Credit to director Denis Villeneuve and his fellow co-writers, they are serious about the latest adaptation of “Dune” and in doing justice to Frank Herbert’s novel. As in deathly serious, since I wasn’t the only one laughing at the screening when the film kicked off by announcing, “Dreams are messages from the deep.”
I’ve not seen the other “Dune” adaptations and have really only bothered with any part of the franchise until recently, so I can’t say how well other attempts at bringing Herbert’s book to the big (and small) screen holds up. So it might just be my ignorance talking when I say that the 2021 version is one of the best, most skillful attempts at bringing an intricate, infamously dry world to life I’ve seen.
Let’s face it, it’s hard to picture anyone but the most ardent fans enjoying a discussion about the economics of spice, palace intrigue, and religious and political philosophy. But Villeneuve is determined to have his cake and get moviegoers to eat it too, because he actually manages to fill us in on the world of young nobleman Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), whose family is sent to manage the affairs on Dune, a desert planet containing the all-important spice, only to experience death and disaster at the hands of their enemies, the Harkonnens.
That’s where things get kind of awkward, because humanism doesn’t exactly inform Herbert’s philosophy. The world he created is unapologetically elitist, and the Atreides family are the good guys mostly because they’re the more reasonable colonizers. The movie doesn’t try to avoid this at least, openly pointing out that Paul and his parents, the Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson) are basically the new oppressors, especially to the desert people known as the Fremen. Leto has just enough time to prove how much they want to be nice before things go to hell, and Paul and his mother Jessica are forced to flee into the harsh desert environment of Dune in order to survive.
Just how it comes to that is where the movie falters. In the book the Harkonnens were dangerous, calculating enemies who could believably triumph against the honorable Atreides family. They were going to undergo a few changes regardless, since main villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), embodied the worst villain tropes taken to an extreme – fat, decadent, and a predatory gay man with a nauseating predilection for teenage boys.
It’s noteworthy then, that the only characteristic that survives from the original is the fat part, with the Baron an almost featureless floating blob, and the rest of the Harkonnens equally as lacking in development, and with their bald heads and all-black clothing, clearly on the side of evil.
It’s not much for a genre that’s often defined by the opposition, but those who choose to view “Dune” in the environment they were clearly meant to will have a lot to enjoy. Many films have claimed to be strictly for the theatrical experience, but “Dune” is one of the few who can honestly make that claim, and its sound design is on par with “The Quiet Place.” Dialogue is raised and lowered as we’re meant to perceive it, and the all-encompassing world has the effects to go with it, leaving my chair literally rattled beneath me during some sequences.
In other words, come to theater and you’ll live quite deliciously throughout the two and a half hour runtime. And if the villains are a bore, there’s plenty of side characters, which include Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa as the warriors Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, respectively, to liven things up.
Even the character of Paul bows to 2021 standards. It’s hard to picture the book version kicking off his morning with a joke, but thankfully Chalamet is allowed to bring some badly needed levity every now and then without having to fulfill the usual shirtless wonder requirements, with Isaac stepping up to give us a little thirst trap.
Let’s hope it carries on to the next film, because there’s no guarantee that there’ll be one. It’s been a long time since the days of simultaneous filming and “Lord of the Rings,” and whether there’ll be a part two, hopefully with more Zendaya, isn’t a done deal, at least until Warner Bros. sees the box office receipts. That’s disappointing, because this is clearly a set up, one which introduces us to a world and tears it down. When Zendaya’s Chani says, “This is only the beginning,” it’s a meta prophecy in itself and the hope of studios everywhere.
That said, the diehards may be disappointed by the lack of weird hats.