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Dune Part 1

Dune

All these people worried about what spices are going to
be served at dinner

dir: Denis Villeneuve

2021

I was a bit worried when I heard that Denis Villenueve was tackling Dune, but I shouldn’t have worried. He’s probably one of the consistently best directors making big budget movies around. Look at this list of movies: Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and now Dune, all solid movies.

Maybe I was a bit more worried about Timothée Chalamet as the lead, because, look at him, he’s Timothée Chalamet, for fuck’s sake. He’s no Kyle McLachlan, that’s for sure.

But he does okay. If ever a role called for a moody emo kid in a trenchcoat to look moody and such, well, Chalamet is your boy.

The scale is BIG, everything is really BIG. Production values, through the roof! There’s nothing cheap about this production, no siree.

I am one of the few people who actually has fond memories of the ‘original’ version of this, directed by David Lynch, that came in 1984. I liked it, but I was twelve. That’s not an excuse, it’s just that at 12 I liked a bunch of things that maybe weren’t great. I hadn’t discovered women yet and wouldn’t do so for many more years, so maybe I didn’t have a lot of life experience as to what stuff was great and what stuff sucked back then.

I saw it at the movies, and I saw it a stack more times on a VHS copy in the following years. I know that long arse flick backwards. Kyle McLachlan played Paul Atriedes, Francesca Annis played his mum, and a whole bunch of other legends played various characters. Sir Fucking Patrick Stewart was in it! Dean Stockwell! Sean Young? Jurgen Prochnow? Virginia Madsen? And there were giant worms, and people could kill people with just using their voices. And it had an amazing look to it, both retro and ultra futuristic.

I’m not here to defend that film, just to say while it might have been a bomb, no film David Lynch has ever made has ever been completely worthless (with the possible exception of Fire Walk With Me). And I read the book too, but the film always mattered more to me than the book did.

Fidelity to the book also never really concerned me that much. This flick does everything it can to make this all seem serious and important. There’s no fucking around here: everything is deadly serious. The state of, um, the universe is at stake.

Well, maybe not. When I was that young, I wasn’t savvy enough to know that all this bullshit about messiahs and empires and colonisation and such was bad, and that these kinds of stories that talked about The One and rightful rulers and aristocratic crap was just another way to convince people that the Divine Right of the aristocracy to rule us peasants was God’s will, that Manifest Destiny was right and proper, and Terra Nullius was what Jesus himself wanted.

And I’d also seen Lawrence of Arabia by that age, and also still thought stories about white guys going to places with other ethnicities and dominating them was right and proper for king, country, shits and giggles. So a sci-fi version of that seemed to make perfect sense.

The people making this film here know that that white savior narrative doesn’t fly anymore. So whatever noble savage / exoticism might have been in the original story, the narrative here goes strongly out of its way to undo a lot of that bullshit. The Fremen, the native population of this planet called Arrakis, or Dune, are depicted as great warriors and such, but they’re a multi-ethnic, multi-hued bunch of people, led by Stilgar, who’s played by the great Javier Bardem, so, you know, not as racist as before (where all the Fremen were played by the whitest white people David Lynch’s casting people could find).

The story, ultimately, can’t be that different. But it’s how it’s about the various stuff that matters.

Everything is exquisitely shot, appropriately acted, utterly grand in scale. Rebecca Ferguson has managed to have quite a year. She’s managed to be in both one of the worst and one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Here she plays the mother of Paul Atriedes, the Lady Jessica, concubine to Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, fully bearded). She is also a Bene Gesserit, which is, I am not sure exactly what you would call them. Some reviews jokingly refer to them as space nuns or space witches, but they’re something more than that. They have, as a group, some powers of mental discipline and manipulation (getting people to do stuff with The Voice, which isn’t an reference to that crappy singing contest show), but they’ve also been trying to create some kind of SuperJesus by manipulating the aristocratic bloodlines.

Maybe Paul is the result of centuries of genetic manipulation, maybe he’s just a surly teenager, despite the fact that he must be well into his twenties by now, but either way he’s a bit more skilled, or abled, than someone like him should be.

This is why Ferguson stars quite well in large sections of the flick: she created Paul, against the wishes of her order of space nun witches, out of “love” (for which we see no evidence, in that there’s barely a scene I recall between the duke and his chatelaine), but she at least seems to care for her son. She also seems desperately afraid for him.

In a scene that’s almost exactly the same in the book and in the earlier film, Paul is tested by the Reverend Mother of her order, using a pain box and a needle coated in a instantly lethal poison. She tests him with pain to see if he is something more than human, and though it has the same outcome as in the previous flick, instead of having Paul recite the “fear is the mindkiller” speech in voiceover, Jessica is reciting it, feeling some of Paul’s pain, and is trying to help him focus through its recitation.

And, what do you know, it works!

There are many scenes, many fleeting images, many elements that make me think Villeneuve wanted to pay homage not only to the earlier film, but also to the version of Dune that legendary and insane director Alejandro Jodorowsky never got to make.

Too bad he couldn’t use the Toto soundtrack from Lynch’s version. Instead he has Hans Zimmer providing another Hans Zimmer soundtrack blaring the loudest Hans Zimmer horns you’ve ever heard, louder even than what he does in those Christopher Nolan films.

I really liked that soundtrack, though probably using a synthesizer-heavy score from the band that gave the world the lyrics “It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you / there's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do / I bless the rains down in Africa oo oo oh” wouldn’t fly in this day and age.

Also, they had that song Roseanna, that was pretty catchy.

There’s no Sting, unfortunately, in this flick either, but there is Stellen Skarsgard as the evil Baron Harkonnen, again proving that, at least in this universe, fat people are really evil, and skinny people are saints. The good Baron is as monstrous here as in any other adaptation, but at least there isn’t the overt homophobia as displayed in the Lynch version, or at least what some critics are lately saying was the overt homophobia in the earlier portrayal. I’m not sure I really got it. He was depicted then as a monster very much like ancient Roman hedonist who would happily drink a servant’s blood leaving them for dead; whether he was gay or bi or some variation thereof seems...very secondary.

When one aristocratic (and very cruel) coloniser is told to leave a planet, and a different set of (allegedly kind, in their eyes) colonisers take their place, at first they have delusions of being less cruel to the natives and improving production of the thing they’re on the planet to control anyway, being the Spice, the all powerful Spice. It’s the only thing that allows for travel between the stars, so whoever controls the Spice, controls everything.

The House of Atriedes being too dumb and noble to see that it’s an emperor’s plot to destroy them is central to the book, and this flick has no way of avoiding something so painstakingly obvious in its path of Paul going native with the, um, natives, and becoming The One.

So Duke Leto has to die, and Paul has to hook up with the Fremen and learn their wicked ways, which involves something to do with giant sandworms that the Fremen worship. Being from elsewhere, you’d think it’d be problematic for Paul to be accepted, but the Bene Gesserit have been at this for centuries, apparently. They’ve already instilled the idea in the Fremen that someone very pale will come from somewhere else and lead them on an interplanetary jihad to destroy their enemies and rule, I dunno, the galaxy or something?

The book is ever so big, so Villeneuve wisely decides to cut it in half. There is a lot of story, and a lot of what would be excruciatingly tedious exposition for people that don’t care or can’t care. The big elements that have to be covered and are covered are: Paul is like a pre-programmed messiah who can see bits of the future but nothing is set in stone; his father has to die, he has to go native, and then he eventually has to become, I don’t know, Emperor Space Jesus. They only, in this 2 and a half hour fucking film, get up to the bit where he has to kill a Fremen guy in order to join them.

What’s strange, or sad about this moment, is that Paul has had visions of a potential future, where, whatever the previous circumstances were, they would have been bestest buddies for life. But, because of something changing the course of what was to come, the other chap sees him as a bitter enemy. And the Fremen only fight each other to the death.

90% of the flick is Paul having visions of Zendaya as Chani, one of the Fremen. All of those scenes with Zendaya, which constitute, as I said with no exaggeration, 90% of the flick, are of Zendaya swanning around like she’s in another set of perfume commercials, something like “Desert Coloniser” or something equally witty.

Towards the very back end of the flick, he bumps into her, and she’s like “whattup could have murdered you just then”, and that’s about it. I don’t know if she’s destined to be Paul’s main squeeze, but hopefully, who know, they could change up the story, and they could remain penpals or something.

Powerful imagery. Massive scale. Meticulous set and graphic design. Deeply cliché and obvious story, regardless of the pretence of undermining or reconfiguring the coloniser’s narrative. Let’s see if the next part is good or truly a piece of shit in order to cast a fair judgment on the whole endeavour.

(tentative) 8 times they ride the giant worms and yell things about tequila out of 10

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“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” - Dune Part 1

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