by MIKE ORLOCK
Since its publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune has been the “great white whale” (let’s make that “worm”) of movie adaptations. It seemed a natural for the big screen: A young hero of patrician birth but egalitarian sensibilities on a mystical quest, an evil empire in pursuit of a rare and valuable resource on a remote and desolate planet and willing to exterminate an indigenous population to get it, palace intrigue amid warring noble houses, romance, witches, monsters, swashbuckling action and adventure.
Several heavyweight directors have given it a whack, including Ridley Scott, who ultimately became so frustrated trying to tame the material that he poured his creative energies into making Alien instead. Young film-school grad George Lucas channeled his admiration of the book into an homage he titled Star Wars. Finally, oddball auteur David Lynch (Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) brought his unique imagination to a truly bizarre adaptation in 1984 that was so ridiculously campy it played like an outright parody of the entire space-fantasy genre.
So when Warner Bros. announced in 2017 that it was bankrolling a new production to the tune of $150 million-plus, under the direction of French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villenueve (just coming off multiple Oscar nods for his sci-fi film Arrival), the news was met with snickering skepticism. Since the Lynch disaster, which nearly bankrupted independent producer Dino De Laurentiis (no small achievement, that), the critical consensus seemed to be that chasing Herbert’s sprawling story down worm holes on the planet Arrakis was a fool’s errand. Why risk failure that enormous for rewards that would seem minuscule in comparison to the Star Wars franchise?
I am happy to report that the film Villenueve has delivered is everything that the previous film was not: intelligent, exciting, engrossing and beautifully crafted by a production team and cast of actors committed to the material in ways that Lynch and company never seemed to be.
Villenueve’s cagiest move was probably structuring the story as a two-part venture. Part One ends just about midpoint in Herbert’s narrative, with Zendaya’s desert warrior Chani warning Timothée Chalamet’s coddled young aristocrat Paul that, as they prepare to escape into the vast and treacherous desert of Arrakis, “This is only the beginning.”
And what a beginning it is! If you’re familiar with Star Wars or fantasy fare such as Game of Thrones, you’ll have no trouble following the epic plot and many conflicts in Dune, even if you’ve never flipped through Herbert’s novel. The year is 10191, somewhere in the universe, and an aging, evil emperor, in a bid to solidify his power, pits two powerful families against each other: the cruel House Harkonnen, led by the Baron, a Jabba the Hutt-sized obesity played by a nearly unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgård; and the compassionate House Atreides, ruled by the Duke (Oscar Isaac), a progressive-minded nobleman intent on making his world a better place.
What’s dangled between these two competing clans is the “spice” trade on the planet Arrakis. Spice is a substance indispensable to the very survival of the empire, and it can be harvested only on this one remote, inhospitable planet. Complicating things are giant sand worms that swim through the dunes like killer whales, attacking anything that moves on the surface; and a race of indigenous tribespeople called the Fremen, who attack anyone who invades their territories and survives the worms.
Wedged between the competing factions is young Paul Atreides, the Duke’s only son via an arranged “relationship” with Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a witch from an ancient coven whose purpose is to prepare the empire for the arrival of the “Kwisatz Haderach,” or Chosen One: a messianic figure who will restore balance to the universe. Paul senses that he might be the One, and this, of course, leads to complications that will presumably be sorted out in Part Two (assuming it gets made) and hopefully in ways more convincing than in Lynch’s version.
Paul – and the Fremen – carry the allegorical heavy baggage in the story, but through Part One, at least, Villenueve seems less concerned with exploiting symbolism or drawing parallels to contemporary issues than in making an exciting movie that’s faithful to Herbert’s book, which is somewhat refreshing in this day and age of Big Statements.
To this point in the telling, his Dune isn’t into political messaging in the same way that James Cameron’s Avatar was, nor is it a snarky punchline in search of a joke like Lynch’s movie. Instead, it’s a fanboy’s dream come true: an opportunity to fully visualize a favorite book from his formative youth when, after finishing a story he didn’t want to end, he might have said, “Man, this would make a great movie!” Then he engineered his life in such a way that he could make it.
Dune (PG-13) is currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until Nov. 21. I encourage you to see it on the biggest screen possible. For comparison purposes, if so inclined, watch Lynch’s Dune – also streaming on HBO – but I wouldn’t recommend watching it until after seeing Villenueve’s take. Why spoil a great meal with junk food?
In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.