Hollywood insisted that “Dune was ‘unfilmable'” or at least impossible to make into a good movie for many decades. Frank Herbert’s famous novel, published in 1965, is one of the cornerstones of modern science fiction. Its influence is noticeable in many of the works that followed it: from Star Wars to James Cameron’s Avatar.
There have been attempts to bring it to the screen, such as David Lynch’s bizarre 1984 film and Syfy’s turn-of-the-century miniseries, but none has captured what makes the novel unique.
Does this Denis Villeneuve film succeed in changing Dune’s cinematic destiny? Let’s find out.
Arrakis is one of the most important planets for The Empire. This desert world is the only known source of Spice, the substance that enables intergalactic travel. But the mining tasks are not accessible due to the dangerous and enormous sandworms that inhabit the place and the tribes of Fremen, native humans who constantly try to sabotage the work of the invaders.
The Spice turns Arrakis into the centerpiece of a political chess game between the Empire and the great noble houses. When House Atreides becomes the new administrator of the planet, a game of conspiracies, betrayals, and ancient prophecies begins, putting young Paul Atreides at the center of a story that will change the course of the universe.
Why is it so challenging to bring Dune to the screen?
Dune may seem like a fairly traditional story, reduced to its most basic structure. We have a ‘chosen one’ who follows the hero’s journey in a straightforward way that would make Joseph Campbell proud. It shamelessly uses some of the worst clichés of the ‘white savior.’ It makes no secret that the Spice of Arrakis is a metaphor for exploiting oil in the Middle East by Western neo-colonialism.
What makes this collection of archetypes particular is the background that surrounds them. The Dune universe is detailed in its mythology, politics, society, and technology. One of the main reasons the book was considered “unfilmable” was the amount of information required for the reader to understand how this world works and all the new proper nouns they must learn. In theory, more than half of a movie faithful to the novel would be explanatory dialogue.
The other reason is that much of the novel’s development focuses on psychedelic journeys through visions of the future that will not necessarily come true and complicate the narrative quite a bit.
The 1984 film is infamous for a nearly two-minute introduction in which Princess Irulan must expound on the basic concepts of the universe. The new Dune also has an introduction narrated by a woman who puts us in a situation about the state of Arrakis. But it turns out to be more dynamic and visually engaging. The mythology is revealed little by little, in manageable amounts. There are concepts and relationships that it doesn’t explain directly, as it relies on the viewers’ ability to understand what they are seeing.
But the film’s pace is inevitably affected by the nature of the novel. There are long sequences of pure exposition anyway, but it maintains interest thanks to the intrigue it has created and the sublime images it puts on the big screen.
A work of audiovisual art
Duna is a beautiful film. A feast for the eyes and ears. The incredible landscapes, impressive ships, and costumes seem to be taken from the covers of science fiction pulp novels of the fifties and sixties. The majesty created by its images – combined with its striking sound aspect, which uses throat singing to create an effect as alien and overwhelming as it is remarkable – should be appreciated in the best possible theater.
We know it’s an inappropriate request for these pandemic times, but the truth is, if you’re interested in watching Dune, you’re not going to enjoy it the same way on a TV or cell phone. Its entire audiovisual aspect is designed for a movie theater.
Denis Villeneuve is an incredibly talented director at creating emotions through evocative sequences, sometimes with little or no dialogue. No matter how familiar the plot of Dune may be to us, the way he tells it – with an invasion emerging from the ‘mouth’ of a monstrous ship, showing a macabre ritual of the Emperor’s warriors, and with long shots of an endless desert – mean that most flaws in this film’s narrative are obscured.
Although we know Timothée Chalamet’s enormous acting talent from films like Call Me by Your Name and Little Women, there was no way to make the protagonist enjoyable. All the spotlight in Dune is on Paul Atreides. But he is nothing more than an archetype who is tossed to and from by circumstance. He demonstrates no agency over himself.
This problem also affects several secondary characters. Many of them have very striking characteristics that, due to time constraints, are not explored as they should be. The only well-crafted characters with interesting arcs are Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). We feel so sorry for Zendaya fans. As important as her character, Chani, has been in the film’s hype, she doesn’t appear on screen for more than five minutes. At least we get to play her in Fortnite.
This is just the beginning of Duna
Chani and many other elements seem like filler, but they are introduced here because of the importance they will have in the sequel. This movie covers less than half of the novel’s story and ends just as “things get interesting.” It feels like an incomplete story with no third act.
Thanks to its great audiovisual strength, Duna manages to overcome all these narrative problems. It is not a simple film to enjoy the story; it is a work of art that should be appreciated with more senses. We insist again that it must be seen on the big screen. But only if you can do so without putting your health at risk.
In any case, not even the greatest cinematic spectacle will stop Paul Atreides from being an asshole.