Tuesday February 22, 2022
Movie Review: Dune (2021)
I was reminded of “Star Wars”: the journey of a young man on a desert planet who can see the future, read the past, and control minds. Of course, “Dune,” the novel, written by Frank Herbert, came first: 1965
I was also reminded of “Lawrence of Arabia”: the journey of a young soldier from a vast empire who joins forces with an indigenous desert clan and becomes their leader in a battle against his own people. (And don’t forget Lawrence’s/Peter O’Toole’s shocking blue eyes.) Since “Lawrence” came before Herbert’s novel, in 1962, as did the book it was based on, T.E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” published in 1926, did either of these have an influence on Herbert? According to director Denis Villeneuve: Yes.
Finally, I was reminded of us: bickering groups (houses/countries) fighting over control of a substance in the desert (spice/oil) that allows for the type of travel (interstellar/land-sea-air) that means power.
I wish I’d seen it in the theater—its epicness kind of demands it—but even at home “Dune” was much better than I thought it would be. It felt like “Star Wars” for adults. And this from someone who’s tired of movies about “The One.”
I’d read Herbert’s “Dune” as a teenager during my sci-fi phase, and liked it well enough but remembered little: just the desert planet, the sandworms, the blue eyes, and—interestingly—that scene where the tribal chieftain spits at Duke Leto. Hostilities are about to break out until it’s realized, no, spitting is a sign of respect, because it’s offering moisture on a desert planet. I remember thinking that was cool: an insult in one culture being an homage in another. I guess that’s why it stuck with me.
Did the movie spark other memories? Yes. The pain-box scene. Rev. Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), the leader of the Bene Gesserit sect (read: female Jedis), tells Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet, quite good) to put his hand in a box and keep it in there or die. Then the pain begins. It’s a test, to see if he can master his emotions. In the novel, I suddenly remembered, he felt like his hand was melting away, and after the test, when he removes it, he expects to see a bloody stumpy or something skeletal. Instead, as in the movie, it comes out pristine. He was luckier than Luke in that regard.
This is just Part One, and I liked the first part of Part One better than the second. I liked the introduction of these worlds and these characters, and the back and forth between them all. I know: odd. I liked the stage setting more than the stage. It’s just that Villeneuve (“Arrival”), and screenwriters Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange”) and Eric Roth (“The Insider”) do a fantastic job of introducing us to an entire universe without making it dull, pedantic, or weighing us down with way too much information.
It helps that the good guys and bad guys are obvious. The House with all the handsome people (Atreides) is good, while the House with the bald and disgustingly fat people (Harkonen, led by Baron Vladimir Harkonen—Stellan Skarsgård, whose eyes are still recognizable beneath the makeup), they’re the bad guys. And the group that hangs its enemies upside down and drinks their blood (Sardaukar, a warrior clan)? Yes, those are bad guys, too.
To the story. The Emperor has ordered House Harkonen to give up its lucrative and brutal mining of the spice trade on Arrakis and hand it over to House Atreides. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) doesn’t exactly want the gig but sees it as politically advantageous; and he hopes to work with, rather than against, the Fremen natives there, led by Stilgar (Javier Barden, he who spits). But he trusts none of it.
Neither does his team:
- Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), a joyful warrior
- Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), an unjoyful warrior
- Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson), Leto’s concubine, a member of the Bene Gesserit, and Paul’s mother
- Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), who speaks Mandarin with Paul
(The Mandarin thing threw me for a moment. This is another universe. Why would they speak Mandarin? Then I realized, Yeah, but why would they speak English, dumbshit.)
(I did like that Dr. Yueh tells Paul to be careful, which is 小心, xiao xin (literally: little heart), in Chinese. That’s something I’ve said to American kids for 30 years now. It always gets their attention way more than “be careful.”)
Duncan Idaho goes to Arrakis first, goes native, and is followed weeks later by the rest of the house, including Paul, who’s having visions of a Fremen girl, Chani (Zendaya), and death. He foresees Duncan’s death, for example. The Harkonen have left everything in disarray and Leto assumes they’ve been set up to fail. It’s actually worse: They’ve been set up to be slaughtered. Apparently the Emperor is worried about Atreides influence threatening his own. So why the elaborate ruse with Arrakis? Why not slaughter them on their home planet? Or is this a divide-and-conquer strategy? Who knows? We don’t see the Emperor in this movie. I’m curious if he shows in the second. (That initially unseen Emperor is another thing “Star Wars” nicked.)
Dr. Yueh is the weak link. His wife is held captive and tortured by House Harkonen, so he lowers Atreides’ shields, allowing the Sardaukar attack. He also paralyzes Leto, but, distrusting Baron Harkonen, gives Leto a pellet of poison to bite down on when the enemy comes near. Why he assumes he won’t be in that room, I don’t know. Particularly since he is in that room. He’s just already dead. The Baron is the kind of asshole who makes a deal to “set someone free,” then kills them because that’s within the language of the agreement. He nearly gets his when Leto bites down on the poison pellet but floats toward the ceiling to avoid a lethal dose, then spends weeks in a mud (oil?) bath to extract the poison. It’s not pretty.
In the meantime, Paul and his mother are on the run. This is the second-half roller coaster that bored me a bit. They run, they’re caught. They get away, they reunite with Duncan, they’re attacked, they escape, they run from sandworms, they find the Fremen; then Paul is forced to fight the pugnacious Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun). His visions have gotten stronger on Arrakis because of the mind-bending properties of the spice, and he’s had a vision where he dies at the hands of Jamis. I was ready for that. I assumed he would die here and be reborn stronger than ever, a la Obi-wan, Neo, and Jesus. Nice twist—he wins. He kills, for the first time. And he and his mom join the Fremen, and the Fremen girl, Chani, who tells him, “This is only the beginning.”
And that’s the ending.
What I really really want
Again, I was impressed. It was beautiful to watch, fun to follow, and I look forward to the second-act revenge, which hopefully will be complex and bittersweet.
It helps to have a good actor like Chalamet as your narrative and moral center. (And not for nothing—his hair is unbelievable.) I like that he’s distraught by killing Jamis. I like that when he has a vision in which he leads a holy war across the universe in the name of his father, with fanatical legions worshipping him and chanting his name, he is even more distraught. My reaction would’ve been the Bart Simpson reaction: Cool!
Anyway, put it on a double-bill with “Lawrence of Arabia.” Or “Star Wars.” Or “Spice World.”