here. I saw the movie yesterday, high expectations plastered on the outside of my water bottle. Sipping away, as the lights dim. Dune 2021 is beautiful to watch, and so loud. It’s an aesthetic pleasure, no doubt. But it has no soul at all. I found myself anxious to grip onto the characters, to care about their fate, but I couldn’t. Lots of foreshadowing, lots of evocative music, flash-forwards and the like, all painting a picture of a sort of family saga where everything is coming unravelled, but it just didn’t matter to me.
And the pace. Something is wrong with the pace, to the point where Dune 2021 felt boring at times. Please don’t keep reading if you want to avoid spoilers, but this movie is the first part of the whole story. This is just a fraction of the original Frank Herbert novel. Is this going to be two parts total? Three? I don’t know. But it felt overdrawn, expository at times, and not urgent as a narrative at all. The ending, which sees our protagonist accept his fate amongst the miles of desert, is just a set up for the next part. There is no full narrative in this movie, largely because there never was any logical spot for splitting the story in the original novel. This isn’t Lord of the Rings. The world-building is intense, and beautiful, but the story – however grand and epic – will now be elongated, extended, in the service of the aesthetic, not the story.
Dune 1984 is a complete story, the entire first book. And yes, it’s clunky, and very weird. But I felt more for the characters in that movie than I did for those in this one. Even the incidental ones. Dr. Yueh’s character in the 1984 version is a complete tragedy, and you feel for him despite his short screen time. In the 2021 version, the same character is a plot device to provide continuation of the story. Leto Atreides, in the 1984 version, you have to feel for. He’s frantic to bring his family to ascension, and to protect his concubine and his child. In this one, he’s a feckless person who is more or less meaningless to the story as a whole. He’s just there because he has to be. And the Baron Harkonnen… he’s played with quiet menace in the 2021 version, but the 1984 version is an exercise in excess, in sheer depravity and horror, so extreme that it’s hard to watch. He’s truly evil in the 1984 version, so corrupt and hostile. By comparison, he’s cleaned up and more correct in the 2021 counterpart, and loses much in the dilution.
I wouldn’t trade any of the 1984 characters for the 2021 versions. Not the protagonist Paul, either. The 2021 version is pretty, so pretty, but do you really feel anything more than angst from him? 1984’s Paul was a full-fledged journey from the safe and secure, to the wild and the ascendant. I will make one caveat here. 2021’s shining light is Javier Bardem’s Stilgar. I didn’t even know it was Javier Bardem, but he brings a life and wildness to his role that was captivating. He’s the star of this movie, if there is one. As for Zendaya… I barely got to know her in Dune 2021 Part I, and that is a complete shame.
Cue the music. Dune 1984 has an ominous, sprawling soundtrack that feels like it was composed on the far side of the moon. Dune 2021 is very loud, but I don’t remember it. I’m not humming it today. It’s forgotten. And that makes a big difference. As big a difference as the fact that Dune 2021 is just a set up to more, while Dune 1984 did the whole story of the original novel, in glorious, off-kilter, intensely-flawed but incredibly ambitious fashion.
I don’t know what happened here. Denis Villeneuve is uniquely suited to tell a story like Dune, but this is a sanitized, safe version of a story that is anything but safe. This should have been Jodorowsky-level crazy (he did try to adapt the story, but failed – there’s a full documentary about it), but that’s likely the problem. Do we want crazy? Do we want stories that don’t fit in neat avenues of the genre definitions that guide our literary lives? Probably not. Dune 2021 is safe because we want safe. Sure, there’s the odd excursion into Squid Games, etc, but those are exceptions. Wildness and uniqueness are exceptions. Dune, the novel, is an exception unto itself, and the 2021 movie version simply doesn’t honour that. It stays safe, pedestrian, and forgettable in a way that the 1984 version will never be, despite its many flaws.
I’ll watch Dune Part 2, and Part 3 if that’s what they’re going for. Because it’s beautiful, yes, but also because I’m hopeful that the wildness of the story, its sheer originality, will show up through the characters. We’ll see. I’m hopeful, because Denis Villeneuve demonstrated an amazing touch with Blade Runner 2049. It remains to be seen if he will bring Dune in for the landing it really deserves.