Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Part 1 is now in theatres. I can’t recommend it. It isn’t terrible. It is merely mediocre. I found it dull to the eyes, grating to the ears, and a drag on my patience. Villeneuve spends 156 minutes and only gets halfway through the novel. David Lynch told the whole story in 137 minutes. Of course audiences are willing to sit through long movies if they are really good: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance. But this film isn’t in that league.
This is a pity, because Frank Herbert’s original novel, published in 1965, is one of the twentieth century’s great works of popular fiction, brilliantly synthesizing both the futurism of science fiction and the archaism of fantasy literature. Set more than 20,000 years in the future, Dune is the story of two noble houses fighting for control of the planet Arrakis or Dune, which is the sole source of the most valuable substance in the universe, a psychoactive drug known as “spice.” Dune and its five sequels have been read by millions, inspiring whole universes of fan art and fan fiction, as well as a number of screen adaptations, to say nothing of rip-offs like Star Wars.
The first screen adaptation was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed production, which may have been the greatest movie never made. David Lynch’s 1984 Dune was a flop, but it is a brilliant movie and remains the best version. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel did a three-part Dune miniseries which was quite flawed. Its sequel, the Children of Dune miniseries (2003), dramatized Dune’s first two sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. It is excellent, despite its poor special effects.
A Dune movie is also politically significant. Frank Herbert’s vision of the future was deeply reactionary. He depicts a world where liberal democracy failed and has been replaced by a feudal imperium. In Herbert’s imperium, artificial intelligence has been destroyed as oppressive and remains under the iron ban of a syncretic form of Christianity. Computer technology is a great leveler. Without it, humanity must fall back on natural gifts, which are rare. To refine these gifts and make them more common, eugenics is practiced. Biological sex differences are recognized. Bureaucracies are disdained as repressive instruments of equality and fairness. The story of Leto II in Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune is opposed to surveillance and empire in favor of freedom and pluralism. Herbert believed that mankind would never be safe unless we could free ourselves from the leveling gaze of a single, universal political order. (See my article on “The Golden Path.”)
Beyond that, Herbert has quite compelling reasons for his belief that liberal democracy will not take mankind to the stars and that mankind can only spread across the galaxy by returning to archaic social forms like hereditary monarchy, feudalism, and initiatic spiritual orders. (See my article “Archaeofuturist Fiction: Frank Herbert’s Dune.”)
Herbert’s vision of the future is also gloriously Eurocentric. His imperium is medieval Europe writ large, while his vision of Arrakis and its native people, the Fremen, is based on Arabia, i.e., the Near East—“near” in relation to Europe, that is.
Thus from a Right-wing, European identitarian viewpoint, it would be wonderful to have a really good movie to sell Herbert’s vision to a whole new generation.
It is always remarkable when the modern film industry adapts inherently reactionary literature like The Lord of the Rings, Dune, or—on a much lower level—the Twilight saga. Of course the industry would prefer to churn out stories in which whites, especially white men, are ritualistically humiliated and replaced by nonwhites and strong women. With inherently reactionary and Eurocentric stories, they have less room for propaganda.
Dune does have an anti-colonialist aspect, but that is Left-wing only if one ignores the fact that ethnic nationalism is anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist as well. Dune also involves a struggle for a scarce resource, but that lends itself to vulgar Leftist materialism only if one ignores the fact that the resource’s primary use is spiritual and that the imperium is ruled by honor-driven aristocrats and mystical initiates, not by merchants. Thus the best Villeneuve could do to subvert Dune is play up these aspects (e.g., in the opening narration), hope nobody asks questions, and stuff the cast with non-whites and strong women, lest Herbert’s fans think that race and sex differences actually matter.
Race clearly mattered to Herbert. He envisioned all of his characters as, if not European, at least as Caucasoid. The imperium is European. The Fremen people of Arrakis believed themselves descended from Egyptians. The only character with any hint of non-Caucasoid ancestry is Duncan Idaho, who was described as having high cheekbones and narrow eyes. Idaho, of course, is an American Indian name, so Herbert may have been hinting at some such ancestry. But Idaho also has wavy hair—likened to a karakul sheep—which is not an American Indian trait.
The earlier adaptations of Dune have been faithfully Eurocentric, in keeping with Herbert’s vision. Villeneuve’s new movie puts nonwhites in key roles.
The character of the Imperial Planetologist, Dr. Liet Kynes, was memorably portrayed by Max von Sydow in Lynch’s film. Here he is played by a very black woman (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). Villeneuve even invents a scene where she is a bit sassy before being swallowed by a giant sandworm. (It isn’t quite “Say hello to my little fren’,” but that’s the vibe they were driving for.)
Liet’s daughter Chani is played by a mulatto actress, Zendaya. (Villeneuve tries his best to make her glamorous, but with her flat nose and big lips, she’s a solid five.)
Half-Hawaiian bodybuilder/martial artist Jason Momoa plays Duncan Idaho and actually looks the part.
Doctor Wellington Yueh, despite his name, was not described as Oriental or cast that way in previous adaptations. Here he is played by a Chinaman.
Some minor Fremen characters are also blacked-up: Harah, the wife of Stilgar, is played by Gloria Obianyo. Jamis is played by Babs Olusanmokun.
Given that the villains, the Harkonnens, are depicted as bald headed and pasty white—with part-Filipino Dave Bautista in whiteface as Rabban—I feared that Villeneuve wished to turn Dune into a race-war between putatively racist whites and a coalition of non-whites and white race-mixers. But the movie blunts that message by making some of the villains nonwhite as well.
Near the beginning, Villeneuve invents a scene in which the Emperor’s herald proclaims the Atreides family stewards of Arrakis. The scene hints at the grandeur of the imperium and the ethos of the Atreides, but its main purpose seems to be to put a very strange looking black man in a prominent role as the Emperor’s herald. But the Emperor is one of the bad guys.
Later in the movie, the Oriental doctor Yueh turns out to be a traitor.
At the end of the movie, the young hero Paul Atreides is called out to fight Jamis, a cocky, pigheaded, and deranged black man. Paul tries to avoid the fight, then deescalate the fight, but he is finally forced to kill Jamis. This is not the sort of parable I expected in the present Year of Our Floyd. It makes you feel for Derek Chauvin. Maybe BLM will riot in memory of this miscreant too. George Floyd was no more real a victim than Jamis, and the movie industry has deep pockets.
Dune is an objectively good story. Casting nonwhite actors in white roles doesn’t change that. But it is a calculated insult to the author and to white audiences, who are getting mighty sick of it. It is also simply a farce, like casting blacks to play Anne Boleyn or Marshal Mannherheim. When one sees such casting in movie theatres, one should openly scoff. Of course all this diversity casting simply invited the charge that Dune is now a “white savior” movie, something that could not be said about earlier adaptations.
How do the performances in this Dune compare to earlier versions?
Timothée Chalamet is good as Paul Atreides, but he is not better than Lynch’s Kyle MacLachlan or the Sci-Fi Channel’s Alec Newman. Unlike the other Pauls, Chalamet actually looks like a teenager.
Oscar Isaac is good as Duke Leto Atreides. I actually find him marginally better than Lynch’s Jürgen Prochnow and far better than Sci-Fi’s mumbling William Hurt.
Rebecca Ferguson is good as Paul’s mother Jessica, but not better than Francesca Annis in Lynch’s film. Ferguson shows a great deal more emotion than Annis, which makes her more relatable, but Annis better captures the coolness and strength one would expect of an initiate of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. The best Jessica of all, however, is Alice Kriege in Children of Dune.
I had high hopes for Charlotte Rampling as Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam. She is good but not better than Sian Phillips in Lynch’s film.
I also had high hopes for Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, but even in the trailers he looked puffy and out of shape, and his performance is inferior to the best Duncan, Edward Atterton in Children of Dune.
I thought Javier Bardem was a good choice for Stilgar, but he looks terrible, had few lines, and did not come off as a leader. The best Stilgar is Steven Berkoff in Children of Dune, although he overacts.
Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård is quite disappointing as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He plays the Baron like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurz in Apocalypse Now. Kenneth MacMillan’s over-the-top but unforgettable Baron in Lynch’s film is more successful at communicating his madness. Ian McNeice is the Sci-Fi miniseries is more successful in communicating his intelligence and urbanity.
Villeneuve’s Gurney Halleck, Dr. Yueh, Thufir Hawat, Shadout Mapes, Piter de Vries, and Rabban are all adequate but not superior to Lynch’s cast.
Even though Villeneuve has plenty of time for characterization, the only characters in this film who seem better fleshed out than in Lynch’s film are Duke Leto Atreides and Duncan Idaho. Most of the other characters are less well-drawn and real than in the Lynch film.
Prophetic dreams and visions play a huge role in Dune. Nobody beats David Lynch in that department.
The chief flaw of Lynch’s Dune are the special effects. The Sci-Fi Channel has cheap special effects too. Villeneuve’s special effects are superior, but what really matters is how the technology is used. This brings us to the question of design, where Lynch is again superior. Villeneuve’s ships, cityscapes, and interiors are not particularly interesting or imaginative. I liked Lynch’s “ornithopter” designs better simply because they didn’t look like they could fly. The city of Arrakeen is less detailed, realistic, or interesting than countless pre-digital science fiction worlds, including the original Star Wars and Blade Runner, which they clearly rip off. So much money and technology went into this movie’s sets, designs, and effects, yet very little talent and taste.
A major failing of Lynch’s Dune is a lack of grand landscape photography. Villeneuve gives us some spectacular landscapes on the watery world of Caladan, but like Lynch, he depicts the desert world of Arrakis as dark, gloomy, and ugly. This is a shocking lapse of taste and simple, basic showmanship. Deserts are beautiful places. Just look at David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Lean, by the way, would have been the perfect director for Dune. He knew how to create epics. He knew how to photograph deserts, palaces, hovels, and battles, and make every frame look like a great European painting. Imagine if after Dr. Zhivago Lean’s next project with screenwriter Robert Bolt was Dune rather than Ryan’s Daughter. It would have been poetic, given that a major influence on Dune was T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Technology is supposedly progressing, yet cost-cutting has brought us a world where air travel is slower and less comfortable than 60 years ago, where the Concorde was scrapped, and where movie images contain less detail and depth of focus, to say nothing of beauty. If I were running things, 70mm cameras and supersonic jets would be as standard as seatbelts.
Which Dune adaptation is most faithful to the original novel? All three take liberties, but based on the first half of Villeneuve’s version, it is the most faithful to Herbert’s book. But his fidelity consists in including a lot of chases, fights, and escapes that feel like standard pulp science fiction fare. They make for good action sequences in the film, but they really aren’t necessary to reveal character, illustrate deeper themes, or advance the overall story.
Jodorowsky wanted Pink Floyd and Magma to compose the music for his Dune. Brian Eno contributed the best music to Lynch’s film, but Toto was responsible for most of the score. It is adequate, but it is not Pink Floyd. I don’t remember a single note from the Sci-Fi series score. Villeneuve hired Hans Zimmer for his Dune. Based on the first trailer, which incorporates Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” from Dark Side of the Moon, I had hoped that Zimmer’s score would be an homage to Pink Floyd. He tries to do that, but it is mostly oppressive, tuneless electronic noise. I wish Villeneuve had hired Brian Tyler, who did a magnificent orchestral score for the Children of Dune miniseries.
Based on his movies Sicario and Arrival—which are well-scripted, tightly directed, artful, and thoughtful action and science fiction films—I had hoped that Denis Villeneuve would develop into the next Christopher Nolan. But he has disappointed me with Blade Runner 2049 and now Dune. These were gutsy projects, because they invited comparisons with Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Dune. Sadly, in both cases, Villeneuve comes out the lesser director. But in today’s film industry, that won’t hurt him a bit. He has a bright future as the next Joss Whedon or Zack Snyder, aborted talents who busily churn out high-budget, lowbrow spectacles.
The best way to sum up my feelings about Villeneuve’s Dune is that, even though he has reserved three fascinating characters—the Emperor, Feyd Rautha, and Alia—for Dune, Part II, I’m not the least bit curious to see it.