Frank Herbert’s novel: Dune, is the epitome of classic science fiction. It’s widely regarded as one of the best science fiction novels ever written, if not the best.
The story takes place roughly 20,000 years in the future, in an interstellar feudal society. 10,000 years earlier, humanity underwent a religious movement that made computers and artificial intelligence of any type a universal taboo. This forced humans to develop in new ways, forming orders to specialize in particular capabilities.
The principle enabler of this type of development is the spice, melange. The spice enables the spacing guild to navigate their interstellar transports by seeing into the future, human “mentats” to perform the calculations and analysis formerly handled by computers, and the Bene Gesserit sisterhood to perform various paranormal feats, among many other things.
Pretty useful for one substance. The spice cannot be manufactured. Naturally it can be found on only one planet, Arrakis, informally known as Dune. Dune is a brutal desert world with giant sandworms and a native population known as the Fremen. The Fremen are an extremely hardy people oppressed by the ruling imperial houses, a people who are waiting for a savior, a religious messiah.
As it turns out, the Bene Gesserit have been engaged in a breeding program within the great imperial houses, with the goal of creating the Kwisatz Haderach, a male version of a Bene Gesserit, who would have capabilities they lack. But a member of their sisterhood does something she’s not supposed to, resulting in the Kwisatz Haderach arriving a generation early, and maturing just in time for his arrival on Dune to step into the role the Fremen have been waiting for.
The latest movie is actually the third adaptation. The first was David Lynch’s movie in 1984. I recall the theatrical version of this movie being moderately good, but I think it suffered by trying to cram the full story into a regular length film. Lynch also couldn’t resist adding his own strange elaborations. And it was later re-edited into a form I can only consider poor. (Lynch is rumored to have asked that his name be removed from it.)
The second was a TV miniseries which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel c. 2000 called Frank Herbert’s Dune. There was a sequel which adapted the second and third book: Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I recall these actually being pretty good, and fairly faithful to the source material. But I haven’t watched them since they first aired, and don’t know how well they’ve aged, both in terms of special effects and production values.
This latest effort by Denis Villeneuve is pretty impressive. The production values are top notch, and with modern CG, the result is a movie that is pretty visually stunning. Villeneuve was also not keen to make the mistake of the 1984 film and try to cram the story into a two hour feature. This movie is two and half hours long and only covers the first half of the original novel.
Not rushing through the story gives Villeneuve space to handle the story more thoroughly than his predecessors. The book often relies on character introspection and quotes of their writing to relay a lot of information. The 1984 movie tried to replicate some of this, with results that could be described as mixed at best. Villeneuve handles it by adding new scenes that externalize or show the information onstage. In other words, he is faithful to the source material, but isn’t scared to change things to make it work in a different medium.
One visual thing I don’t recall from the other adaptations that this one has is the ornithopters. I remember being pretty fascinated by the concept when I read about them in the novel. But showing an aircraft with flapping wings wasn’t feasible in the earlier attempts. This one does, and they’re pretty cool.
This iteration is also more willing to show something I remember from the book, the Islamic and Arabic flavoring of the Fremen. Of course, this has a very different connotation today than it probably did when the novel was first published in 1965, when it probably evoked Lawrence of Arabia. By the time I read the book in the early 1980s, terrorist attacks and the Iran hostage crisis caused it to evoke different imagery. I felt like the first two adaptations downplayed this flavoring, for obvious reasons. But, counting on a hopefully more enlightened public, this version doesn’t. The actor playing Stilgar even reminds me of Anthony Quinn from the Lawrence movie.
It was kind of a bummer to get to the end and realize we won’t see the rest for a couple of years. The second part of this movie hasn’t been filmed yet. Actually, last I’ve heard, it hasn’t even been greenlit yet by the studio. I hope the fact that it was concurrently released in both theaters and for streaming doesn’t jeopardize that greenlighting. I actually watched it on HBO Max and really enjoy being able to.
That said, I also wonder why it couldn’t have been done as a TV series. Given the budgets now sunk into shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Foundation, and others, I doubt the production values would have suffered much. And the whole first season could have been dedicated to the first novel. If Legendary Pictures doesn’t end up funding the sequel, I hope one of the streaming services, maybe HBO itself, will pick it up.
So I enjoyed and recommend it. Have you seen it? If so what did you think?