Twenty-thousand years in the future, humans have travelled widely through space and live on numerous worlds. Society has returned to a feudal model of royalty and empire, except these now stretch across star systems. Royal families run corporations and fight amongst themselves for favours from the Emperor, who is the greatest of all powers. He rules the Intergalactic Imperium.
Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of House Atreides rules Caladan. The planet is an oceanic world which will be no help to the family when the Emperor offers them stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune). Currently, it is ruled by the brutal House Harkonnen and that noble house is deeply unhappy with the Emperor’s decision. However, the gift to the Atreides is a complex and dangerous one.
Soon after the Atreides take over Arrakis, it becomes clear that there have enemies and obstacles at every level. Their mining operations are hindered by poor equipment and sabotage. The Duke believes he can improve their fortunes, if he can make an alliance with the extremely independent desert people known as the Fremen. He describes this as harnessing “desert power”. All these troubles are witnessed by Leto’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet).
Paul has been raised to be the heir to House Atriedes and has learnt a very particular set of skills (oops that’s Bryan Mills from TAKEN). He also has a “shadow” education from his mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). She is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive matriarchal order who have attained great mental and physical powers through centuries of training. Going against the orders of her Reverend Mother, Jessica has trained Paul and now he now has powers and abilities beyond the abilities of mortal men (sorry, that’s 1950s Superman).
The upcoming fight between the noble houses is, as always, for power, but the object of that fight is the substance mined on Arrakis. It is known as the Spice or Melange and it has life-prolonging abilities. It also makes space navigation a reality. It is the most important material in the universe. The Fremen have so much of the spice within their bodies that it turns their eyes- the white and the pupil – blue. Dune is the only source of the Spice and the continual supply of it to the Houses and the Spacing Guild is crucial. House Atreides generally, and Duke Leto in particular, have been set up to fail and it is up to Paul and Jessica to use their training, skills and powers to save themselves from the oncoming threat of violence between the noble houses. New alliances will need to be formed and a deeper understanding of what Arrakis is will become necessary.
This is the set up for the current movie adaptation by Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian film director also responsible for SICARIO (2015), ARRIVAL (2016) and BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017). He has taken on a property that has a lot of expectation attached to it from readers who love the novel and the subsequent series of books and those who are fans of the earlier film and television adaptations.
Dune the novel, was written by American author Frank Herbert in August 1965. An earlier form of the story was published as two separate serials in Analog science fiction magazine; Dune World (Dec 1963-Feb 1964) and The Prophet of Dune (Jan 1965-May 1965). T.E. Lawrence’s accounts of his time in the desert fed directly into Herbert’s early ideas of Paul Atreides. He also drew from the narrative non-fiction novel of Lesley Blanch’s The Sabres of Paradise (1960). His own studies into the ecology of dune systems, was first inspired by a trip to Florence, Oregon where he experienced the Oregon Dunes.
When the novel was published it was a niche work that was a favourite of science fiction critics and readers, winning a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award. But for a readership outside of science fiction its reputation took some years to grow. Herbert dealt with the politics, commerce, philosophy, ecology and religion of his new universe and did so with a level of complexity and detail that was unusual. The book was considered a rather dense read. Fifty years later it is often cited as the greatest of all science fiction novels. It’s influence on other books and media is enormous (e.g. STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE, owes it a debt).
Such is the novel’s scope that for a time it was considered unfilmable. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s DUNE was in pre-production three years in the early 1970s. It produced much in the way of conceptual art but no actual footage. The Dino De Laurentiis produced, David Lynch directed, DUNE of 1984 was a flop as it only made back a portion of its initial cost. The 3-part miniseries for Syfy (2000) has received mixed reviews.
As of writing this review, DUNE (2021) has been released in a number of international markets as well as having a limited HBO release. It has done well enough in box office terms that a second film has been approved. The first film covers approximately half of the first novel. The response has, of course, been mixed. Denis Villeneuve’s version has convinced many viewers who know the material that it has successfully captured the feel and complexity of Herbert. Other viewers who know Herbert’s book and in some cases enjoyed Lynch’s film, have not been taken by this new version, complaining that it lacks much of the depth they were hoping to experience. So, we are in a YMMV-Your-Mileage-May-Vary scenario as they taught us call it at movie reviewer college (FYI, I just scraped through with a rating of two-and-a-half choc bombs.)
The world of Herbert’s first novel is one of my favourite pieces of science-fiction. I saw the 1984 Lynch film and was not a fan at the time, but have grown to like it more as the years have passed. I was certainly one of the viewers who wanted this to be excellent and that’s how I found it. I had hopes of this because of the mystery and the feeling generated in Villeneuve’s 2016 movie, ARRIVAL. There he created something unlike anything I had felt in movie science-fiction. Based on an Eric Heisserer screenplay of a Ted Chiang story, the movie genuinely made you wonder how an alien mind might view us; human motivations, public and intimate were examined. Villeneuve showed he had the ability to present a big picture and small detail in the same story.
In Dune, the filmmaker has delivered a blockbuster that gives us a view of a complicated society and a planet that is lethal to anyone human who doesn’t respect it as the Fremen do. Villeneuve often gives his scenes layers of light, dust and shadow that create a sense of a place we have never seen and yet is peopled with characters driven in ways we absolutely recognise. I have the advantage of knowing the material, but there has been much feedback online suggesting that many who were new the story have subsequently picked up the book to understand further the universe they have glimpsed. This attempt to stitch together a spiritual and mysterious world with big bucks special effects is further aided by the top-notch ensemble cast; Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem do fine work embodying their characters.
DUNE runs for 2 hours and 35 minutes. My rating is 9/10.