Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune (Part One) has the rather unique benefit of its predecessor’s – David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation’s – infamy. Though now something of a cult classic, 1984’s Dune has been widely regarded a failure, and director Lynch distanced himself from its successive (re)attempted reincarnations. What 1984’s Dune lacked in pacing, allusion, and humanity, 2021’s Dune could be said to have over-done.
Ironically, though Villeneuve one-upped 1984 Dune’s robo-theatrical delivery of snobbish lines which, as exacerbated by clunkish cutting, rendered 1984’s iteration unwatchable in parts, the more polished dialogue and cut-betweens in 2021’s film were almost so overly perfect as to come full circle into artificiality. In addition, Zimmer’s soundtrack, quintessentially haunting, inspired, and avante-garde, takes very few risks and, for that, lacks a humanistic quality.
On planet Hollywood, star power governs all. Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, and the other famed and acclaimed, are to this extent suitable castings. They’re also altogether conventionally attractive, and share some chemistry; in the case of Lady Jessica and her son Paul Atreides, though, this borders royally on the oedipal.
Josh Brolin makes for a better Gurney Halleck than Patrick Stewart, but only insofar as he is uglier and more brutish. In Herbert’s Dune, Gurney is a talented minstrel, a singer and baliset player, and routinely offers up jesting and poetic quips. Supposedly there was a scene in which Villeneuve’s Gurney sings a ballad, but this was cut.
Villeneuve thus scarcely alludes to Gurney’s musicality, but the Atreides’ bagpipes and Imperial throat-singing make up for its omission. These, among other symbols such as the matador bullfighting, are cultural artifacts designed to legitimise an otherwise brutally minimalist and posthuman display.
Whether that is to say clutter (et cetera) is human or just overwhelmingly indicative of the status quo, one thing is clear: on this, and more, I am conflicted. Perhaps this is a quality of Herbert’s Dune – science fiction minded persons of sects from all corners of our political universe are drawn to it, and fight over it as though it is the planet Arrakis.
As a canvas against which various politicisations can be splattered, Villeneuve’s Dune is similarly visually appealing. It is large, simple, and concise. There is truth to this, as an interpretation of Herbert’s work. Arguably, Lynch’s set and character design has more going for it, in terms of expressing whimsical fantasy; however, the atmosphere Villeneuve crafts, in my view, better fields what are ultimately simplistic plot devices.
Villeneuve also artfully shows, rather than telling – which is a direction Lynch cited as wanting to take, but was, by the money that backed him, prevented from taking. The extent of its sci-fi universe, characters’ internal dialogues, and intricate details which Herbert describes at length, are alluded to, rather than explicitly displayed or uttered as narration – as they otherwise could have been and were, in Lynch’s Dune.
This, after all, is the mark of a good filmic adaptation of a book: Villeneuve does not seek to regurgitate every layer of Herbert’s work. Indeed, if he had, the film would have been as structurally flawed as the book. Herbert’s Dune succeeds neither for its well-framed plot and narrative structure, nor its consistently multidimensional characters (consider, for example, how one-dimensional the Harkonnens are); rather, Herbert’s genius is in his imagination – the universe he crafts, and the many intricacies he rather chaotically conceives of.
For this, Villeneuve’s Dune is to be praised, but not taken too seriously. One should watch the 2021 film as though one has read and enjoyed, if not understood, Frank Herbert’s work, and not as though one is a revolutionary. Like any of the neoliberalised propagandas of this era, Dune – though appearing to glorify a righteous jihad – does so in a way which nullifies broader discourse towards individual action and direct responsibility, and instead simulates emotions for viewers – all of us passengers in a matrix-like process.
So sure, I’ll readily admit that I shed a tear when Paul kills Jamis, but the liberal cynicism underpinning what is a depiction of an imperialist, planetary oppressor, aristocrat-boy turning liberator of the indigenous, and collectivist agitator toward jihad, is not lost on me either.
Basically though, and in conclusion to what has been (having just now re-read this) a wildly flawed review, this film – in my view – consists fundamentally of Chalamet singlehandedly nullifying jihad through his sex-appeal and doomer aesthetic.
10 propaganda points out of 13.