Dune, Part One (2021) Dune/Dune, Part One (2021) **½

     In 1978, United Artists released Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings. It sucked, but that was really only half the problem. Bakshi had always intended the film to be merely the start of a two- or perhaps three-movie series (depending on whether box office returns were deemed favorable to a prequel adaptation of The Hobbit to follow the second Rings picture), so he ended on a cliffhanger corresponding to a point about two thirds of the way through The Two Towers. After all, the source book filled three volumes, originally published at approximately yearly intervals, so it wasn’t absurd to assume that breaking the story up into multiple films would have no deterrent effect on the target audience. Bakshi’s proposed title— The Lord of the Rings, Part 1: The Fellowship— would have called attention to those plans, and trusted the Tolkien fanbase to understand what he was up to. However, for reasons that kind of make sense in the context of an industry in which everyone wants to be the second person to do something original, UA boss Andy Albeck (who took over leadership of the studio just as The Lord of the Rings was entering the final stages of production) wasn’t having any of that. He didn’t believe for a second that anyone would pay full ticket price for just half a movie, and thus The Lord of the Rings went out with a title and a promotional campaign calculated to conceal that half a movie was exactly what it was. Tolkien mania was still a potent enough cultural force for Bakshi’s film to turn a profit, but a lot of fans were pissed when they saw how they’d been bamboozled— and normies who’d taken a chance on The Lord of the Rings were predictably even more so. That reception made it easy for Albeck to justify pulling the plug on part 2, in accordance with the Hollywood tradition that a new studio head’s first action is to scrap as many of his predecessor’s projects as possible.

     I remind you of all that because not one bit of the marketing for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has acknowledged in as many words that it was being split into two films, either, with the production of the second half contingent upon the performance of the first. In order to understand what you’d be getting yourself into by buying a ticket, you had to be (or at least to know) the sort of person who follows news about forthcoming movies’ prerelease development. I happen to fall into that category at least some of the time, but I know very well that most people don’t. Would moviegoers as a whole be just as peeved to get only half a Dune as they had been to get only half a Lord of the Rings? And if so, could that be enough to stop the second half from ever getting filmed in the first place? A new Dune always struck me as a tough sell for the blockbuster audience anyway, so my plan had been to sit this one out until it hit home video. By that time, I figured, it ought to be apparent whether Warner Brothers had repeated UA’s mistake, and I could adjust my expectations accordingly. To my considerable surprise, however, Dune is shaping up to be the closest thing to a genuine hit that the pandemic-discombobulated cinema industry is capable of producing this year, and so here I am catching it in the theater instead, unexpectedly secure in anticipation that Villeneuve won’t be leaving us blue-within-blue-within-blueballed after all.

     Villeneuve reveals an important interpretive difference between his Dune and David Lynch’s take from the mid-1980’s right up front. Instead of giving the scene-setting opening narration to the Princess of the Known Universe (who won’t be appearing at all this time around), this version entrusts it to a girl named Chani (ascended Disney kid Zendaya), whose people, the Fremen, were the first humans to colonize the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis many thousands of years ago. Arrakis is an inconvenient world to call home, and not merely because just going outdoors can kill you during most hours of the day. Its hurricane-like Coriolis storms can generate wind speeds in excess of 800 kilometers per hour, turning sand and pebbles into metal-shredding micro-projectiles. Its dominant indigenous species is a worm which the Fremen call Shai-Hulud, averaging over 300 meters in length, capable of swimming through the planet’s loose sand as if it were water, and regarding literally anything smaller than itself (which is to say basically everything) as prey. But by far the worst nuisance on Arrakis is the planet’s vital role in the economy of the Imperium of the Known Universe. Intermixed with the sand in the dune oceans most frequented by Shai-Hulud is a poorly understood substance called Melange— or alternately, the Spice— which, along with having a variety of physioactive and psychoactive properties, somehow or other makes interstellar travel in its current form possible. (Perplexingly, Villeneuve and his cowriters never explain how that’s supposed to work. In the source novel, however, regularly ingesting Melange enables one to see the quantum waveform of the future, which is a useful ability for people charged with piloting starships at relativistic speeds to have.) Furthermore, Arrakis is the only place in the Known Universe where the stuff can be found. For generations, the imperial Spice-mining concession, and the governorship of Arrakis along with it, has been held by the Harkonnens of Giedi Prime, a dynasty infamous across the universe for their ruthlessness, cruelty, and perversion. You can imagine how that must have worked out for the Fremen. But then one day, for no reason discernable from Arrakis itself, the emperor recalled the Harkonnens, and transferred authority over the planet and its vital resource to the Atreides dynasty of Caladan. Chani scathingly sums up her people’s attitude toward this development: “Who would our new oppressors be?”

     To his credit, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, from Annihilation and Mojave) has no desire to oppress anyone. He’s also a savvy enough politician to recognize that he and his family are almost certainly walking into a trap by accepting the Melange-harvesting concession. The Imperium, you see, is a constitutional monarchy in which the emperor shares power officially with a congress of noble houses called the Landsraad, and unofficially with the Spacing Guild (a sort of intergalactic teamsters’ union) and the Bene Gesserit (an order of psionic space nuns). Although we never get to see this for ourselves, we’re told that Leto is among the most popular and influential figures in the Landsraad, making him an obvious potential rival to the emperor. Consequently, or so Leto suspects, House Atreides is being set up somehow or other on Arrakis. Maybe they’ll be given an impossible production quota. Maybe the emperor intends to move against them in some way once they’re separated from their power base on Caladan. Or maybe he’s counting on the Harkonnens to make trouble in revenge for the loss of their most lucrative income stream. In any case, the duke means to be ready. He intends not merely to befriend the Fremen, but to make reliable military allies of them, on the theory that anyone who can live in the trackless deserts of Arrakis is most likely tougher even than the emperor’s elite Sardaukar warriors. With that in mind, Leto is sending Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, of Conan the Barbarian and Debug), his ablest and most loyal man-at-arms, to Arrakis ahead of the main Atreides occupation force on a mission to open diplomatic relations with the Fremen, to learn their ways and to gather as much intelligence about them as possible, and to win if he can the trust of their leaders.

     Duke Leto is quite right to be worried, naturally. Although the emperor has appointed a planetologist by the name of Liet Kynes (Rogue One’s Sharon Duncan-Brewster) to act as Judge of the Change— an officially neutral observer charged with making sure the handover of Arrakis from Harkonnen to Atreides takes place fairly and without violence or sabotage— he has also given her secret orders not to do her job. His Majesty has no legal right or authority to do that, of course, but since Kynes has gone fully native during her years of studying Arrakis and its people, she no longer has any loyalties to anyone but the Fremen, and we’ve already seen how many fucks they give about who represents the Imperium on their world. The emperor has also made a deal with Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skårsgard, from Beowulf & Grendel and Deep Blue Sea) to lend him three battalions of Sardaukar with which to reclaim his old fief by force, on the condition that the duke and his whole family are killed in the fighting. The baron’s chief adviser, Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian, of Blade Runner 2049 and The Belko Experiment), is already en route to Salusa Secundus, the Sardaukar’s hellish training planet, to make the final arrangements. Nor is imperial collusion the only underhanded advantage the Harkonnens will enjoy when they launch their attack. De Vries has also suborned the Atreides house physician, Dr. Yueh (Chang Chen, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Red Cliff), by abducting his wife and subjecting her to unspeakable tortures. Yueh’s role will be to handicap the defenses of the capital city of Arrakeen at the moment when the invasion force led by the baron’s nephew, Rabban (Dave Bautista, of The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption and Army of the Dead), descends from orbit.

     Even all that doesn’t exhaust the array of plots and counter-plots that we have to keep track of, either. The last major scheme playing out across the Imperium has got to take the cake in terms of complexity and far-sightedness, because it’s been inching quietly along for centuries, if not millennia. Those Bene Gesserit space nuns I mentioned before? They’ve been conspiring to breed a messiah called the Kwisatz Haderach out of the Imperium’s noble bloodlines, and they’re certain they’re no more than a generation or two away from success now. Indeed, one Bene Gesserit sister called Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, from Hercules and Life) believes House Atreides is so ripe for messiah-spawning that when she was installed as Duke Leto’s concubine 20 years or so ago, she disobeyed orders from her boss, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling, of Benedetta and Asylum), to bear the duke only daughters, giving him instead a son and heir— and possibly a Kwisatz Haderach. Leto knows nothing about any of these age-old machinations, of course, and neither does Paul Atreides (Interstellar’s Timothée Chalamet), the lad in question. So Paul is understandably freaked out when Reverend Mother Mohiam arrives on Caladan mere days before the ducal court is scheduled to embark for Arrakis to subject him to a life-or-death test of his discipline and self-control. Mind you, the old hag might be even more freaked out than Paul is when he passes with flying colors, in very much the way that one would expect a Kwisatz Haderach to do. Now it happens that Reverend Mother Mohiam holds a position of power and influence in the imperial court, and is thus privy to the emperor’s plan to exterminate House Atreides. But if Paul really is a messiah untold ages in the making, then obviously the Bene Gesserit order can’t allow anything to happen to him. Upon leaving Caladan, Mohiam goes next to Giedi Prime, where she extracts from Baron Harkonnen a promise that Paul and Jessica will not be killed in Rabban’s attack on Arrakis, no matter what becomes of the rest of their household. She ought to know, however, what a Harkonnen’s word of honor is worth, and she ought to know as well that Arrakis offers about 10,000 ways to see to an enemy’s death without ever directly laying a finger on them.

     For a little while, it looks as though the duke might just be able to overcome all the forces arrayed against him. Between them, his security chief, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, of Men in Black 3 and Nightwatch), and his vizier, Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson, from Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), do a creditable job of securing Arrakeen against emergent outside threats and getting the place up and running again despite considerable wrecking by the withdrawing Harkonnens. Meanwhile, Paul himself proves able enough to thwart the one enemy stratagem that Halleck and Hawat didn’t ferret out in time to neutralize it, an assassin with a venomous remote-controlled bug-bot who was literally walled up inside the governor’s palace to await the Atreides’ arrival. Leto’s approach to governance— especially his humane attitude toward the relative value of the commodity he’s been tasked with managing and the lives of the men and women doing the actual work on his behalf— favorably impresses Liet Kynes, planting in her head the notion that perhaps it might matter after all which of the Great Houses carries the imperial banner on her adopted world. Duncan makes similar headway with the Fremen themselves, enough at least to arrange for a face-to-face meeting between Leto and Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the leader of the community with which Idaho has been staying since he made first contact. But by far the most important steps toward the duke’s goal of establishing a new power base equivalent to the one he had to leave behind on Caladan are taken without him even realizing it. You see, the Bene Gesserit aren’t the only ones awaiting a messiah. The Fremen have a body of prophetic lore according to which an outsider will one day come to Arrakis to deliver them once and for all from imperial tyranny. This man will be the son of a Bene Gesserit sister. He will understand the Fremen’s ways as intuitively as if he were born to them. And of course he will be a warrior of great skill and courage. The more time Dr. Kynes and the various Fremen who perform menial roles in and around the governor’s palace spend observing Paul, the more they come to see in him echoes of their foretold savior, and the more eager to rise up against somebody they become. Mind you, none of these promising processes are very far along yet when Rabban and his invasion force fall on Arrakis like a sledgehammer from the void…

     I confess that I’m still grumpy about Dune getting split into two movies, especially now that three-hour running times are increasingly the norm for would-be blockbusters. David Lynch’s Dune felt rushed at 137 minutes, but at 155 minutes for just the first half of the story, Denis Villeneuve’s drags and drags and drags. It’s baffling how little all that extra time really buys, too. Although I left this Dune with a much firmer sense of Duke Leto’s and Paul’s personalities, and of their relationships with both each other and the principal Atreides retainers, than I ever got from the previous film, I also left with a great many more unanswered questions— and not at all the good kind of unanswered questions, either. As I said earlier, I have no idea what Villeneuve means the Spice to do in his interpretation, or how he intends for it to figure in the industry of space travel. Imagine trying to explain American foreign policy in the Middle East to a time-traveler from the 17th century, who doesn’t know about internal combustion engines, plastics, industrial fertilizers, or any of the thousand other applications that the modern world has found for petroleum, and I think you’ll see what a serious problem that is. I also couldn’t tell you what specifically Villeneuve imagines the Kwisatz Haderach to be, although that at least is forgivable considering where in the narrative Dune, Part One breaks off. For this phase of the story, the details don’t really matter beyond that Paul is a plausible contender from several different points of view. The lacuna that bothers me most, however, is that after more than two and a half hours, I have no more sense of who the Harkonnens are in Villeneuve’s telling than I would after reading an indifferently written Wikipedia entry. Compare that to the Lynch version, in which a single six-and-a-half-minute scene tells us everything we need to know about Baron Harkonnen, his two lout nephews, Piter De Vries, the Harkonnens’ end of the plot to crush the Atreides, and the entire scumfuck gestalt of life on Giedi Prime.

     Nevertheless, I’m favorably disposed toward Dune on the balance, and guardedly optimistic about where Villeneuve is going to take it from here. That’s partly because it gets enough right alongside all its faults, and partly because it is so obviously the movie that Villeneuve, personally and specifically, wanted to make. The latter is a much weightier consideration than it might have been in other eras, simply because Dune exists in the context of a Hollywood environment that has grown exceedingly hostile to such risky displays of individuality, at least where projects of this size, complexity, and cost are concerned. Remember that, whatever else it may be, Dune is an attractive piece of intellectual property, with an established fanbase and five preexisting sequels (without even counting the glorified fanfic that Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, won’t stop writing!) that could be tapped for future adaptation. It was a perfect target, in other words, for the sterile, creatively stifling content-creation model that dominates big-budget filmmaking nowadays. Consider the current incarnations of Star Wars and Star Trek, the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, the Legendary Pictures Godzilla and King Kong movies— even Universal’s ludicrous Dark Universe project. Think of the corporate micromanagement, the obsessive brand-building, the monomaniacal focus on the broadest possible palatability and on channeling viewers efficiently into the next franchise installment that have afflicted all of them to one degree or another. By any reasonable expectation, Dune ought to be more of the same, but instead it has as much personality (if not necessarily the same personality) as its famously odd source material. Even when Villleneuve’s decisions are questionable or downright bad, it’s obvious that they were mainly his decisions, and not those of somebody in a corner office somewhere whose primary concern is how to develop them into a theme park ride or a tie-in smart phone game app.

     And of course, plenty of Villeneuve’s decisions were indeed quite good. By far the greatest strength of David Lynch’s Dune had been its unforgettable production design, and my fondest (and vainest, or so I assumed) hope for this version was that it would approximate the older movie’s visual impact without merely copying its esthetics. This Dune fulfilled that hope to a shocking extent, even if it sometimes comes closer to merely updating the Lynch look than I’d ideally have liked. The various futuristic machines are especially appealing to me, since none of them owe anything to the ’84 Dune, and recall instead the delirious visions that typically adorned the covers of sci-fi paperbacks in the 70’s. Arrakeen, with its pyramids, domes, and minarets of sun-bleached sandstone, and its labyrinth of completely roofed-over streets and alleyways, is both a breathtaking sight and a believable concept in urban planning for a planet where you take your life into your hands just by leaving the fucking house. And given that Herbert imagined the star-spanning, pan-human civilization of the year 10,191 as being rooted most deeply in Persian, Arabic, and Islamic influences, it was a smart move for Villeneuve to play up those influences as well in the costumes and set dressings.

     Another strength that the new Dune shares with the old is that it’s just ridiculously well cast. And crucially, this time that extends to Paul Atreides. Unlike Kyle MacLachlan, Timothée Chalamet is genuinely plausible as Herbert’s teenaged Paul. For one thing, he has the kind of face that will continue to look 14 until he’s at least 45, and the scrawny, wiry physique to match. But more importantly, Chalamet brings to the role a sense of insecurity and self-doubt that really sells Paul as an easily underestimated youth thrown into the center of events much bigger than he’s prepared to handle. On that score, my favorite moment is the scene in which Paul learns, at a time when he’s already spent the past several days losing practically everything he’s ever known and loved, that his mother bore him in the hope of producing the Kwisatz Haderach. In a totally believable display of adolescent fragility, Paul lashes out at Jessica against the unfairness of the responsibility with which she’s been planning to burden him since before he was even conceived. On top of being an impressively astute and sensitive touch of humanity in a movie that could be forgiven for omitting such things, that scene more than anything gives me hope that Villeneuve understands that Dune is at bottom a deconstruction of Chosen One narratives, in which a messiah is the last thing you want running loose in your civilization.

     But perhaps Dune’s most unexpected virtue is Villeneuve’s appreciation for subtlety, rooted in a basic trust in the viewer’s intelligence. That’s something the previous film adaptation lacked completely, so it’s refreshing to see it here. Whereas the Lynch Dune in its final form was constantly intruded upon by raspy, whispering voiceovers serving as audible comic book thought bubbles, and by incontinent outbursts of clunky narration, Villeneuve is content to let actions and images speak for themselves after Chani’s prologue speech— and what’s more, the producers were content to allow that. To be sure, Villeneuve’s commitment to showing instead of telling does occasionally backfire, as with the aforementioned reticence about the precise role of Melange in space travel and the nature of the Kwisatz Haderach. More often, however, it yields results like the assassination attempt on Paul or Reverend Mother Mohiam’s test of his willpower, both masterpieces of understatement and pure visual storytelling. Villeneuve also understands the world-building value of strange things seen but never remarked upon, like the Fremen coffee-making ceremony that involves each of the participants spitting into the communal pot, or the disturbingly humanoid alien spider-thing that Baron Harkonnen keeps as a pet. Dune’s sense of humor is similarly low-key, with the defensible exception of Duncan’s gruff military bonhomie. Thufir Hawat’s dainty parasol, for instance, might be the funniest thing I’ve seen in a movie so far this year. The most important bit of subtlety, though, is all the material linking Paul to the desert mouse of Arrakis, the creature the Fremen call Muad’dib. None of it directly matters in Dune, Part One (indeed, viewers unfamiliar with the book are likely to wonder what’s the point of it), but we’ll be glad it’s here when Dune, Part Two comes along in 2023 or thereabouts. It bodes well for the forthcoming film, I think, that Villeneuve recognizes how far in advance some things need to be foreshadowed.



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