I read Dune when I was 11 or 12. I was already a big science fiction fan and, with the movie coming out, I wanted to read the book. I was that kind of kid. I had probably already read Children of Dune (I had somehow skipped Dune Messiah until much later - probably because my local library didn't have it for some reason). It did lose me somewhat from God Emperor of Dune forward, but honestly anything after Children is largely beyond the ken of a pre-teen.
I say that because I was waiting with baited breath for the 1984 version. I had no idea who David Lynch was or anyone else in the movie except Sting, but didn't care. Unfortunately it took awhile to see it, and the reviews were terrible. I rented it when it came out on video and I thought it was okay; having read the book I pretty much understood what was happening but, again, there was a lot in Lynch's design of the film and a lot of what he added that went over my head. Watching it years later, including the director's cut, I can see why the critics hated it. The worms were cool, but the space scenes looked like they were moving paper cutouts around. It is a lot more action oriented than other David Lynch films, and doesn't have the detached, robotic acting most of them have, but it tells little of the story.
Then came the miniseries in 2000, followed by another that incorporated Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. It had room to stretch, was not hampered by either David Lynch's surrealist style or studio interference, but unfortunately had a budget that was probably based on how much the crew had to put in the swear jar every day. It was true to the story, largely true to the characters and Frank Herbert's vision, but unfortunately could never be what it wanted to be. Thus, when I heard that Denis Villeneuve, director of The Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, was making a go at Dune, I was excited. I was also both nervous and happy when I heard it was going to be in two parts. Nervous because there was no guarantee of a second part, as Warner Bros. was hemming and hawing a bit until the box office returns came in, and happy because Villeneuve wasn't going to try to rush through the story in two and a half hours.
Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaacs) is head of the House Atreides. He has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor to leave his home planet of Caladan and relocate to the planet Arrakis, which has for the last 80 years been the property of his rival Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) of Geidi Prime. Arrakis is a barely habitable desert world with little in the way of vegetation or animal life, the latter being small mammals and giant sandworms that the native Fremen population call Shai-Hulud. The Fremen populated the planet long before the Harkonnens took it over for the mining of a spice called melange, which has hallucinogenic and prescient properties that are integral to interstellar travel.
Mining the spice is one of the most lucrative businesses in the Known Universe, but the Emperor's reason for turning Arrakis over to Atreides is not out of favor, but out of jealousy. Leto is popular. and the Emperor does not have a male heir. By engineering a war between the houses of Atreides and Harkonnen the Emperor seeks to rid himself of a challenger to the throne. However, Leto's son Paul (Timothée Chalmat) and concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are under the protection of a powerful organization called the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood that guides the path of the Empire and has been working in secret to create the Kwisatz Haderach, a boy that would have Bene Gesserit powers but would also be a messiah figure. Jessica believes Paul to be such and, after being abandoned in the desert, the two seek to find the settlement of Fremen led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and ally with them against the Harkonnens.
I know that in my summary those who have seen the movie may be wondering where some of that came from. As wonderful an adaptation Villeneuve's version is, it still pays to be familiar at least with the first book. Though it has been years since I've read it, most of it (save the actual real ending - not the David Lynch ending) still sticks with me. I'll probably remember most of it once I get into the second half, and I remember that it involves Paul's sister Alia (who is not yet born in this movie) and a bunch of political maneuvering. There is a lot to go in this story and this first part, like the first portion of the book, is mostly world building. Paul, Jessica and Chani (Zendaya), who is barely in this except for dreams and toward the end, all flesh out as characters as the story goes along. I can see how the first half can be a bit hard to understand as the Dune universe is quite unique and Villeneuve doesn't take time to present a lot of the history that the book does. I don't know if there will be an expanded version of this in the near future, but if it does it may explain a bit more.
One thing that needs to be explained is that the reason the spice is important for interstellar travel is that there are no computers as we know them. Computer technology is about the level of a Commodore 64, just with a lot more storage capacity. They can be used for as tools, but the Orange Catholic Bible (the main religious book in the Empire) forbids the making of machines in the image of the human mind. There is no artificial intelligence, as over 10,000 years before the events in this movie there was a revolt called the Butlerian Jihad in which all AI was destroyed. Thus the character of Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who is a mentat, or human computer, and the fact that the Navigators are human beings mutated by melange. The reason it is important because when using the engines on the ships to fold space it is necessary to know what is going to be in the place one will inhabit; using the spice, and its prescient qualities, allows the Navigators to accurately plan a safe route. It also must be said the date given on screen is their date system, with the foundation of the Spacing Guild being the marker. The action is taking place roughly 20,000 years in our future.
That is a lot to pack into a movie, and thus there is a reason that Dune has been considered unfilmable. Alejandro Jodorowsky famously tried and failed, with set design and ideas from his version being reworked into Star Wars and Alien. George Lucas, although not connected with Jodorowsky's movie, nevertheless took many ideas from Frank Herbert's novel for his universe, in particular Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine, although even that planet seems more habitable than Arrakis. Dune has inspired many writers and directors, but I would say Villeneuve's vision, though not perfect, is the first that aligns properly with Herbert's vision. Naturally a number of characters - Doctor Yueh (Chang Chen) and a genderswapped Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) - have a lot less to do in the movie than they do in the book. The truth, as usual, is that a book has all the time in the world to flesh out characters and narratives and such, as does a long-running television series, but a movie has to focus on a short list of characters and a main plot. Most of this version of Dune is concerned, just like the Bene Gesserit are, with getting Paul and Jessica from where they are to where they are supposed to be so that the main story can commence.
That said, the performances are solid, even if they are forever threatened to be swallowed by the immense scope of the story, and the cinematography is beautiful. I expected no less from Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser, who has contributed a similar look to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and a number of episodes of The Mandalorian. The only major problem, and I think this will be true no matter who tries to make a movie version of Dune, is that there is no way to fully understand what is going on without reading the book. This adaptation may have benefitted from a short documentary on the book and the universe it takes place in, but then that much of an information dump ahead of time may have led to a similar fate to the 1984 version.
Instead this movie, and a lot of it may be Villeneuve's reputation that drove it as well, has been a hit so far. It will be nice to see what he does with the rest of the story, although I'm not holding my breath for anything beyond that. As kind of a spoiler, the series, with Chapterhouse Dune, ends on a major cliffhanger due to Frank Herbert's death, and all the other ephemera is prequel material that is questionable as canon. Still, maybe there will be enough interest to bring God Emperor to the screen - a task even more Herculean than finally giving us a satisfying version of the first book.
Time: 155 minutes
Starring: Timothée Chalmat, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaacs, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya
Director: Denis Villeneuve