Dune (2021) Director: Denis Villeneuve
“Dreams Make Good Stories, But Everything Important Happens When We’re Awake.”
Based on Frank Herbert’s genre-defining science fiction novel –a book which delivers an ominous warning about the inherent dangers of faith in charismatic messianic leaders and religious fanaticism– Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a towering epic of modern movie-making. In my view, this version greatly surpasses David Lynch’s 1984 interpretation of the story (Lynch has since mostly disowned his version). Complete with an experimental, yet entrancing score by Hans Zimmer, as well as Villeneuve’s trademark feast of visual grandeur, Dune is peak science fiction.
Coming from the director of such modern science fiction classics as Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve’s Dune takes us thousands of years in the future to the arid windswept desert planet of Arrakis where the the House of Atreides assumes the planet’s fiefdom (note the “Atreides” allusion which points us to Agamemnon and the House of Atreus in Homeric literature). The galaxy is ruled by imperial feudalism, each planet is granted to an aristocratic family. In this case, the House of Atreides is ruled by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) who is joined on Arrakis by his consort/concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son and heir to the throne, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). The lore is extensive, and so instead of delving too deeply, I will attempt to offer a broad survey along with some of the key themes explored.
Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, a cult-like sisterhood which has attained certain super-human powers, such as clairvoyance and mind control (via “the voice”). They can control their pregnancies, however instead giving birth to a daughter as requested by the Bene Gesserit, Lady Jessica gave birth to a son, Paul Atreides, whom she hope may one day harness great powers, perhaps not unlike Nietzsche’s “overman.” The Bene Gesserit see themselves as guides for the future of humanity as it outgrows and overcomes itself –they have been running a centuries-long breeding program. Paul Atreides has acquired many of these skills, though he is not yet an expert, and he has strange dreams of blue-eyed people –strange glimpses of a possible future. One of the key themes in the movie/book concerns the power and danger of dreams when interpreted as prophecies. Paul is trained by the house weapons master named Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) –they use a fascinating shield technology which allows them to battle without killing one another. In addition, there are other extraordinary forms of technology, like recycled water absorption for this dry, water-barren planet (ecology is a key theme), and thumping machines which are used to lure out the sandworms (apparently, the scenes of the worms beneath the sand dunes were inspired by Jaws).
On Arrakis, there lives a poor blue-eyed desert-dwelling native group known as the Fremen, which were once fed a messianic prophecy by the Bene Gesserit many centuries earlier, a prophecy they still cling to. In the books they are descendants of Sunni Islam. Aside from the Fremen, Arrakis is a mostly dry planet which is often simply called “Dune.” Beneath the rolling sand dunes lurk a species of gargantuan all-consuming sandworms which are responsive to the vibrations of tapping sounds on the surface of the sand. As such, it is extremely dangerous to cross the sand dunes on foot (however, the Fremen have developed a unique sand dance which attempts to avoid such situations). The strategic importance of Arrakis lies in the spice trade. Spice is an hallucinogen as well as a key ingredient for space travel, but it can only be mined on Arrakis. And where there is money, there is also conflict. A rival family, the House of Harkonnen under Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), enacts a violent coup d’état to reclaim the rule of Arrakis from the House of Atreides. During the overthrow, Paul and his mother barely manage to escape, but they wind up alone in the middle of the desert on the sand dunes. Their only hope is to cross the dune sea in search of the elusive Fremen people. Paul’s father Duke Leto is not so lucky –he dies when captured in an effort to poison everyone in the room. Also Paul’s bodyguard Duncan (Jason Momoa) dies defending Paul. Part I of this duology ends as Paul and his mother narrowly survive crossing the sand dunes and they make connection with Stilgar (Javier Bardem), a tribal chieftain of the Fremen. They also meet Chani (Zendaya), a girl who has frequently been in Paul’s dreams after Paul battles Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), a Fremen who invokes the “Amtal” code of battle to the death. In a striking close to the film, Paul watches as a Fremen has managed to tame and ride one of the massive sandworms. Rather than fleeing the planet, Paul decides to remain on Arrakis. We are led to believe he will seek a partnership with the Fremen by exploiting their fervent faith and “desert power” in the form of a forthcoming messianic figure who will overthrow the House of Harkonnen. Throughout the film, Paul becomes increasingly cold and Machiavellian as he starts to assume his place, wrestling with the notion that he might one day incite a fanatical “holy war” in the cause of his family’s political vengeance. Religious fanaticism will always be exploited by people with ulterior motives. The one truth across space and time is politics –the struggle to rule and be ruled. Dune is an immensely complex narrative, and despite being a mounting molasses of expository dread throughout the first half, the second half of the film takes us on a wild ride, setting it up nicely for a sequel which currently planned for release in 2023.