Dune. Perhaps you’ve heard of the book by Frank Herbert? Best-selling science fiction novel of all time (or so I have seen it written), winner of the Nebula, co-winner of the Hugo, first in an endless series of sequels? Maybe you’ve even read it. Or half of it. Of it one may say: it has some fans. Obsessive ones, even.
My first Dune experience was in 1984, when as a wee sprite in love with movies, I walked into a giant theater and was handed a lexicon of wacky terminology I’d need to understand the movie. It didn’t help. David Lynch’s Dune is a bizarre and unlikely mess of a movie. Even as a kid in love with weirdness, it didn’t do much for me. (But we’ll return to Lynch’s Dune below…)
Many years later I read the book. I did not love it. Like many a beloved sf novel from that era, the world-building is complex and fascinating, the religious, political, and etc. ideas running through it are many, but the characters are thin and the story is lacking. Maybe it’s just my dislike of Chosen One stories. Dune is a Chosen One story, and there’s little that’s more boring than following a character for whom success has been foretold. I was not inspired to read the sequels. Maybe young Paul gets his ass handed to him down the road? One can only hope (or, I guess, read the books and find out–let me know).
Now there’s a new Dune on the block, or half of one, anyway, directed by Denis Villeneuve, who most recently made the less than compelling Blade Runner sequel, and before that the less than compelling Arrival, both stately, serious, Important Science Fiction Films, so he was a natural fit for Dune.
So. What did he do with it? Let’s have a nice chat and find out. Evil Genius, do tell, what’s your fabled Dune history, and on a scale of “It lulled me into so mighty a slumber I fear I’ve yet to awaken” to “Zippity crickets! When’s the sequel comin’?!”, exactly how boring did you find this new adaptation?
Evil Genius: Huh what? I was asleep, dreaming about heady perfumes, endless sand, and ear sweat. But thanks for asking.
Dune. It is indeed a book. Of pages. And, to be honest, one I liked when I read it ages ago and needed to not think about being a very dorky 10th grader. And so I wasn’t dreading this new version of Dune.
It couldn’t be worse than David Lynch’s melange of sweaty Sting and I can’t even remember what else. Floating fat men with mega-zits?
Or, as I would posit here: wrong.
This new Dune is like a series of perfume commercials, if the perfume was made either for or of worms. While Lynch’s version is bonkers and almost wholly terrible, at least it’s interesting. This one is just dull.
Even having read the book, I still have little idea who most of these characters were or why I should give a single fuck about any of them. And you know what? I didn’t. I spent most of its running time considering when I would encounter an emotional response and was only rewarded by a moment of small wonder when a digital desert mouse drank its own ear sweat.
It was a small moment, but lovely and moving. The rest was big and thunderous and empty.
So much is crammed into this first installment, you almost think George Lucas clever for including an opening scrawl about Imperial tax rates and space embargoes in his not-Dune space epic. Almost. At least that crap was over quickly and impossible to understand anyway.
This one takes 2.5 hours to suggest you might consider empathizing with the characters you just met because all the ones you tried to keep track of and care about have expired.
Sorry, Supreme Being, to be blunt. I know you’re a huge David Bautista fan. What did you think? That was a pretty great desert mouse, right? Want to share some of my ear sweat? I just harvested it.
Supreme Being: I would like to share some ear sweat! In fact I’m going to let this puddle of it condense into a malleable sweat/sand mixture I can shape into the form of an “actor” I’m going to name Dave Bautista. If there’s some left over, I’ll make a Jason Momoa to go along with him.
Which not to be rude or anything, but those two gentlemen, both of whom seem like genuinely nice people, are, as actors, about as convincing as desert mouse ear sweat. I’d take sweaty underwear Sting over those guys in a heartbeat.
For that matter, I’d take most of the cast of Lynch’s Dune over the cast in this one. Because Lynch, being Lynch, has a weird cast. One of my favorite shots in his Dune is a two-shot of Brad Dourif and Jack Nance. In a giant Hollywood blockbuster. Worth the price of admission.
Regarding the perfume commercial vibe of the new Dune, I had the same reaction, that I was watching a very hip add for a product so cool they didn’t even bother to mention its name. There’s plenty of imagination in this movie, yet it’s all in service of an entirely generic vision. A non-specific vision, let’s say. As if the filmmakers said, Okay, what do Dune readers envision, generally speaking, when they read the book? And then they went and tried to realize that general vision.
The likelihood of Jodorowsky actually being given the money to make his Dune was never more than a desert mouse’s ear sweat’s dream, but his vision for the movie is beloved because it’s so strange, not because it taps into some generally perceived reader’s take on the book. It’s the same with Lynch. Their visions tap into the book by accenting the alien weirdness of it.
Villeneuve’s vision exists as some sort of “realistic” take on this alien empire. Which is baffling. Baffling and boring and generic and where can I buy a bottle of this perfume, anyway? I smell like David Bautista and mouse sweat.
Evil Genuis: Yes. But that’s your natural odor.
You bring up Jodorowsky, which is correct. His Dune vision is like weirdness and awesomeness compressed into an awesomely weird diamond. Villeneuve’s Dune, on the other hand, is like a very expensive pillow made from Martian sand. Yes — it does contain all the elements of exotic mystery one might want and even enjoy, but in the end it’s just a vastly expensive soporific.
It isn’t awful. It isn’t offensive. It isn’t badly made or evil to small children. It just is awfully proud of itself, like a guy who just finished a 20-scoop sundae and now gets it for free. The achievement being getting something challenging done; not actually contributing much of anything to anyone.
And so, I watched it all. For much of its length, I played, “Who’s that actor that I vaguely recognize?” interspersed with a feeling that I had seen all of this before (Colonel Kurtz? Really?). Perhaps, then, that’s what this Dune lacks: something novel or different. I liked Arrival — although granted it did come at an emotional time for me — and felt that was a story that struck a strange chord in a new way. This struck no chords.
Except for that mouse. And that mouse, it was persevering. It was showing pluck in the face of immense pressure. Why, you ask, did I feel for the mouse and not for Paul Atreides? Or Duncan Idaho? Or Montbank Huffnonce? I knew them no better or worse than the mouse, true. But for the mouse, the situation was plain. Small mouse; big desert. For the others — yes even Montbank — the situation was a parfait of semi-incomprehensible intergalactic history, personal affiliations, and pseudo-religious tripe.
Fear may be the mind killer, but so is lethargy. Give me a simple mouse who needs to survive; you can keep the scion of a great house who resents his imperialist burden and immense privilege. That shit is bores-ville.
And then everyone on the internet loves them some Dune, and I remember when people tried to tell me that Guardians of the Galaxy was as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark and I feel very very very very very very very old. As old as spice. As old as intergalactic warfare. As old as sand.
Maybe I’m wrong to feel nothing at Dune but at Dune, I feel nothing. About Dune, I give zero fucks.
Supreme Being: Ha! Yes, why is Baron Harkonnen supposed to be Colonel Kurtz? I almost forgot about the Brando’s sweaty head hand-rub reference. Hard to say why it was there or what we should take from it. Which is pretty much my feeling about the movie overall: Why is it here, and what should I take from it?
Should I take a nap from it? I never felt amazed at this Dune. The look, like Arrival, is one where nothing pops, where the lighting in night scenes is the same on backgrounds as it is on the actors, such that everything blends into a monotonous brown/gray sandy nothingness.
Lynch’s Dune is better now than it was in ’84. We didn’t know Lynch yet in ’84. Looking back at Dune after seeing the rest of his work, all of his strange visual motifs are present, his actors are ones he’d use over and over again, his weirdness is all there to see, even if it’s buried in a garbled script and a story that feels like reading redacted Cliff Notes.
It’s hard to see how the new Dune will stick in one’s mind any longer than the latest perfume commercial.