by Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor
The light shifts over the golden desert, over the bright hills and dark valleys of the dunes, the sand singing softly as the wind blows the grains across the surface. It is sweeping, mysterious, and dangerous. The desert is on the planet Arrakis, which is the sole source of spice, a psychoactive drug that looks like sand, but sparkly, and a little more orange. It makes interstellar navigation possible, and that makes control of Arrakis very valuable indeed.
House Harkonnen has been in control of Arrakis under the aegis of the Imperium, but now the emperor has given control to House Atreides, so Duke Leto Atreides, his concubine Jessica, and his son Paul leave their ocean planet Caladan to take up residence in Arrakis’ capitol city, Arrakeen, which is protected by a wall from the giant sandworms that roam the desert. It’s a given that the Harkonnens aren’t going to give up the valuable spice trade easily, and treachery, assasination, battle, and exile ensue.
If this reminds you of Game of Thrones, or if Arrakis and the sandworms remind you of Tatooine and the sarlacc from Star Wars or of the desert and worms in Tremors, there’s a reason for that. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune and its sequels were hugely influential in the sci-fi world, and they have a similar kind of fandom. A movie of the book, directed by David Lynch, was released in 1984, and although it was a good attempt with a terrific cast, it tried to cram the entire epic novel into one movie.
This second adaptation is not your father’s Dune. The film only covers the first half of the book; the second half will be released in 2023. This gives director Denis Villeneuve the time to set up the premise and lead the viewer into the story while developing the characters more deeply. Dune explores weighty themes, such as colonialism and the intersection of religion and power, and the novels are more intellectual than they are emotional. That carries over into the film; it is a little flat emotionally. There is a lot of exposition and back-story in this first half, and it ends rather abruptly, and I suspect the sequel will move faster and have more action.
But those are minor complaints compared with the bounty for the eyes and ears that Dune offers. The cinematography is gorgeous, the waves of sea on Caladan contrasting with the waves of sand on Arrakis. And the design! The design is mind-blowing. The spaceships don’t have fins or lots of gadgets and antennas sticking out. They’re gigantic bloated doughnuts with no visible means of propulsion. The helicopters on Arrakis don’t have rotors; they have vibrating dragonfly wings. The palace in Arrakeen is built of stone the color of the desert; it’s heavy and nearly windowless, like the inside of an Egyptian pyramid. The sandworms look just how you expect them to, but they have scales instead of segments, and long, thin teeth that look like whale baleen instead of shark’s teeth. The costumes are amazing, with the Bene Gesserit sisters swathed in black veils and foot-high headdresses and the faceless army grunts in reflective bulbous helmets that make them look like insects.
The music, by Hans Zimmer, is part of the design, too. It’s always there, full of percussion, wails, and – of all things – bagpipes, moving scenes along, adding malevolence and anxiety. It works so well you may not notice it, but if you do, you’ll notice how great it is. The movie is playing in theaters and on HBO Max, but if you can, see it in a theater so you get the full effect of the visual and aural design.
And then there is the cast. Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto is an honorable man who wants to do the right thing and respect the local Fremen culture while still making sure he meets the spice quota, but he knows the odds are against him (and when did Oscar Isaac get old enough to play somebody’s father?). Stellan Skarsgård is almost unrecognizable as the evil Baron Harkonnen, covered in goo, his skin held together with clamps, physically and morally grotesque. Dave Bautista is his lieutenant, Beast Harkonnen. Charlotte Rampling has a nasty turn as the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. (The Bene Gesserit are a powerful sisterhood with highly developed mental abilities and dubious political goals.) Josh Brolin plays loyal Atreides soldier Gurney Halleck, Zendaya is Chani, the mysterious Fremen girl Paul dreams about, and Jason Mamoa is delightful as Duncan Idaho, Paul’s mentor – he’s the only one having fun out there in the desert.
I had my doubts about Timothée Chalamet as Paul. He’s a skinny kid, and when he takes his shirt off you want to shout “put it back on!” I thought he would compare unfavorably to Kyle McLaughlin, who was Paul in the first movie, but Chalamet changed my mind. When the camera comes in close to those soulful poet’s eyes, you see why he was cast as Paul, because everything’s there. He languidly absorbs everything around him, and then when he suddenly explodes into action in a knife fight, it’s astonishing.
The real standout, though, is Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica. A Bene Gesserit sister who was supposed to bear a daughter as part of the sisterhood’s breeding program to bring forth the Kwisatz Haderach, a superbeing who will be a messiah, Jessica bore a son instead. Paul might be the Kwisatz Haderach a generation early, and the Reverend Mother menaces him. Jessica is caught in the middle, pressured by the Reverend Mother to be loyal to the sisterhood, and at the same time trying to protect her son. Ferguson gives the most emotional performance, as a woman on her last nerve, brazening out threats against Leto, Paul, and herself, while adapting to a strange new environment.
Dune the novel is epic, and Dune the film is, too. There’s so much to take in, it’s worth seeing more than once. But make sure you see it. If you’re a Dune fan, you’ll probably love it, but even if you’re not, you’re sure to be amazed. You’re likely to be initiated into Dune fandom, and then you’ll know why the spice must flow.