Film Review: Hot (and Sandy) Take on Dune 2021

Theatre Image by Felix Mooneeram, Unsplash

TLDR: Saw it (big screen VR). Enjoyed almost every minute. Best attempt yet to adapt this amazing novel to the screen. Not perfect, but perfection probably unattainable. Some mixed feelings alongside the Wow.

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So for context, I have been a fan of the book since first discovering it around 1968, 1969 when I was pre-teen. It’s been a core book lifelong for me — the first 3 titles anyway, through Children of Dune; after that I lost interest in the franchise, it started to feel a bit stale.

Nothing in later literary life ever equals those first major books that knock us sideways when we’re young and impressionable, and Dune opened marvelous worlds for me. Musta read it at least 20 times, maybe more. I can still remember the feel and heft of that first library hardback copy in my hands, and the cover art.

The book is so well loved, so etched into my brain tissue, that it almost feels like I wrote it myself; it’s that much a part of my inner world. Scenes from it play verbatim in my head, dialogue effortlessly memorised; descriptive passages come back to me, sometimes in words, sometimes in faux-memory so vivid I could swear I had been there and really seen it.

So yeah, let’s say I have just a wee bit of emotional investment in this novel.

Anyway, fast forward some… I hated-hated-hated the D Lynch version. Too many reasons to go into here, let’s just take it as read: I hated it. Failed on every count, imho. Felt like it was an insult to the source material. I took it kinda personally :-) thanks to aforesaid emotional investment.

Then along came the super-colourful “designed by Italian couture house” TV version, which I liked much better — good space opera fun! Visually not congruent with my inner vision, but fairly true to the plotline. Except that (and it’s a big except, and a major flaw imho) Paul was (imho) hopelessly miscast; too old, too beefy, too Aryan surfer boy. That was jarring. Saskia Reeves though was quite good, and so were several of the other cast members. Sure, the special fx were on the cheesy side, but there was much to like; and they took their time to tell an epic story at a suitable pace, with some respect for the scope of the narrative. I’ve watched the whole shebang at least 6x, despite the candy-store palette.

So you can imagine how eagerly I’ve been waiting for this new attempt to make its début — — quivering with anticip…. as you might say — and I now have a jumble of conflicting perceptions of it.

Kinda enjoyed the minimalist sound track and sepia/sand palette throughout; it seems to match my internal vision for the most part. The wild technicolour TV version though seemed to get the Arrakeen architecture closer in line with my internal vision than the new movie version architecture. You can’t win ’em all!

The casting in this new version: well, young Timothée is the best Paul yet, by a long shot. He doesn’t match Herbert’s description, which is of a boy with auburn hair and a rounder, softer face which only sharpens later in his growing-up (and -into his fantastic legacy). But TC has the sensitivity, slenderness, the fey quality, and beautifully captures that fleeting moment between boyhood and manhood, neither child nor adult, perceptive yet not fully informed, aching for adulthood then suddenly forced to grow up too fast. As good a Paul as we’ll ever get, I suspect. Hats off to TC.

I confess that his mother is pretty far from the Jessica of the novel — not nearly statuesque and gorgeous and auburn-haired and elegant enough to match Herbert’s description — but her intelligence, intensity, fierceness, fragility are all true to the heart of the role. If I could import Saskia Reeves into this version, I probably would. But here in 2021 we have the best Leto yet (though I imagined him less stocky and burly). Yueh: maybe a bit too young for the character as written? Gurney Halleck is not as I imagined him, yet somehow the exuberance of the actor made inroads on my imagination and has now coloured the Gurney in my head. So something worked there. But where’s the inkvine scar on Gurney’s jaw? Did I miss something?

The Fremen: good. They are very much as I imagined them and Chani in particular I find convincing — her face anyway, the American accent is a bit jarring. Stilgar is spot-on for my money!

Baron Harkonnen… hmmm. While the clownish, petulant Baron of the TV series was a bit too precious, and the pustulent one from the Lynch effort a lot too “look how gross we can be,” I’m still not happy with DV’s baron, who seems more like some kind of backwoods meth-lab lord. The Sardaukar I think have been made a bit too Orcish, rather than the elite samurai-like troops I imagined from Herbert’s text. Sure, they can be devastating killing machines — but do they have to be pasty mushroom people out of Minas Morgul as well? And the whole mass-exsanguination thing, really? Anyway, DV’s Baron and his nevvy Rabban are a disappointment to me, though Piter de Vries looks about right.

Making Liet/Kynes female was taking a bit of a liberty with the script, presumably to introduce at least one non-priestess, non-love-interest female role into Herbert’s very boy-centric story. I could live with a female Liet, but I did miss that wonderful scene of Liet’s death alone on the sands — turning it into your average fight scene where our outgunned hero takes a couple of Bad Hats with her, was kind of yaaaawn for me compared to the greek-tragedy austerity and elegance of Herbert’s original.

The always-riveting “gom jabbar” scene: good. The ever-amazing Charlotte Rampling, perfect actually. I can think of a couple of other actresses who could have pulled it off, but she was a great choice.

The landscapes of Dune: awesome! Wonderful sandscapes, wonderful palette. Looks like I imagined it all along, the sea of sand and the harsh, dark rocky outcrops.

The Navigators and their ships — good. Good scale. A real sense of immensity. One thing I liked about the TV series version was the glimpse we got of the bizarre Navigators themselves. Hoping we will eventually see one in DV’s version.

Realisation of the ornithopter: brilliant! spice factory: brilliant! making the carryalls dirigible-ish was a nice touch. The spice crew rescue scene is pretty close to my own imagined version, though again I wish they had left it as written. The hunter-seeker scene in Paul’s bedroom: almost exactly as it played in my head as a kid reading it for the first time. The thumpers and worm hooks are pretty much right on.

The crysknives maybe a bit more drab than they are in my imagination (Herbert describes them as almost translucent, iirc, like milky glass, whereas DV’s looked to me kind of ivory or bone-like). The shielded fighting scenes are pretty good by me — the fast/slow combat required by shields. Stilgar’s first and only visit to the Duke, well done. The spitting scene really works :-)

The pacing… seems off to me. I think DV omitted some very important scenes in the early part of this story: the politics, the conniving, the scheming are all compressed into greek-chorus narrative. So we don’t get the important conspiratorial chats between the Baron and Piter (the spinning globe and the plump bejewelled hand, etc), we don’t get that wonderful banquet in Arrakeen where Paul surprises the corrupt city elites with his precocity and insight. We also don’t get Lady Jessica’s feelings about the Old Duke and the Family, and the texture of her brief relationship with Shadout Mapes; we don’t get the indoor conservatory and its meaning in terms of privilege and resources. We don’t get the touching and ironic moment when Yueh gives Paul the Orange Catholic bible, and the cool technology of the tiny, glowing book, and “my Wanna’s” favourite quote. That’s a lot of good stuff to omit.

I also missed the tent-buried-in-sand escape scene which became a non-event in the 2021 version. It was always one of my favourite scenes.

It seems like DV was in such a big rush to get to the splashy action sequences that in his haste, he shortchanged some of the best bits of the novel in favour of a whole lot of Blowing Stuff Up. I mean, it was high-quality Blowing Stuff Up, but I still was quite disappointed that so much of the Atreides’ brief but dramatically important tenure in Arrakeen was elided. I was really looking forward to seeing what the cast would do with those scenes, and I wuz robbed.

Note though: DV’s also elided Herbert’s rather heavy-handed homophobia, and I’m actually OK with that omission.

And then there’s the sine qua non… the worms. I actually think DV has made the worms pretty impressive, and close to my imagined Duneworms, whereas the TV series worms reminded me just a bit too much of Tremors :-) again, scale is right, there’s a sense of hugeness, mystery, vast power. Not sure how the “teeth of Shai-Hulud” turned into a kind of baleen structure, but whatever. Big enough to eat a harvester, and it did. I’m content.

Caladan seemed to me not quite enough of a contrast with Dune. I always saw Caladan as greener, lusher, more blue/green and less brown/gray. Maybe DV is just striving for a consistent palette throughout, but despite the wetness of Caladan vs the dryness of Dune I didn’t feel there was quite enough contrast: both environments seem dreary and depressing, whereas the sense I got from the book was of Caladan as a bit of a Paradise (especially if you’re of the ducal family!).

The TV adaptation made Arrakeen a kind of Istanbul or Tangier, a desert city complete with souks, bazaars, slums, awnings, alleyways, crowds. DV’s version seems to make Dune so incredibly hot and dry that humans live only underground, and the city looks featureless and inhuman from the air. The souk/bazaar theme seems to me more resonant with Herbert’s prose and my imagination; I was disappointed that Arrakeen looked so bland, unpeopled and mechanistic from the air, more like what I’d expect from Giedi Prime.

Then, so many directors seem determined to introduce their own little creative inventions, as if they could improve on the original. Giant pet spider creatures? Really? Why? Hardly necessary. Tar-sands oil baths? Again, why? It’s like an inappropriate echo of C3PO in Luke’s workshop. There are a few little things like this that are just extraneous, seem pointless, and imho detract from the storyline. Those are moments for me that are more wotofo than wow.

A certain amount of disappointment is inevitable … because the only production that would truly satisfy me is one that included every single line of dialogue from the book exactly as written, with every scene acted out exactly as written, and visuals that match those in my head! A tall order :-)

Despite all this carping, I’m definitely hooked and will be awaiting Part Two eagerly … let’s hope the funding holds up, and this doesn’t become one of those tantalising Part Ones of a trilogy that never happened, like The Golden Compass. I want to see what DV will do with the remaining chapters — as a sequel, or even 2 sequels for a trilogy format.

So what did y’all think? genuinely curious.

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De Clarke

De Clarke

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.