Dune, 2021? Yes. Today.
A review of Dune, 2021
Content warning: Bagpipes
Saw Dune at the theater.
Place was pretty packed. Cinemark did away with their COVID era policy of reserving the seats between parties, so I had someone next to me. Coincidentally, I got my 3rd Moderna shot today. Those things are nothing to do with one another.
Risk aside for another day, I am glad we saw this at the big screen place. The movie is huge, and deserves a huge screen and gigantic speakers.
Dune has a reputation of being unfilmable. But look: Movies aren’t books, and books aren’t movies. Nobody ever properly adapted the story for the screen before now. Lynch’s magnificent fuckery ripped of Jodorowski’s adaptation in all the worst ways. I love/hate it. Kyle McLachlan is the worst casting choice in history and I’ll fight you. The Lynch thing tried to do waaay too much of the head-hopping that happens in the novels, and that’s the biggest thing that needs to be adapted: Screen audiences don’t have access to inner dialogue.
Put away the 1984 movie for now. Just see this one.
Casting and character adaptations:
Oscar Isaac is competent as Duke Leto Attreides. He’s played softer than the source material, maybe a nod to changing times. Young people might not relate so well to a distant, cold father, and that’s probably OK.
Rebecca Ferguson is great as Lady Jessica, given what she had to work with. She gets a lot more screen time than Isaac, almost as much as Tim Chalamet. This version of Jessica simpers and weeps. She’s weak and maybe naïve. The source material has at least some of this, and I’m hoping she toughens up as her arc runs through the next movie or two. At this point in the story, she’s just an acolyte, a breeder, not yet a reverend mother full of poise and reserve. We shall see. And with Ferguson at the helm, I look forward to seeing.
Tim Chalamet does fine as Paul Attreides. He’s at least younger looking than McLachlan. He pulls of naïve and headstrong. There are times when young Paul tries to stand up to bigger people, using his bloodline and implied authority or just his training as ducal heir when the house has collapsed. Chalamet manages to make this tentative, a child getting the hang of the bicycle. He could grow on me. Part of the challenge is Paul isn’t a super-relatable character. He is cold, distant, self-absorbed, power-hungry. He has in mind some kind of abstract justice but also revenge, and wants the best for humanity in the abstract but rarely in the specific. I don’t think Chalamat tries hard to make him likeable, and that’s a risk.
I could take or leave Josh Brolin. Gurney’s not a central character anyway, more of a legend. They dropped the baliset idea from this adaptation, although there are bagpipes. Gurney doesn’t play them. His poetry is flat, stilted. Nobody comments on it. Could’ve left it out if he wasn’t to be the warrior-troubadour of legend. His whole arc with Jessica is missing.
Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho absolutely shines. He’s a bit of a meathead, but Duncan is, too, in other ways. Like, I wouldn’t have written the dialogue the way it appeared here. But Momoa couldn’t have read the lines I wrote. He seems natural, real in a way the other characters aren’t, a low-caste fighter. Perfect. In the novels, Idaho is a sex-pot. He has a natural musk the ladies can’t resist, and gets shoved into the role of spy. That whole byplay is gone, too, but they kept the sexy. It’s all right. Also, Idaho gets a more heroic death than in the source material.
Beat Rabban is just sort of there, and Dave Bautista is just sort of him. He’s thick, dull, brutal. Perfect. No attempt to overplay the role.
Stellan Skarsgard is predictable good at the Baron Harkonnen. Fat suit and make-up to fill out the part, without going overboard on the fat shaming. Don’t know why they left that part in at all, honestly. It’s not Herbert’s finest moment. Harkonnen is as cold as Herbert’s Leto here. None of the laughter, the joy in deviousness, none of the perversion (or maybe a little but not on-screen). The byplay with Piter DeVries is gone. They had to pick some characters to focus on and Piter didn’t make the cut; he barely has lines. So it’s just Harkonnen plotting, explaining a few little points in the fewest possible words to Rabban. A lot more is implied than said.
A lot of other secondary roles. Charlotte Rampling is fine as the Reverend Mother Mohaim. Javier Bardem is my least favorite casting choice. Not my Stillgar. I think Bardem is an increasingly absurd cartoon of himself, a distraction. Zendaya is Chani, and I look forward to meeting that character more fully in the next film; here, she’s just an adolescent fantasy for Paul.
Liet Kynes has been gender swapped. In the Dune universe, patriarchal feudal society has come all the way back. All the big, juicy roles are men. They almost had to flip Kynes—an academic rather than a lord—for actor equity if nothing else. I support the change. Sharon Duncan-Brewster fills the stillsuit boots just fine. She also gets a more heroic death than in the source material.
People of various races get to play parts in the movie. That’s good. It needed it. This is modernity. Even if America weren’t increasingly diverse, movies have to play all over the world.
There is a little tendency for Black characters to get murdered by white ones. I’ll reflect on that more privately because I don’t know if it means anything yet.
And the Emperor is missing. He just doesn’t appear in this movie at all. It’s weird. There must be some big reveal planned later? Like he’s a twin of Paul’s dad or something? Or he’s a woman? No idea. But they went out of their way to conceal him.
The dialogue is for sure smoothed out into more normal, spoken, vernacular English. I wouldn’t have done that. I also don’t make money writing screenplays. It seems to have played well. Even film-goers who had bad experiences with the novels and the 84 film seem to have liked the dialogue much better. Although we did lose the best line in all of the novels: “Mood? Mood is a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset.”
A lot of stuff had to go to fit even the first thematically similar part of the story into one longish film. So the script drills down on a few key characters. Others machinate in the wings or have brief scenes. We get a lot of Paul and Jessica, a little of Paul and other characters, a little bit of Rabban and his uncle.
With so much going on and so much need for concision and brevity, it was weird to introduce a Herald of the Change. I’m not sure that scene added anything (except Benjamin Clementine’s face; he might be the most singularly striking, beautiful man I ever saw). I thought everything else was tight, fitted, necessary to the story.
Well, except for the opening.
Beginnings are, as Virginia Madsen notes as Princess Irulan in the 1984 film, perilous times. As a retired novelist, I’m here to tell you the first chapter is the hardest, and the first paragraph of that chapter the apex of hard. Except for the back cover summary. But I’m retired now, so I don’t have to think about that anymore. You can’t make me.
The opening is a Fremen (was it Chani? The start of this film was almost 24 hours ago now and I don’t remember) talking about the history of oppression on Dune. The expectation that, with the Harkonnens gone, she’s waiting to meet their new oppressor.
That plays in modernity. We’re rightfully self-conscious about oppression we’ve historically gone through and historically enacted. Does this bit of story go here? I’m not sure. There’s little in the story to justify it. Stillgar mentions it in passing that maybe Leto could try to stay away from his villages. At the end, Harkonnen tells Beast Rabban to kill all the Fremen. The Attreides want to use them as an army, and no-one seems to see that that’s oppression, too, but there you have it. Otherwise there’s no grinding despair, no water pirates, no humiliating poverty. The wasteful wet-garden is gone from the story. The Fremen barely figure in part 1.
It’s a prologue. The trouble with prologues is, they should usually just be chapter 1. If you’re writing a prologue that isn’t about the main characters, the risk is nobody cares. People sometimes skip the prologue entirely. If it’s good, the reader attaches to the characters in it, then loses interest because the novel isn’t about them. Here we have the film equivalent. A virtue signal that gets dropped from the rest of the film, totally forgettable because it doesn’t go here.
If they wanted to make the film about Fremen oppression, they could’ve done a much nicer, fuller job of it. The source material is there.
So I put 2 and 2 together when the Green Knight came out. This one movie house did that fantastic bullshit, and also Hereditary, and also Midsomer. Flipped-over cameras, long looks at scenes in which nothing is happening, and gigantic noise adding drama to totally still set-pieces. These films amazed me, blew me away. I don’t claim to understand them, but they were at least fresh.
Dune borrows a lot of this. Not the upside-down landscapes (OK, there’s one: A Guild transport dumps Harkonnen landers. They disgorge, then float up above the mothership. The “camera” pans up, and we see Dune above the Guildship, so really the landers are falling down.
But the NOISE. This movie is GIGANTICally LOUD. The soundtrack seems natural, unintrusive (for an example of an intrusive soundtrack, see the second Star Wars trilogy from the 90s). But the big set-pieces, the pans across alien worlds or space or the desert, have this thunderous, epic music. Grand and grandiose. Worth going to the films for.
Is that cinematography? Maybe not. But it seems they planned the pans for this effect.
Each world is distinct, fully realized. Caladan is wet, green, foggy like Ireland. The 84 movie uses baroque architecture and scrollwork to signify age. On Caladan, we have a royal cemetery that extends for hundreds of yards. The implication is strong: House Attreides is ancient and has always been on this ground. An aerial overflight of the desert conveys heat, desolation, and loneliness. (The characters mention the heat more than once but nobody actually ever seems hot. Maybe they learned from the Lynch movie—actors actually collapsed from the heat on those sets). Geidi Prime is maybe the least detailed place. Does it need to be bigger? If it does, they’ll wrap around to it later. We didn’t spend much time there.
The colors are good and the palette tells a story. Costumes are fine, again not my choices but fine, looks like world people live inside.
Plot and story
This is a 2.5 hour movie that introduces the main conflicts of the novel. It gets about 1/3-1/2 of the way through that story.
A lot is surrendered or done as implications. Yeuh’s arc is there but brief, more implied than told. Gurney and Jessica don’t have a thing, Jessica and Thufir don’t, Idaho doesn’t give the game away to her in a fit of unexpected drunkenness because outworlders are naïve about spice beer. All gone.
The central Bene Gesserit mission is outlined really clearly because otherwise the Kwizatz Haderach makes no sense in the film.
The Kanly is gone, the generations-long blood-feud between Harkonnen and Attreides. The conflict still works as it is; it never needed that depth but it works in the novel.
The story is much tighter. It has to be.
Dune is unfilmable. That’s what adaptation is for: to tell a filmable story. Movies aren’t books and books aren’t movies.
So, this was everything I needed it to be. It was an epic spectacle, avoiding fanservice and the mistakes of other adaptations, with a clear and cohesive vision. The actors are good, the acting is good, and Ben Clementine is a gorgeous man.