If movies can have previews, why can’t movie critics release “pre-reviews”? I ask because September 9th was the release date of the first trailer for the first half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Dune is one of the most-anticipated movies of 2020. Trailers can build up a lot of excitement for a film, but they are immediately forgotten when the movie actually appears. Yet due to COVID-19, there is a real chance that more people will see the movie’s trailer online than will see the actual film in theaters when it is released in December, and it may take months before the film is released on video and streaming services. Until that time, this and any subsequent trailers will eclipse the film itself.
Hence this little experiment. I want to prereview Dune based on the first trailer, plus other information gleaned from interviews and promotional materials. When (and if) you see the film, you can judge my prereview for prescience.
Any Dune adaptation is highly significant, because the novel is one of the great works of twentieth-century popular fiction, straddling both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. First published in 1965, Dune inspired legions of fans. Herbert wrote five sequels, and after his death his son Brian Herbert, together with Kevin J. Anderson, wrote more than a dozen Dune universe books, none of which I have read.
This movie is also significant because Dune has already inspired a series of screen adaptations. The first was by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which was highly influential even though it was never filmed. David Lynch’s 1984 Dune belongs in the category of great flawed films. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel did a four-and-a-half-hour, three-part Dune miniseries, which I thought was pretty bad, although its sequel, the Children of Dune miniseries (2003) is surprisingly good.
Dune also inspired screen homages and rip offs, most notably the vast Star Wars “franchise”—which is what the movie industry calls a “mythos.”
Beyond that, a Dune adaptation is politically important because, as I have argued in “Archaeofuturist Fiction: Frank Herbert’s Dune,” , Herbert’s vision is deeply reactionary, anti-modernist, and anti-liberal—and for quite compelling reasons.
Based on his movies Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve is a highly talented director of both science fiction and action films. Thus he was a good choice to direct Dune. But will Dune be a good movie? Will it be better than the Lynch or the Sci-Fi Channel’s versions? (Yes, the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation was inferior to Lynch, but it included plot elements omitted by Lynch but not by Villeneuve, so it is reasonable to compare the two.) Will Villeneuve’s film bear any relation to Jodorowsky’s Dune? This three minute, five second trailer contains many clues.
Perhaps the chief flaw of Lynch’s Dune are the clunky special effects. The Sci-Fi Channel version’s effects also look cheap. Based on the trailer and Villeneuve’s other science fiction efforts, this adaptation beats the rivals easily in this department. But this is largely due to advances in technology. The big question is whether Villeneuve’s use of the new technology be tasteful or vulgar. Based on the trailer, I can’t yet decide. Aside from the sandworms, most of the effects in the trailer are static images that give one a sense of the design of vessels. But the test of effects is how well they move.
Another flaw of Lynch’s Dune was a lack of grand landscape photography, especially on the watery world of Caladan and the desert planet of Arrakis. Lynch mostly used models without much context. Fortunately, the trailer shows us glimpses of dramatic vistas on both planets. Another flaw of Lynch’s Arrakis is that many of the scenes, even in the desert, are dark, gloomy, and ugly. Deserts are beautiful places, but you’d never know that from the Lynch film. Unfortunately, based on the new trailer, Villeneuve’s Arrakis is almost as dark and ugly as Lynch’s.
Villeneuve’s movie dramatizes the first half of the Dune novel. The setting is more than 20,000 years in the future. Mankind has colonized the entire galaxy. No other intelligent life forms have been found. Because of the great distances between planets and the high cost of space travel, the political order is feudal. Noble houses (Dukes, Counts, Barons) rule entire planets, all of them subordinated to the Padishah Emperor on far-off Kaitain.
In addition to the noble houses, the other major powers are secretive initiatic societies dedicated to the development of human capacities.
The Spacing Guild has developed higher mathematics and prescience to traverse space.
The Bene Tleilax brotherhood, who are Sufis, has developed mnemonics and to create “mentats” (human computers, because artificial intelligence is religiously prohibited), yogic superpowers that allow them to shift shapes, and genetic engineering techniques.
The Bene Gesserit sisterhood has developed skills in martial arts (the Weirding Way), memory sharing, hyper-observation and abductive reasoning, seduction and sex, religious and political deception, and eugenics.
Nobody knows what their ultimate goal is, but their proximal goal—which they are nearing—is breeding a superman, the Kwisatz Haderach (shortener of the way), a Janus-like figure who will be able to access all of his ancestors’ memories as well as presciently peer into the future.
The most valuable resource in the universe is the so-called spice mélange, harvested from the sands of Arrakis, also known as Dune. The spice extends life but also expands the mind, thus it is used by the Guild, Tleilaxu, and Bene Gesserit in all their schemes to transcend the human condition.
The plot of Dune centers on the struggle of two noble houses, the Atreides and the Harkonnen, for control of Arrakis. But this is no normal aristocratic feud, because the most precious resource in the universe is at stake, and one of the players, Paul Atreides, the fourteen-year-old heir to Arrakis, may well be the Kwisatz Haderach the sisterhood has been searching for.
In the trailer the two primary characters are Paul Atreides, (played by Timothée Chalamet) and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), who has come to test Paul’s powers on the eve of the Atreides’ departure to take control of Arrakis. Their scene and bits of dialogue from it are intercut with flashes of events to come as the Atreides are attacked on Arrakis by the Harkonnen. Paul and his mother are forced to flee to the desert, where they take refuge with the Fremen, the indigenous people of Arrakis.
I wasn’t thrilled when I heard that Chalamet was cast as Paul. He does not look as good as Lynch’s Kyle MacLachlan or the Sci-Fi Channel’s Alec Newman. He looks too delicate for the action sequences. But it is difficult to find an actor who can pass for a teenager and handle the role. Judging from the trailer, however, Chalamet has some steel in him. He will probably do the character credit.
One of the best sequences in Lynch’s film is when the Reverend Mother tests Paul with “the box.” We see glimpses of this in the trailer. Lynch’s Reverend Mother was played beautifully by Siân Phillips. In the Sci-Fi series, she was played by a Czech actress, Zuzana Geislerová, who would have been forgettable if her stupid hats and heavy accent had not made her ridiculous. (She was much better in Children of Dune.) Based on the trailer, Rampling has poise and a great voice. She will do justice to the role.
The only other character in the trailer with significant lines is Duncan Idaho. (Baron Harkonnen and Chani have just a few words.) Although Idaho is a very important character, especially in the subsequent books, Lynch’s adaptation left little room for Idaho, who was played by Richard Jordan. In the Sci-Fi miniseries, he was played by the forgettable James Watson. (In Children of Dune he was memorably played by Edward Atterton.) Villeneuve has cast the half-Hawaiian bodybuilder/action hero Jason Momoa to play Idaho.
Momoa is a very good choice. The first half of Dune contains a number of flight and fight scenes featuring Idaho that were cut by Lynch. These will make excellent action sequences, so Momoa with his heroic physique and martial arts skills will shine in them. As for Momoa’s mixed race ancestry: Duncan Idaho is really the only character in Dune who is described as not being white. “Idaho” is an American Indian name, and the character is described as having high cheekbones, a somewhat flat face, and dark, wavy hair like a karakul sheep. Momoa actually looks the part.
Oscar Isaac plays Duke Leto Atreides. This is actually a better choice than Lynch’s Jürgen Prochnow and Sci-Fi’s William Hurt, since the Atreides are supposed to have a Mediterranean look (brunette, aquiline noses) and descend from the ancient Greek house of Atreus. Isaac, who is of Cuban, Guatemalan, and French ancestry, looks the part. Chalamet, who is half-French, half-Jewish, does so as well.
A beautiful Scottish-Swedish actress, Rebecca Ferguson, plays Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother. She looks good, but not as good as Francesca Annis in Lynch’s film. Saskia Reeves in the Sci-Fi series was too earthy. Alice Kriege (the Borg Queen) was, however, utterly regal in Children of Dune.
Just as Kyle MacLachlan looked like he could have been the child of Jürgen Prochnow and Francesca Annis, Chalamet looks like he could be the son of Isaac and Ferguson.
Josh Brolin is a great choice for Gurney Halleck, the Atreides weapons master, who was memorably played by Patrick Steward in Lynch’s film.
I can’t complain about Villeneuve casting a Chinaman to play the traitor, Dr. Wellington Yueh, even though he was not described as oriental. Thufir Hawat, the Atreides mentat and Master of Assassins, is played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has some black ancestry, but who looks quite white. So even this choice doesn’t really stray from Herbert’s vision.
As for the Harkonnens: Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård plays the mad Baron, Vladimir Harkonnen. Dave Bautista plays his brutish nephew Glossu Rabban. Bautista is part Philippino, but is in whiteface. The Baron’s nephew, Feyd Rautha, does not appear in this movie. David Dastmalchian plays the Harkonnens’ twisted mentat Piter De Vries. With his Armenian, Iranian, and European ancestry, Dastmalchian is a strange looking guy and inspired casting for this role, which was memorably played by Brad Dourif in the Lynch film.
The Fremen leader Stigar is played by Javier Bardem. He’s a great actor and will be the best Stilgar yet, although Steven Berkoff was outstanding in Children of Dune.
Unfortunately, at this point Villeneuve’s casting goes completely off the rails.
The character of the Imperial Planetologist, Dr. Liet Kynes, is described by Herbert as a natural leader of astonishing nobility as well as a scientific genius. He was memorably portrayed by Max von Sydow in Lynch’s film. Villeneuve has decided to cast Kynes as a very black woman (Sharon Duncan-Brewster).
This is such outrageous political correctness that Villeneuve claimed that it was necessitated by his choice of a mulatto actress, Zendaya, to play Liet’s daughter Chani, who becomes Paul’s love interest.
This argument is complete nonsense, however, since Zendaya presumably had a white male parent, so there was no need other than blatant racial appropriation to change Kynes’ sex and race. And, of course, it is also racial appropriation to cast his daughter as a mulatto.
But it gets worse. Villeneuve casts two other Fremen with black actors as well. Harah, the wife of Stilgar, is played by Gloria Obianyo. Jamis, who fights with Paul and is killed, is played by Babs Olusanmokun.
This is a very bad sign, for it seems likely that Villeneuve wishes to portray the Fremen, who are the good guys, as primarily non-white. Given that their enemies, the Harkonnens, are depicted with shaved heads and conspicuously white skin, Villeneuve is turning Dune into an anti-white race-war prosecuted by non-whites and white race-mixers (Paul, Stilgar). This isn’t Frank Herbert’s Dune. Like every other piece of mainstream entertainment, Villeneuve’s Dune is just another version of the White Genocide script.
The fact that America has been convulsed for four months by people LARPing the same script is producing a great deal of fatigue for blacks and their white saviors. If COVID does not turn audiences away in droves, this blackface desecration of Herbert’s vision just might. In the past, I could overlook this kind of casting if other parts of the story were good. I don’t think I can do that anymore. This isn’t a game. Our race and civilization are dying, and the politicians, journalists, activists, and artists who are promoting the Great Replacement are simply evil. Denis Villeneuve has desecrated Dune. This movie deserves to bomb as badly as Disney’s Star Wars.