Dune (2021)

Otherwise known as Dune Part One, if you go by the onscreen title.

I was 7 years old when David Lynch’s much maligned adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 novel (the first of many) was released and I was all for it, without really knowing why.

At the time, I was devouring all things science fiction and this title first caught my eye in novel form, tucked into the book collection of a cool, drum-playing, weed-smoking uncle of mine. I soon after got wind that a movie version was due to be released by Universal Studios and I got ambitious, thinking that I’d get a head start on the flick and read the book to find out what it was all about before it hit screens. Easier said than done. After about a dozen pages, it became clear that Herbert hadn’t written that first book with pre-pubescent kids in mind, as I rapidly discovered how convoluted and plodding the overly detailed story on the page actually was (so much so that 37 years later, I still haven’t cracked it back open). But going back to 1984, I wanted all the details on the movie version that I could get, as there was no chance in hell that I was going to get to see it on the Big Screen.

Right around this time, my parents figured that we were due for a family trip and it was decided that a drive down the West Coast of North America, in a rickety, possibly unroad-worthy VW van, from our home in Cloverdale, British Columbia down to my dad’s old stomping grounds of Burbank, California was the ticket. To prepare my younger sister and I for the long stretches of boredom we inevitably faced and knowing that Dune was a current obsession at the time, they scored me the comic book tie in, a bunch of stickers and a coloring book, all official Dune merch, and I loved it all (I think I read that comic in full once on the way down and then again on the way back, car sickness be damned!). Eventually, I was able to catch up with Dune on VHS, and I loved it too. Not as much as my complete dedication to Star Wars at the time but enough that I still have fond memories of seeing it several times as a youngster.

Despite every attempt on the part of the studio and director David Lynch (Lost Highway), Dune was a critical and commercial flop and still stands as a sore spot for Lynch on his oddball filmography all these years later. Having never made it through the book, I wasn’t in any kind of a position to pass judgement on what they got right and what they got wrong and frankly, I didn’t care. The movie gave me all the science fiction trappings, action and mysticism that I needed and I walked away happy. Fast forward to 2021 and I still have a soft spot for that version, warts and all.

Given Hollywood’s current state of creative bankruptcy (how many fucking superhero or Fast and Furious movies do we need, people?!) it was inevitable that they would go back to the well and dig up old IP’s to dust off, to exploit all over again and Dune was no exception.

But then I heard who was directing it.

Fellow Canadian Denis Villeneuve has more than proven that he’s a cinematic force to be reckoned with and the only one out there seemingly capable of out-‘Ridley Scotting’ Sir Ridley Scott (their collaboration on 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 makes sense). Even though I have issues with the EXTREMELY ‘patient’ pace of that very worthy sequel, the man’s sense of scale and composition is off the charts. I first came across Villeneuve with his tense Mexican Drug Cartel vs shadowy Government Operatives flick Sicario in 2015 and I was blown away. Loved that movie! Then he came at us with the cerebral Arrival (2016) and the aforementioned Blade Runner 2049 (2017), both of which have their flaws but are undeniably impeccably mounted productions, again taking full advantage of Villeneuve’s acutely realized sense of scope and grandeur. In that regard I’d say he easily rivals and possibly even surpasses Ridley and Gareth Edwards (Rogue One) when it comes to presenting Big and Epic.

Then Dune was announced…and I got really intrigued, given my own history with the property.

So, after a production taxed by the ravages of a global pandemic and the lofty expectations of the more rabid, cult-like fans, we are finally blessed with this highly anticipated re-telling of Herbert’s iconic book.

This re-imagined adaptation is terrific! I had high hopes and, amazingly, they were almost all realized and it filled me with joy. Even though this was given a dual theatrical / streaming release, I opted out of hitting the Big Screen (where I do admit this would be awesome) and my wife and I checked it out from the comfort of our own living room, as a storm raged outside on a dark Friday night.

I decided against doing my normal ‘jots notes while watching‘ routine in favor of just allowing the movie to pour over me and catch me up in the story and the details (of which there are plenty worth noting!). And it added up to a highly satisfying First Time Watching reaction.

To sum up the story, the year is 10191 and the human race has spread to the stars, with several familial ‘houses’ being established on key planets, under the direction of a galactic Emperor. In this galaxy there is the planet Arrakis, which supplies the ludicrously valuable Spice. For 80 years, the House Harkonnen, led by the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), cruelly controlled the planet and fought to quell the constant guerrilla attacks of the fierce local tribe, known as Fremen. Unexpectedly, the mining contract is pulled from the Harkonnens and given to their sworn enemies House Atreides, led by the charismatic and popular ‘Duke Leto Atreides’ (Oscar Isaac), who is supported by his devout concubine (and powerful witch) ‘Jessica’ (Rebecca Ferguson) and their teenage son ‘Paul’ (Timothy Chalamet). After taking over, they are all thrown into a twisty tale of deadly political intrigue, murder and war. There is also a powerful Fremen prophecy that is showing signs of coming true.

I have a ton to blab about this title but for the sake of not boring you to death, Dear Reader, I’ll slap down the lasting impressions I have here on the morning after first seeing it.

So, in no particular order, here we go –

(Spoilers and endless comparisons to the 1984 version ahead!)

Introduction – From the instantly tone-setting and off-kilter racket of a tribal drum over the Warner Bros logo, we are treated to an effective montage, narrated by Fremen warrior and future love interest ‘Chani’ (Zendaya), detailing the coveted planet Arrakis (aka Dune) and its symbiotic relationship to the precious drug ‘Melange’ (aka The Spice); a substance that can enable interstellar space travel but can also awaken abilities within the gifted. It was well done. Good start.

Natural Performances – One thing that I always found a bit hokey about David Lynch’s doomed ’84 version was the over-theatricality of the performances and line readings. Here, Villeneuve and Co. inject what feels like actual human inflections into the dialogue, with the excellent cast stepping up to flesh it all out with nuance and subtlety. There’s light-hearted, often amusing banter between characters and certain relationship dynamics have a relatable quality to them that helped drawn me in and invest in the journey the characters were on.

Duncan Idaho – In the 1984 version, loyal security advisor and secret operative to House Atreides, ‘Duncan Idaho’ (Richard Jordan), has exactly three scenes, the last of which sees him get *SPOILERS* killed by a heavy dart shot gorily into his forehead during a fierce battle. Here, Jason Momoa (Aquaman) actually gives us reasons to believe he’s one of the most loyal and trusted badasses on the Atreides homeworld of Caladan. He’s given considerably more screen time and impact on the narrative, and therefore you feel it when the inevitable happens.

Shields – David Lynch’s Full Body Protection shields were definitely products of the technical limitations of the early 80’s, coming off like orange blocks of hardened Jell-O drawn over any character using them onscreen. The effect is definitely questionable now, but was even a little ‘not sure about that’ back in the day. Thankfully, effects have caught up to the imagination of the source material and now the shield workings and overall effect are WAY cooler.

Ornithopter Design. I’m sure it’s just nostalgia talking, but I have a soft spot for the bulky, highly un-aerodynamic gold design of 84’s helicopter substitutes, the ornithopter, a mode of transportation that factors significantly into the story. I know that what we got back then wasn’t how they’re described in the book so I expected that the design would feature some changes.

What I didn’t expect that was that they would become mechanized dragon flies.

I remember my initial skepticism when I peeped the first trailer. HOWEVER…having now seen them in action, I can easily say that I readily approve. Yes, they are clearly inspired by real-world insects but up close, they look like something born of the current Apache or Cobra assault choppers of today, and I was A-OK with that. Several times, the way Villeneuve showed them in flight had me thinking back to Ridley Scott’s terrific Black Hawk Down (2001) and how he chose to film choppers in flight for that harrowing flick. I mean that as high praise.

Use of Blades – One thing that blatantly stood out to me was the lack of ‘weirding modules’, a sound-based gun-like weapon used prominently in (invented for?) the 1984 version. Instead, the vast majority of characters use knives or short swords and it worked for me, while also working to again differentiate this version from that which came before.

The Attack on Arrakeen – One sequence that’s prominent in all versions of Dune is the bold and devastating surprise attack by Harkonnen forces on Dune’s capital city of Arrakeen and the way it was shown here was awesome and tragic. Huge scale destruction that really sold the scope of the conflict.

Gurney’s Boldness – Patrick Stewart is amazing and the first time I ever saw him was in his portrayal of top military adviser to House Atreides ‘Gurney Halek’ in ’84. He was a gruff and poised character who had a few badass moments to shine. This time, Josh Brolin (Sicario) steps into the role and runs with it (at times, literally). He comes across as both caring and stern, firm but fair, and when the shit hits the fan, he more than steps up. This is acutely demonstrated during the destruction of Arrakeen when he leads a charging attack, on foot, against a group of landing enemy attack ships, slaughtering his way through. Very cool.

Leto’s Humiliation*SPOILERS* ‘Duke Leto’ (Oscar Isaac) dies. He’s ambushed and paralyzed by a traitor from within his house, but that same traitor, having his own reasons, sets the beaten ‘Duke’ up to cast a final strike against his (their) sworn enemy, the ‘Baron Harkonnen’ (Stellan Skarsgard) through the use of a poison gas tooth. In the ’84 version, ‘Leto’ (Jurgen Prochnow) is just laid out on a slab, waiting for the ‘Baron’ to approach and gloat. Here, the paralyzed ‘Duke’ is stripped naked and plunked down to sprawl painfully over a chair at the end of a long table, where the Baron disgustingly dines as he savors his victory. That one scene said so much about the ‘Baron’s cruel and vindictive character and it was great.

Sign Language – It’s established early on that ‘Paul’ and ‘Jessica’ have their own secret method of communication in the form of sign language that they use several times as the 2 hour and 35 minute run-time plays out. I liked this small detail and how it was employed.

Lasers – There are two key sequences where laser beams are used as offensive weapons and the word ‘beams’ is completely appropriate. I loved how they weren’t zipping bolts of energy, as shown the first time around. Here, they’re crisp blue lines of directed energy that destroy anything they sweep over.

Paul and Jessica’s Escape – This was a good sequence in 1984 and it’s even better here, from the characterization of the brutish Harkonnen guards to the effects of the ornithopter in flight as Mother and Son are flown out to the open desert to be cast into the wasteland to die. Solid stuff!

Fremen Actually Seem Dangerous – I wasn’t terribly blown away by the portrayal of the Fremen back in ’84, finding them cartoonishly stoic and overly Shakespearean (somehow). This time around, the tribe comes across as one with their environment and one determined to fiercely fight back in a style that made me think of the Viet Cong or, dare I say it, the Taliban (interesting observation, given the clear Arab influence on the story, both literary and cinematic).

Music – Others have mentioned this but renowned composer Hans Zimmer’s contribution to the ‘flavor’ of Dune is undeniable. He’s taken a far more tribal approach than his normal ‘superhero / Christopher Nolan friendly’ style and it compliments the vast desert vistas and darkened corridors beautifully.

Rebecca Ferguson – This gorgeous Swedish actress is a fairly recent discovery for me but I love her in everything I’ve seen her in. Looking shallowly past her exceptional acting ability, at a glance she doesn’t have the ‘look’ in women that I normally find beautiful or sexy…but, for some reason, she is easily both, and I love it. Her portrayal of ‘Jessica’ had some nicely handled layers and she was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Definitely want to see where ‘Jessica’ ends up in Part Two.

The Sand Effects – The desert (of Mexico), as portrayed in ’84, was perfectly gorgeous and definitely acted as its own character, but was also just kinda…there. They went a bit further here and almost gave the sand a life of its own, especially when showing the passage of the massive sand worms. The shifting and splashing movements are clearly emulating water and the juxtaposition of seeing ‘Paul’ wandering the ocean-side beaches of Caladan in Act One to watching literal waves of sand crash at his feet on Arrakis in Act Two was inspired.

The Action is Genuinely Exciting – I’m sure the sense of grandeur and scope helped this but several action sequences had butterflies in my guts as they played out, catching me up in the action and giving a thrill that I’m finding harder and harder to come across in the wasteland of CG-laden genre flicks of Today.

The Stillsuits – Way back when, knowing of my strange obsession with Dune, my lovely grandma (RIP) made me a pair of terrifically detailed stillsuit PJ’s (based on publicity pics for the movie). She’d even marked the matching dark grey fabric with mock sand stains around the knees and elbows. This was due to me thinking the design was cool at the time…and I still do today. That being said, I loved the new updated version, with new features like the hoods and masks being logical additions that only made them look sweeter and more sensible.

The Voice – Again, I liked what they did back in 1984 but the update is even better, sounding creepy and powerful when used.

Stilgar’s Bluntness – Back in the day, Fremen leader ‘Stilgar’ (Everett McGill) came across as a melodramatic damp rag of a man for most of the performance, with no real development or establishment of unique characterization. Jarvier Bardem’s (Skyfall) version, right from the get-go, has a gruff, blunt, couldn’t-give-a-fuck personality that actually made me laugh out loud the first time he was introduced. I got the impression of someone who is master of his own domain while also being socially awkward with newcomers, and it worked beautifully.

Where They Chose to End It – As clearly established with the onscreen title, this is Part One, covering the first half of the first book. The flick closes out as ‘Paul’ and ‘Jessica’ have been accepted into the ranks of the Fremen (through a fight to the death) and are being led into the deep desert with a vow to fight back and avenge his father and the destruction of House Atreides.

Now I guarantee there’s more that I can vomit onto this here page about Dune, but I think you get the point.

All in all, Denis Villeneuve’s updated adaptation is great and I got almost exactly what I had hoped I would get. And by that, I mean we get an excellent cast, a well thought out script that did it’s own thing out from under the shadow of the notorious 1984 version, a lot of solid pacing (Villeneuve may have listened to criticism’s of Blade Runner 2049) and some incredible world-building, all bolstered by a solid music score and incredible special effects. Villeneuve’s deft hand with a sense of grandiose scale through the use of composition and lighting is a star of its own here and goes a long way to support the argument for a theatrical viewing (still not sure if I regret watching at home for the first time or not).

If I have to dredge up a Negative, and I should for the sake of fairness, I can readily say that the run-time, at moments, can be a bit of a slog. Had they somehow shaved fifteen minutes off, the narrative would hum along. As it stands, there are odd moments where I found my attention slipping. Thankfully, there were so many other cool details coming at me that I easily re-engaged during those lulls.

If you have any love or even a passing appreciation for Dune in any form, I’d say you owe it to yourself to see this one. To others maybe not too familiar with the source material or the other attempts at adaptation, go in knowing that, at very least, you will be treated to a large-scale science fiction epic that has an agreeable dose of hard-hitting action and a flavor that pulls the viewer into the larger-than-life (but still somehow grounded) ‘reality’ of the onscreen universe.

“When is a gift not a gift.”

-Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

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