Opportunity binge

Spice Up Your Life: Dune Is Majestic, but Sands Off Much of the Book’s Weirdness

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In an ideal world, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One and the deeply messy but visionary 1984 David Lynch adaptation could be Brundleflied together, allowing for the strengths of each to improve the whole. It wouldn’t take a member of the Bene Gesserit to recognize that combining their disparate pedigrees and execution would result in a hardier, stronger take on the material that keeps its feet sand-bound and its head flashing through infinite space on a spice binge. I love the books, and recognize their grand sense of expansive and mythic storytelling even while recognizing their culturally messy collage approach to building societies. But for a book written in 1965, Dune is a fascinating casserole of environmental science, political theory, religious history and all the drugs, and it has never stopped being a captivating story. 

There’s a major gambit afoot in Villeneuve’s film, and it’s in taking a series of books that are both incredibly internal (in the sense of an omniscient narrative voice) and aware of their own mythology (the chapter headings draw epigrams from historical surveys, biographies and communiques, not to mention the very presence and purpose of Princess Irulan, who doesn’t even appear in Part One) and making them into a work that is completely external and of pronounced immediacy. It feels different, though it makes the precognitive aspects of Paul’s dreams much more defined and allows the universe to demonstrate its trippier touches.

We have Mentats, but no sapho juice. We have crysknives, but they can be resheathed without spilling blood. We know that the spice found on Arrakis drives the entire empire (the oil metaphor is pronounced), but everything it can do is left on the sidelines. We have too many characters who get streamlined almost into oblivion, leaving their deaths almost meaningless. In narrowing focus onto the travails of House Atreides, we get a compelling and fairly traditional narrative. But Dune is, and should be, more than that. Much of Dune: Part One feels like the radio edit of a Jim Steinman song — it’s still long, and you get the bullet points of what’s going on, but you don’t get the cumulative world-building of all that excess.

The most impressive feat that Villeneuve and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth pull off pertains to the Bene Gesserit, the sisterhood of genetic scientists/psychic warriors who’ve been masterminding the long game of human evolution for millennia. These women are fascinating, because they’re the one faction in this film that we’ve never seen before. CG phalanxes of dudes with swords? Frontline workers in extremely hazardous situations? Piggy rich folk who just want more of everything? Those are all archetypes that any moviegoer is acquainted with. But the Bene Gesserit are their own thing, and they make the film leap to its highest heights, and the forthcoming HBO Max spinoff series devoted to Raquella Berto-Anirul’s matriarchal order should be very interesting indeed. As the Lady Jessica, Rebecca Ferguson is the film’s MVP.

In toning down the character of primary villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), the production made a serious error. The books’ Baron is a corrosive gay stereotype, a cruel and jealous monster who slaughters, assaults and pillages the universe all while wielding Shakespearean-level gravitas. Lynch’s film leavened some of his behavior, but still leaves him as a pustulant incarnation of disease and avarice. Villeneuve renders the Baron generically greedy, and allows him to be defined by his fatness alone, which is very Chaucerian choice and also very boring. Do we need the Baron pulling heartplugs and menacing the beautiful boys of the Imperium? Not necessarily. But it would be better than how utterly boring he is here. There’s nothing in this film’s portrayal of the Harkonnens and Giedi Prime that would plant the exact right nightmares in early mid-’80s Chris Cunningham’s head and help create whole new waves of disturbing art.

But it isn’t just the Harkonnens who suffer some seriously sanded-down edges. Dune is a weird book, and each of its successive sequels and prequels double down on that vibe. But if there’s one big over-arching criticism about Dune: Part One, it’s that it feels like an audition, keeping its cards close to the chest in hopes that the spectacle, cast and historical heft help bring an audience in. Hopefully, the film’s good-to-very-good numbers overseas, coupled with however it does here, will allow Part Two to bring in some of the glorious strangeness and imagination that defines the books. Let’s have a Spice Agony, a Guild Navigator, perhaps a baliset, and hell, why not some Tleilaxu while we’re at it? So very little is directly explained, which makes the film an incredibly rich field for people who’ve read the books to make like the greediest of children at an Easter egg hunt; there is a tremendous opportunity for weirdo genre enthusiasts (like me) to answer questions for mainstream audiences who have dipped a toe in the Duniverse and are just waiting for the little tidbit to get them to dive right in.

There are parts of this film that are overwhelmingly beautiful and majestic, pummeling the cerebral cortex into submission with the sheer scale of it all. I’m already making the effort to road trip with some friends to Chattanooga to see it again on the Aquarium’s Dual-Laser IMAX system, because I’m a big fan of the 1.43:1 aspect ratio. So despite my issues with this particular adaptation, it excels at Duniverse Mood, and that’s what’s going to keep me interested until we see where all this is going, but more importantly, how it’s all going to get there. The irony is not lost on me that to try and judge things based merely on Dune: Part One would be like trying to second guess The Golden Path. So let’s regroup in a bit and we’ll see.

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