A work like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (or Dune: Part One) is almost two distinct movies, offering radically different experiences (or ranges of experiences) to two audiences: those familiar with the universe of Frank Herbert’s landmark science-fiction novels and those coming to the film, as I did, more or less cold. Those two broad groups can of course be further broken down in any number of ways, but this basic divide is sufficiently emphatic that in the last few weeks I’ve been repeatedly asked by longtime Dune fans, who can’t imagine how the film would play to someone unfamiliar with the source material, whether I thought Villeneuve’s film works on its own.
Watching Dune drove home to me the extent to which no one in 2021 can really go into an adaptation of Dune completely cold. Not if they know, above all, the Star Wars movies, or Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, or even Tremors, not to mention the long trend of “Chosen One” narratives peaking in The Matrix and Harry Potter movies. Nor, for that matter, if they have any familiarity with Herbert’s own influences, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.
Dune has long had a reputation for being “unfilmable,” not in the a priori sense that, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or James Joyce’s Ulysses might be considered unfilmable due to their unusual formal qualities, but in a de facto sense, given the varying failures of high-profile efforts to adapt the dense novel for the screen. The train-wreck fascination of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary 1970s Dune project, a wildly ambitious undertaking that never got out of development hell, made for a compelling 2013 nonfiction movie, Jodorowsky’s Dune. Then there’s the muddled morass of David Lynch’ 1984 adaptation, a flop panned by critics and disowned by Lynch over interference from producers.
So far I’ve watched Villeneuve’s film twice: the first time just to try to take it in, and the second, after catching up with Lynch’s version as a point of comparison and contrast, to get at least some sense of Villeneuve’s contributions to the material. My main takeaway is that, while I’m not convinced I want to commit to plowing through the novel’s 800 or whatever pages, I’m eager to watch Villeneuve’s film again. I well understand, though, some of the reasons this response is far from universal. Dune is one of those rare films that can reasonably be held to justify fully both the worst and the best that can be said about it.
Solemn, portentous, dense with political and economic themes, and largely lacking in human warmth or humor, the film is tonally closer to the Star Wars prequel trilogy than the original trilogy. Yet the political and economic themes are at home in this bleak, messy universe in a way they never were in Star Wars’ fairy-tale world. And here’s a funny thing: For the most part the tonal limitations of each Star Wars prequel came to bother me only after the next film came out and I realized how ineptly the films functioned as a series, both on their own and in relation to the original trilogy. Villeneuve knows, it seems, exactly where he’s going — and, for some viewers at least, how to make the trip worthwhile.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.