by Auden Chamberlain
It is difficult to find any piece of work since 1965 in the science-fiction genre that does not bear a debt to Frank Herbert’s seminal novel Dune. Perhaps the most notable example would be the desert landscapes and “spice mines” of Star Wars (1977), but clear influence can be felt almost anywhere – from Fallout to Game of Thrones.
It’s perhaps that legendary status that means Dune has been such a difficult nut for Hollywood to crack, despite its obvious popularity. How do you make something fresh that’s been aped countless times in countless ways?
Attempts have been made previously: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s infamously fell apart, leaving a young and precocious David Lynch to pick up the pieces. His effort, released in 1984, came together in such a way that Lynch wanted to remove his name from the credits, and is something he considers a “huge, gigantic sadness in [his] life”. An admittedly terrible adaptation of the book (and one that Lynch contends he had no creative control over), it is still an admirable and unique one. Its colourful, extravagant effects and designs are still overwhelming and uncompromising in a way that feels refreshing in today’s stagnant age of blockbuster filmmaking; and its lack of care to really portray Herbert’s dense plots and themes in a faithful or meaningful way doesn’t necessarily take away from its entertainment value. It is perhaps best remembered for Sting wearing a crotch-piece, an entirely 80s score by Toto, and Patrick Stewart playing the flute.
So now that Legendary and Warner Bros. have decided it’s time to have another go, they have almost made the antithesis of the previous version, with Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve piecing together a loyal adaptation, with visuals to match its serious and dour tone.
Dune is a dense and challenging book, and one with much thematic relevance. Its clear commentary on fascist rule, the fight for natural resources, and the occupation and mistreatment of indigenous people is something that still feels very applicable today. By portraying authoritarian soldiers chanting the protagonist’s ‘Atreides’ name, Villeneuve understands that a true adaptation must portray the dangerous subversion of the hero’s journey that made Dune so revered. The only real thematic complaint may be the reluctance to truly delve into some of the more disturbing implications of the book, although perhaps this is something for Part Two.
That may be a criticism in itself: the film is essentially one big set-up for the sequel both in terms of plot and thematic pay-off. Although, when you consider how you might go about adapting the source material, perhaps that was the only way forward.
There is no fear of rushing with this adaptation, as the events end at a logical break in the book half-way through. The huge scale and complex world-building benefits from this lack of pressure to find a conclusion, instead focusing on and succeeding in creating a fleshed-out and intricate universe. The variety of diverse action set-pieces and genuine, developed characters means that the two-part nature of the film doesn’t suffer in the same way that others (such as The Hunger Games) have. A satisfying and consistently enjoyable three-act story is constructed despite only being half of a whole. Perhaps most importantly, a good balance is felt between adapting the intricacies of the source material whilst making an entirely penetrable film for newcomers.
Visually it lacks the eccentricity and even some of the ambition of Lynch’s 1984 version, but there’s no denying the beauty of Grieg Fraser’s washed-out cinematography, which portrays the juxtaposition between the luscious water-based Caladan and the terrifyingly barren desert world of Arrakis with realistic contrast. The brutalist architecture and production design is instrumental in creating this hopeless, foreboding world: the whole plot revolves around the mining of the a magical, hallucinogenic ‘spice’; but even these properties are treated with an almost unflinching sense of natural realism. Dune has always been a purposefully present portrayal of a dystopian universe, and the production aids this tone.
Dune succeeds in giving a landmark book an adaptation fitting of its stature, which feels refreshing despite its influence in other works, and relevant despite the age of the source material. The strong performances of the cast, paired with the majestic presentation of the sprawling world, makes for an epic, staggering picture; that feels all-encompassing despite being one, great prologue.
Auden Chamberlain is a first-year Politics and Sociology student. As well as writing film reviews, he enjoys playing guitar and is secretary for Band and Gig Society. For more film related writing, you can follow him on Letterboxd: @arjchamberlain.