Monday, November 1, 2021

Spice World?

Films: Dune (2021)
Format: AMC Theater, DeKalb.

I feel like I need to talk about my connection and relationship with the world and empire building of the various iterations of Frank Herbert’s Dune before I talk about the Denis Villeneuve Dune that is current in theaters. I have what I think is a unique history with this property. Back in 1998, I was working freelance for Prima Publishing, writing computer and video game strategy guides. One of the first ones I did was for Dune 2000, a reboot of Westwood Studios’ Dune 2. I worked with Westwood a lot, and also did the book for Emperor: Battle for Dune a few years later. When the estate of Frank Herbert started to run out of money (clearly no longer a problem), they started suing people—including Westwood—for changes to the Dune universe that they had previously approved. I was deposed for that case, which never went anywhere.

Those games were connected visually to the David Lynch version of Dune, and because of that, I have particular notions of what Dune should look like. I spent a lot of time running around Arrakis, after all, so my idea of what an ornithopter or a spice harvester looks like is fairly set.

Regardless, I knew that I would be breaking my two-year streak of not going to a movie theater when Dune was released. I’m very invested in the source material at this point, so unless the initial reviews were terrible, I knew I was going to go. So, when the opportunity arose, I went. I immediately remembered why I don’t go to the theater—the showing started at 3:40, but the movie didn’t start until 4:08. That’s a lot of trailers; it’s worth suggesting again that theaters should run trailers between movies as much as they want but start the movies at the listed start time.

I’m not going to go into the story here, which is a huge shift for me. Dune is too complicated—the backstory would take too damn long. Instead, I will link you to a very good and short primer on the basics of the story. There are spoilers here, so be warned, but this will give a good overall look at the Dune universe (or the Dune-iverse, if you like). Thug Notes: Dune

The most impressive part of Dune is the epic scope of the film. Everything in this movie is huge. The architecture on Arrakis is massive to the point of being agoraphobic—even the insides of many of the buildings are large enough to feel like they are outside. The sandworms are massive in scale as well, of course. But it’s the spacecraft where we see the real size of everything in this film. Massive spacecraft land on the planet, but in space, we see these ships leaving craft that dwarf them. Things here are of a size that is literally terrifying to contemplate.

Much of the appeal to this version of Dune is the overall design of things. Beyond the scope, there is a sense of a world that is truly lived in and that has existed for a very long time. There is a real sense of place, not of movie sets but of solid existence that has been there for generations and will be there for generations to come.

It’s also near perfect in its casting. Timothee Chalamet is perhaps the best current choice for playing Paul Atreides, the person who is destined to become more or less the ultimate superbeing in this universe. There is something otherworldly about his appearance, and he fits the role well. The same is true of Oscar Isaac as Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides, who comes with the gravitas needed for the role. Josh Brolin works well as Gurney Halleck, the scarred and knowledgeable Atreides warrior. Zendaya as the Arrakeen Fremen warrior Chani is arguably as good a casting job as Timothee Chalamet. As baddies, having Stellan Skarsgard as the pure evil Baron Harkonnen and Dave Bautista as his regent Rabban are great choices as well.

In smaller roles (for this movie), we also get some smart casting. The bulk of the native Fremen are people of color, which is a very smart choice. The one exception is Javier Bardem as Stilgar, but it’s a role he is suited for. The role of Dr. Liet Kynes has been gender-swapped from the book and is played perfectly by Sharon Duncan-Brewster. I also want to nod to Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat. I like Henderson as an actor whenever I see him, and I love seeing him in this role. Charlotte Rampling as Gaius Helen Mohiam is pitch-perfect as well.

If you are familiar with this story (or have seen the movie), you will note there are two very important roles I have not discussed. The first is the one I was most worried about—Jason Momoa in the very important role (for the full story) of Duncan Idaho. He pulls this off very well; I’m honestly surprised at just how well he fills this role. The second is Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, the mother of Paul. And she is the weak point. She looks like a love interest (she is only 12 years older than Chalamet) rather than his mother. Someone 10-15 years older than Ferguson (Rachel Weisz? Toni Collette? Kate Winslet?) would make this work better in my mind. I think Rachel Weisz would have been just about perfect.

I liked Dune, but I’m still processing it. Much like the LotR series, I don’t know that I can fully address what Villeneuve has done until I see the next film…in two years.

Why to watch Dune: Epic scale and scope.
Why not to watch: I don’t know how much sense it will make for someone who doesn’t know the source material.


  1. As someone who has not read any of the Dune books, and who made a point not to in the lead-up to this film's release, this was just about perfect. As you pointed out, the best thing (for me) about the film is the overall feeling that it is a fully-realized universe; that there is so, so much more to it and in the periphery of the main plot that we don't know about, but realize is there to be found out and still has even a minor effect on the main story, is incredibly engrossing for me and the hallmark of a truly great and singular film, especially for sci-fi.

    I didn't have a problem with Rebecca Ferguson's casting, and she does a very good job in the role; Rachel Weisz as a potential better pick I could also agree with, provided she wouldn't be too distracting as a more known name.

    This is one I can definitely see growing in appreciation in the years to come. Denis Villeneuve can seemingly do no wrong.

    1. I have very high hopes for the second installment. As a work of fiction, the original book is some of the best and most complete world building you will find. There is a sense of a great depth of history that is simply known by the characters and never really explained, but very much feels like a part of the overall universe.

      There is an event in the past called the Butlerian Jihad where humanity fought against thinking machines of its own creation. This doesn't really figure into the story, but it provides a reason for the existence of the mentats (the Stephen McKinley Henderson character) and explains their function without going too deeply into what could itself be a series of books.

      I recommend the book as much as I can, but I understand waiting until this is completed.

  2. I haven't read the books but I had seen the David Lynch film and read the cliff notes on the book as well as had seen the documentary on Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempted version. I was happy to see this film as it is an astonishing experience but I also knew that the story itself was dense and that doing it as one film wouldn't do the story justice.

    I hope to see it again on HBO soon.

    1. It really is worth tracking down the book when you get the chance. The Frank Herbert stuff is great. The stuff continued on by his son...not so much.

  3. I read the book (several times) and many of the prequels and sequels. I liked Lynch' vision and I would love to see this new one in the cinema. Unfortunately my wife is not into this sort of movie so I will have to work something out...

    1. I went on my own. Sometimes, you do what you've gotta do!

    2. Just watched it. It is on HBO Max, but I instantly regretted. This is a movie that should be watched in the cinema.
      I thought it was awesome, as good as I hoped it would be. It is surprisingly close to the book, spectacular in every sense of the word and sufficiently slow paced that we get to taste and feel the world and the characters. It is a real bummer we have to wait years to see the continuation.

    3. I agree. I'm hoping we'll get the second movie in two years, which seems like it would be possible. I think it's a very good start to what could be truly epic.