Movie Review: Dune (2021)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya
Runtime: 2h 35m
Rating: PG-13

(Spoilers for both film and book versions of Dune)

In the far-flung future, humanity has expanded its domain across the galaxy and settled back into an imperial form of government where entire planets are set aside as fiefdoms for the noble families who vie for evermore power while the jealous Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, sits back, watches, and waits. Behind the scenes, there are two groups who exert power from the shadows– one moreso than the other. The Mentats, men who are trained as organic logic machines who can calculate mathematics, statistics, and possibilities the way long-forbidden artificial intelligence could. The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, women who are trained in the art of politics, but who also have such perfect control over their bodies that they can choose the sex of a baby they conceive as well as developing prescient powers through the use of the Spice Melange, a psychotropic drug that can extend life and expand consciousness. It also allows the navigators of the Spacing Guild to calculate the interstellar jumps through time and space that allow this interstellar empire to exist at all.

Spice is vital to the empire. It comes from just one planet in all the Imperium– Arrakis, a desert planet controlled by the violent and tyrannical Baron Harkonnen, whose family has repressed the indigenous Fremen for the past eighty years.

But things are about to change on Arrakis. The jealous emperor has noticed that Duke Leto Atreides is growing more and more popular among the great noble houses. The emperor has no heirs. Though Leto has no intention of seeking the imperial throne for himself, the emperor has decided that Leto is a threat to him, and so he orders Leto to bring his family– his concubine Jessica and their son Paul– to take up management of Spice production on Arrakis, while the Harkonnens will return to their homeworld.

This is a trap for the Atreides. Baron Harkonnen knows it. Leto knows it. Try as he might, Leto will not be able to avoid his downfall.

Paul and Jessica escape into the desert, with little more than their training and their wits to keep themselves alive. But something strange is happening to Paul in this time of stress– his prescient dreams are happening in his waking mind, and the longer he is exposed to the Spice, the stronger these visions grow. And Jessica begins to fear that her son may actually become the Kwisatz Haderach, the super being the Bene Gesserit have spent centuries manipulating bloodlines to achieve. It is possible that Paul will be the one the Sisterhood has been seeking.

But first, he must survive the deep desert.

(This was meant to be a review of Dune as a whole, and it turned into just a look at the characters. More to come…)

Frank Herbert’s Dune was published in 1965. Since then, there have been three attempts at turning this sprawling novel into a film version. First was David Lynch’s notoriously awful version released in 1984, and then the Sci-Fi channel gave it a shot with a 2000 miniseries that was better, but hampered by 1990s television budgets and special effects. Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had an adaptation in the works in the 1970s, and it seemed that all the stars were aligning to make it happen– but then the studio balked at his plans and the cost, and handed the ill-fated project off to David Lynch.

(Note: The story of Jodorowsky’s doomed adaptation is told in the excellent documentary film, Jodorowsky’s Dune, which shows, among other things, how influential the project was, even if it never came to be)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Denis Villeneuve is the director most suited to making this latest adaptation of Dune. He has long been a fan of the book, and his sense of cinematic scale, tone, and mood is a match for the expansiveness of Herbert’s novel. Villeneuve can also capture a viewer’s attention in a science fiction film without having frenetic action constantly happening on screen; he trusts that the his audience won’t wander off just because there aren’t explosions or fights happening every couple of minutes. I, for one, appreciate that.

I also appreciate that Villeneuve respects his audience’s intelligence enough to not spend endless minutes explaining every little thing. We don’t get extended explanations of what a Mentat can do, we simply see Thufir Hawat and Piter de Vries do their rapid calculations and political manueverings, and we see Leto and Baron Harkonnen accept and use these calculations as a matter of course. It’s part of their world. Why would they explain it to each other? It would be like a modern New Yorker explaining what a smartphone is to someone from Chicago. The Chicagoan knows what a smartphone is, thanks.

We do get an explanation of the deeper motives of the Bene Gesserit, though, and I greatly appreciate that. The Sisterhood is responsible for much of the shadow politics of the empire, though few of the noblemen of the story realize this. In fact, in the book, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is surprised when Paul susses out the Bene Gesserit’s nature when she comes to test him with the Gom Jabbar. The women of Dune are powerful, but only the Mentats seem to have this figured out– but even they overlook certain clues in their quest for perfect calculation through logic. When the Reverand Mother tells Paul that no one will be able to get through the library doors because Jessica stands guard there, she means it. Jessica’s strength and abilities aren’t overlooked in Villeneuve’s version, but neither are her emotions. She’s allowed to have her moments of weakness, of fear, and of grief without being cast as a weak little woman who needs a man to take care of her. Jessica is a fully-fleshed out person who is also capable of quickly defeating one of the finest warriors on Arrakis. A female character like that is rare in classic science fiction (and even in contemporary science fiction), and I’m thrilled that Villeneuve gave Jessica her due.

And then there’s Paul Atreides, as portrayed by Timothée Chalamet, Hollywood’s current darling, whose floppy hair and fine-boned features make him just right for the small-for-his-age Paul, and while I can’t see Chalamet as a fifteen-year old (as Paul is at the beginning of the book), I can see him as a studious young man who just might spout some pretentious line of philosophical nonsense while thinking he is so, so clever. In spite of all his education and training, Chalamet’s Paul still has a lot to learn, and he will find many teachers in the desert. That said, there is something buried within Paul that has yet to awaken: an expanded consciousness brought about by generations upon generations of selective breeding directed by the Bene Gesserit. This mind, the Kwisatz Haderach, has the ability to bridge the gap between male and female perception (Dune the book shows its age by adhering to a strict gender binary, in which people are defined by specific masculine or feminine traits and abilities, and contributor Emmet Asher-Perrin wrote in 2020 of Villeneuve’s then-upcoming adaptation that Paul should be depicted as gender fluid, which makes sense in light of the Kwisatz Haderach’s ability to transcend his gender’s limitations and access the feminine side of his consciousness).

While Villeneuve doesn’t necessarily negate the book’s inherent gender binary and the gender-specific roles that entails, he leans on them a little less, softening it up by pulling back on the Mentats’ roles and pushing the Bene Gesserit forward. Paul has several positive relationships with the men in his life– especially with his father Leto, who understands Paul’s reticence when it comes to leadership– but in the first part of Dune (both in book and film), Paul’s primary relationship is with his mother, Jessica, whose decision to have a boy instead of a girl (as she was ordered to do by the Bene Gesserit) triggered a series of events that will change the Imperium forever and cause the Kwisatz Haderach to arrive a generation earlier than expected, an event the Sisterhood had not planned for. While Paul and Jessica’s relationship will change as his prescient abilities expand– and as his relationship with Chani (glimpsed primarily in prophetic visions in the film’s first part) develops into love– the core of it remains the same: Jessica will do whatever she must to help Paul survive, even if it means embracing religious iconography and customs that she knows were planted by the Bene Gesserit generations earlier.

I’ve hardly touched on the other characters of Dune, though I’m fascinated by all of them. Brolin’s portrayal of Gurney Halleck has the right balance of poet to warrior, though I would have liked to have seen him play a tune on the baliset, or perhaps sing a verse of one of his ribald songs. But alas, we don’t get that. Perhaps there will be a director’s cut someday that includes it. Regardless, it’s easy to see how Gurney cares for Paul, even if he is a harsh taskmaster who doesn’t cut Paul an inch of slack.

Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho is the sort of swashbuckling hero I always imagined him to be, and Momoa gives him the right amount of humor to separate his character from Gurney’s, as well as providing the ferocity in battle that the book’s Duncan is said to have, but isn’t often seen. And I have to admit that I’m glad that Villeneuve left out the scene where a drunk Duncan awkwardly confronts Jessica in the book.

Chang Chen is given short shrift in the film, however, as the treacherous Dr. Yueh receives little screen time, and his motivations are hardly mentioned. The Harkonnens kidnapped his wife Wanna (a Bene Gesserit) and tortured her. In exchange for betraying the Atreides and bringing down their shields, Baron Harkonned would release Wanna and allow Yueh to join her. This doesn’t end well for anyone, and Yueh knew that going into it. But he had to know for sure if his beloved wife was dead or not, and he provided Paul and Jessica a means of escape in an effort to mitigate his betrayal. I think an extra few minutes spent fleshing out this character (and including the lovely scene from the book where Yueh gives Paul a religious book, and Paul accidentally reads out Wanna’s favorite passage) would have been worth the time and provided a better explanation as to why Yueh did what he did.

Then there’s the evil Baron Harkonnen, portrayed perfectly by Stellan Skarsgård. Villeneuve made the right choice when he discarded the (very) outdated characterization of the book’s Baron and his homosexuality. In 1965, the psychiatric community still regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder (it would be removed from the DSM-II in 1973), and for a long time after that, popular culture generally portrayed gay men as either a joke or as a villain. Herbert’s portrayal of the Baron fell very much into the villainous side of things, with the Baron being not only gay, but a pedophile as well, a characterization that is discomfiting at the very least in 2021, and, really, is unnecessary to the story. Stellan Skarsgård captures the Baron’s vast appetites for food, wealth, and power without also making him a gay pedophile. I, for one, applaud this change. Just because a detail is in a book, it doesn’t mean we absolutely must see it on screen.

Then, lastly, we have Duke Leto Atreides, the doomed father played so well by Oscar Isaacs. The book provides a prime example of dramatic irony, wherein the reader knows more about coming events than the character does (making it like Greek tragedy, as the Greek audience arrived at the theater knowing what was going to happen in the story. No spoiler warnings necessary). Leto is a man taken away from everything he knows and sent into a trap where he is meant to fail and then be betrayed to his death by the emperor. There is no way out of this trap, and the reader knows it almost from page one of the book. Filmgoers unfamiliar with the book will likely begin to sense Leto’s oncoming doom early on, thanks to the many visual (and some textual) references to death and dying. He is a charismatic figure, but his death is inevitable– and not merely because the emperor is plotting to betray him. Leto is a man kept separate from the people he rules, and violently so, as we see multiple times when people approach him, only to be accosted by soldiers holding blades to their throats. Leto is also a man out of touch with the reality of his new planet. He sees it as his fiefdom to rule, but the indigenous people, the Fremen, see him as yet another oppressor. They have no reason to either respect or trust him, and so they largely disregard him. Leto is playing by imperial rules. The Fremen are not. Leto doesn’t have the flexibility of mind to be able to change as the situation demands, and so his downfall becomes inevitable. Thanks to his training, his own abilities, his youth, and his mother’s advice, Paul is able to change as the situation demands, and so he survives where his father does not.

I have more to say about this film and all that I’ve been reading and watching about it, but I’ve gone on long enough. To those of you who made it through, thanks for reading! I’ll be back with more Dune commentary another time.

8 thoughts on “Movie Review: Dune (2021)

  1. Some interesting thoughts on both book and movie. I’ve yet to see the movie but do hope to one day. One thing this post had me thinking about is how a movie doesn’t need to perfectly follow the book to stay true to it, and how perhaps the movie can be made stronger by changing some elements especially if they’re a relic of another time. In some cases it may even be the case that the author would have preferred to write parts of the book differently but didn’t feel the audience of that time would accept it. I’ve no clue if that’s the case here but I suspect is in some cases. Very glad to see you you enjoyed the film and it has you wanting to re-explore the book(s).

  2. Even though Villeneuve’s Dune veers away from the books the most of any of the adaptations, it stays closest to the spirit of the thing which I appreciate. Sure, the dinner scene is missing and Villeneuve made up some scenes on Caladan, and Irulan is entirely missing (despite being a steady presence in the texts quoted in the book’s chapter headings), but the spirit and scale are the same, and that’s one of the most important things (I think, anyway) for an adaptation. There are certainly things that have been changed due to modern sensibilities, but I’m fine with them being gone. .

    I hope you get to see it soon!

  3. I agree. Staying true to the spirit of the book is generally what’s most imporant to me, so I appreciate that. I’m ok with differences if it still feels right. Granted, that’s hard to quantify, but it’s one of those things you know it when you see it. And I hope to see it! 🙂

  4. Thanks for helping me make sense of Dune—despite the hopelessly confusing plot of the 1984 film. I also appreciate the fact that the current director chose not to portray the baron as a gay pedophile—a stereotype that should have been laid to rest long ago. Will use your review as a primer before viewing the latest version of this sci-fi classic.

  5. The 1984 film is baffling… I was worried about how Villeneuve would approach the Baron and his villainy, and I’m glad he just didn’t put it in there. The Baron is villainous enough without using awful stereotypes that were gross in 1965.

    I hope you enjoy the new film! It’s one of the best science fiction films I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend Villeneuve’s Arrival, too, if you haven’t seen it already.

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