Dune 1984 vs. Dune 2021

Jodorowsky’s Dune, never made.

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.

Dream hard, rage hard.

19 thoughts on “Dune 1984 vs. Dune 2021

  1. Great review. I haven’t seen the new movie yet. But I have seen the 1984 one. I didn’t care for the voice-overs, and a lot of the acting felt wooden. I would also assume it’s incoherent to anyone who hasn’t read the book.

    That said, the 1984 film did have a unique aesthetic, which in my opinion is critical to any adaptation of Dune. The trailers I’ve seen for this new one do not inspire me. They just feel like a generic sci-fi movie… nothing eye-catching or distinct. And the color palette is so washed out, as is the fashion with modern movies. I know it’s a desert, but c’mon; Lawrence of Arabia is the quintessential desert movie, and it still had vibrant colors.

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02, and based on your review, this doesn’t sound like it’s worth rushing to theaters to see. I’m sure I’ll check it out eventually (I don’t have HBO), but I’m not bursting with anticipation.

    1. I love your take on colours. I think we go for that washed-out palette these days because it’s in vogue, but even a movie with a desert backdrop can invoke colour, and use it tremendously well. We already know deserts typified by sand are monochrome in ways. What else can we say?

      I would definitely see the movie. Based on your tastes, I think it aligns with what you like. Rushing out to see it… I did. Now I feel like I need a truly epic story to hold me fast. I just finished the book “Never Let Me Go”, and that was much quieter, but also felt like a larger story because I couldn’t help but be invested in the characters.

      When you see it, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

  2. Your reviews are so wonderful, Trent. I somehow never got around to seeing Dune in it’s entirety – can’t even tell you why. Just one of those things, I guess.

    Today’s bad – very bad – habit of stretching things out in the name of big bucks – because that is what it is. Why tell one story in one excellent production when we can stretch it out into two or three?

    I fear the creativity in the movie business feels like it’s dwindling. Why make something new when you can remake something old? Sigh.

    Apologies. my rant has no place here. Your writing is divine whether it is one of your most original stories or a review of a movie 🙂

    Have a beauty of a day!

    1. Merci, Dale! Reviews are not my thing, but when I feel strongly about something, I must speak. Yes, I feel like the desire for splitting up stories is a financial strategy. The Hobbit was a great example. Three movies for that story… what a waste. Still so eager for new, creative movies that break ground, and I think that does happen, but seldom in the world of blockbusters. There, we have to be safe, apparently.

      Hope you’re having a good day, and that you managed to avoid the rain and go for a run!

      1. They may not be your thing but you do them beautifully! And I was going to cite The Hobbit as a prime example.
        I think one of the reasons “Parasite” did so well is that it was so very different… figures. It ain’t American 😉

        The day is, well, Monday.
        It was not a running day but I did manage to walk for half an hour this morning sans rain and then at lunch, but this time in the rain. I am way short of my steps. sigh.

  3. I like your comparison to the two “Dune” movies — and how they carry the boldness of the book. I read the book for the first time a few months ago, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the new version. Your comment about “Dune” 2021 feeling overdrawn reminded me of how I felt reading the beginning of the book. The Bene Gessirit test on Paul was exciting, but the pace dropped with preparations to leave Caladan. And on Arrakis, there is a long scene with dinner conversation. Not outwardly exciting, but the undercurrents — political and such — were interesting. I hope the idea of “Dune” 2021 is to introduce the world and characters, then Part 2 would bring more of the book’s boldness, particularly with the Fremen and their rituals/beliefs — and Paul’s visions. That being said, the book’s beginning wasn’t entirely build-up. You give a good example with Dr. Yueh. In one view, he’s to be judged harshly as a traitor … but his reasoning gives sense to his actions, and make him a tragic figure. That should be shown in a movie version.

  4. I just watched 2021 and despite it looking better, the characters and story were worse than the 1983 version. I also identified modern political agendas throughout.

  5. I like the Lynch version, and I like very much the new one made by Villeneuve. I think it’s closer to the novel, exactly what you imagine when you read the text. The esoteric part will come after for sure, certainly different from the strangeness of Lynch’s, but it could be huge.

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