God Help Us of Dune

Dune: Part One (Denis Villeneuve, 2021)

Yes, but what about John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941)?

So, we have the long-awaited remake of Dune, partly because, er, COVID, and partly because we clearly want to suffer by seeing adaptations of popular sf classics. I need to go back to the Lynch version for other reasons, but my memory is the idea that it didn’t make any sense and that it had the wrong kind of camp.

Of course, Lynch films don’t make sense (or, rather, seem to require knowledge of Transcendental Meditation to understand) and I suspect that Dune might make more sense as a Lynch film rather like Alien 3 makes more sense as a David Fincher film. And Lynch was messed around by his producer Dino De Laurentiis and control over final cuts. De Laurentiis had already produced Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon, the greatest film ever made. Apparently, there’s been a TV version and something to do with Jodorowsky’s abortive version

Fight me.

Villeneuve has given us — among stuff I haven’t yet seen — Arrival (2016), a film that the audience credits with intelligence it doesn’t deserve, and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), evidently part one of an unnecessary sequel to which there seems unlikely to be a follow up. Now, he goes back to Herbert’s ecological classic take on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and adapts the first section of the novel. And when has a remake ever been better than the original?

Clearly paranoid that we’ll not get it, he begins with a subtitled farty alien voiceover, then makes sure that he captions each planet. Here is Abu Dhabi, here is Norway, here is a cheap studio in Hungary. And junior, Emo Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), is catching up on his homeschooling, so watches YouTube videos on Fremen practices. There is a lot of explaining — and this replaces Lynch’s infodumps.

So, Duke Atreides (Oscar James) has been given the spice-mining concession on Arrakis and Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) is pissed, seeking revenge and an excuse to use his inexplicable extending legs. The Duke heads to the planet, with his concubine — Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) of the Bene Gesserit galactic nuns — and his teen son Emo, who apparently is the messiah. Or a very naughty boy. Emo, meanwhile, is having dodgy dreams about a young woman, who may well turn out to be an inhabitant of Arrakis.

Obviously, they are going to fall into some trap set by the Baron and Emo is going to find all that knowledge of surviving in the desert useful

And perhaps the mysterious woman might get some lines rather just looking sultry in an analepsis.

Actually, it isn’t bad — although the galactic empire outsourced the spaceship design to Chris Foss, the ornithoptors are a triumph of aerodynamics and I’m a little unconvinced by the evolution of even small mammals in this environment. (Ah, yeah, right, if you read the other twenty-five novels you’ll learn that….) They have merchandising written all over them.

The main actors bring much to their roles — Javier Bardem is great, Charlotte Rampling is acting without a face and Jason Momoa  is channelling Han Solo. Ah, we have call backs to the first Star Wars trilogy, which were indebted to Dune. Of course, we miss Sting, but every one is playing this straight, aside from a certain unevenness to Momoa, who serves partially as comic relief. And gets to tease Eno, who loves to hugs him. Meanwhile, everyone wants to tug Emo’s little cheeks.

There are some short comings in us only getting brief scenes of the Baron — who keeps a bathtub of black treacle in his house for some reason — and he seems to be nasty because he’s a nasty capitalist. The Atreides, on the other hand, are nice capitalists, who will exploit the Arrakis resources nicely and provide them with a white saviour, natch, although Villeneuve is keen in interviews to stress that Messiahs are Bad (and possibly more than just naughty boys).

I think we can make parallels with exploitation of oil in the Middle East and the last fifty years of the petrochemical industry, with added T.E. Lawrence echoes, plus hints of real world insurgencies or terrorist attacks. The cast is rather multi-ethnic for a blockbuster — although the white characters are mostly to the centre, Sharon Duncan-Brewster is rather underused as Imperial Planetologist Dr Liet-Kynes and the part seems unlikely to get any bigger.

We’re obviously left without resolution and there’s a reduction of tension as we presumably know who will survive to be in Emo’s visions of the future. I also frequently wonder why Emo has to fight when he could just Use the Voice, Luke (or why Jessica doesn’t make more of it). But Villeneuve has done a decent job and ought to be handed the wallet for Part Two, as long as he promises to stop there. And maybe find his own stories to tell as he did up to 200.

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