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Scott, Frank Herbert’s vision of the future is back in Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune.
Yep, and I must add that Dune is doin’ fine. Let’s recap.
We meet young Paul Atriedes who is the heir to his father’s (Duke Leto) kingdom. His family has been ordered by the emperor of the galaxy to take over Arrakis – the desert planet. Arrakis’ only export is the “spice” – a psychoactive drug that makes space travel possible. It must be mined from the sands of Arrakis’ dry planes. Paul is supported by his mother – a member of the Bene Gesserit religious order, Duncan Idaho – an elite warrior, Gurney Halleck the Duke’s personal bodyguard, and others.
But the previous occupants of the planet – the Harkonens (led by Baron Harkonen) are not so keen on the idea. They’re plotting a return and takeover of the planet.
Meanwhile, Paul is being trained by Leto’s comrades and has a moment of strong premonition when he’s down on the planet and exposed to the spice in the sandy desert. He dreams of a young woman but is unsure of her importance. His premonitions also include the deaths of loved ones but is assured that not all premonitions come true. Slowly we witness Paul evolve into the hero he was destined to be.
Scott, this is the third or fourth incarnation of Dune in a visual medium. In 1984 David Lynch attempted a motion picture version of Dune (which many have claimed is unfilmable). It met with mixed reviews but has since become a cult classic. There was also a 2000 miniseries on the SciFy network. And there have been a smattering of failed attempts. But Denis Villeneuve’s version of Dune is quite on the mark.
However, Villeneuve has some advantages over those who preceded him. Of course, he has learned from the mistakes of others. And, Dune is a two-part film of 2 or 3 hours each. So, unlike Lynch who was strapped with delivering a 2-hour treatment (which has subsequently been re-released in a 3-hour format), Villeneuve could take a leisurely approach to telling Herbert’s classic epic tale.
There are a ton of details that get but a mention in this film. The meaning of the crysknife, the worm riders, the relationship between “spice” and space travel, even the importance and reverence of water are all given short shrift.
The quality of the acting, sets, special effects, cinematography, and script are just amazing. Rarely are we treated to a film that delivers on every aspect of the film-going experience, and yet is unpretentious. This isn’t spectacle for the sake of spectacle. This isn’t a showcase for popular actors. Everything in this film is directed to a faithful retelling of Frank Herbert’s vision. And it is spectacular.
Greg, the movie Dune is a visual feast, possessing all the features of classic heroism that you’d ever want in storytelling. The film is densely packed with rich archetypes and features a delicious hero’s journey containing all the elements of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. If that weren’t enough, the production values are extraordinary. There are sweeping vistas of other-worldly planets that were filmed, ironically, on our own Earth near Jordan and United Arab Emirates. And Hans Zimmer’s musical score is extraordinary.
I found Dune to be a strange amalgamation of a bunch of movies: Star Wars, Tremors, The English Patient, and Spiceworld. The references to Star Wars are obvious – there is “the chosen one”, the force (the spice), Jedi-like training, and a human version of Jabba the Hut. There’s even a tar pit that Tasha Yar dies in. Oh wait, that’s Star Trek.
The connection to the film Tremors is also obvious – there are underground worm-like creatures that consume anyone on the ground but not on rocks. I kept picturing Kevin Bacon hopping, skipping, and jumping from one sturdy mineraloid to another. The breathtaking desert scenery is reminiscent of The English Patient, and the references to spice has me recalling the Spice Girls in Spiceworld. There isn’t any sporty spice but in Dune we definitely have scary-spice and ginger-spice — not to mention Aqua-spice and Drax-spice.
The movie is sprinkled with pithy quotes about the vicissitudes of life. Two especially stand out. At the outset of the film, the screen tells us in bold print that “Dreams are messages from the deep.” There’s nothing “deep” or original about this message but it is an important reminder for our hero to pay attention to his dreams and visions, and to remain faithful to them.
A corollary to this theme in the movie focuses on the inherent ambiguity of dreams – they hint at directions we should take in life without providing a specific roadmap. This is a point underscored by Joseph Campbell, namely, that while the hero’s journey sends us down the river of life, each of us has had better honor the direct that the river current is sending us. But we do have some freedom to steer our canoes to different islands and shorelines along that current. We must choose wisely. (Apologies to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
The second quote that I like from Dune is that “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” This also doesn’t need too much explanation, and is (for me) a bit too dualistic. Life can be both a problem to be solved and a lavish experience. I think Joseph Campbell would agree with me.
The main hero construct is Paul Moxnes’ family structure. Paul is the prince, his mother the queen, his father the king, and Duncan and Gurney are his material helpers. Paul goes through an impressive hero’s journey. He starts out as a spoiled brat, coddled and trained by his father’s closest confidants. He has to go through a series of experiences that lead him to become the leader of his kingdom – and ultimately a member of the Freman.
From a story structure point of view, this is the first half of Paul’s story. By the end, Paul has left behind his childhood and mastered the special world of Dune. He will have more trials to come. But this first part in the two-part series is Paul’s emergence as the Freman’s chosen one. Paul had a vision about this in which he is told “Paul Atriedes must die so that the Kwisatz Haderach may be born.” This is classic Joseph Campbell mythological storytelling at its best.
Scott, as you know, I either love something or hate it. There’s little in between. And I am very enthusiastic about this incarnation of Dune. Not a second of screen time was wasted. It was true to the original. It balanced detail with pacing. I can’t think of anything I’d add or take away. I give Dune 5 out of 5 Reels. And the hero’s journey was well-told. Paul Atriedes is cresting his hero’s journey. From here things are going to get much harder and he will be tempered by his experiences. I give Paul Atriedes 5 out of 5 Heroes.
Well said, Gregger. This movie was captivating in its storytelling and enthralling in its visual majesty.
But let me address this idea of a “born hero”. We see this a lot in mythology and religion, but almost all of heroism science points to the conclusion that heroes are made, not born. There’s something powerful, at the deep archetypal level, about our human “dream” of the idea of a hero being endowed naturally (or theologically) as a hero at birth. I believe this dream reflects a human longing for someone, a great deified being with parental authority, to take care of us and make everything all right.
There’s nothing wrong with this dream and it’s probably part of our collective unconscious. The important thing is not to debate whether there is such a thing as a born hero but rather ask ourselves why we, as humans, thirst for one.
As for your ratings, all I can say is “ditto”, Greg. This movie is an emotional, visual, and cosmological achievement. It definitely satisfies that part of the brain that longs for heroes and hungers for heroic transformation.