This ‘Dune’ Has No Ideas
10:20 AM EDT on October 26, 2021
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is majestic. There are long, sweeping shots of gigantic structures; sere, gorgeous desert vistas; protracted, meaning-laden silences. It is contemplative, and ponderous, and high-minded. It is all the things I do not want out of a Dune movie.
The movie, which—if it matters, and it probably does—I watched at home, is a polished, competent piece of filmmaking, fully legible on an impressive scale, the sort of job at which Villeneuve excels. You feel wonder at the moments you’re supposed to feel wonder. It is a workmanlike, four-quadrant epic. But it is not a refute to the long-held wisdom that the 1965 novel was “unfilmable.” What was unfilmable about Frank Herbert’s Dune was not the spaceships or sandworms, but rather that it was a book dependent less on its plot than on the ideas contained within. 2021’s Dune, by contrast, has no new ideas to offer.
Villeneuve’s Dune is stringently faithful to plot, but the plot is not the heart, and a version of Dune that puts it front and center has no heart—it is the slow and occasionally boring movie we just got, where some genuinely stunning visuals are broken up by stabs at profound dialog but mostly by shots of Timothée Chalamet’s jawline. Herbert’s Dune was a book of ideas, of monologues (conveyed, to not-great effect, by voiceovers in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation), of politics and philosophy, chemistry and sociology. Not all of Herbert’s ideas were fully formed, or even always clever or striking, but a reader found them invariably worth chewing on long after the book was closed. When it was flawed, it was flawed in interesting ways. When 2021's Dune goes wrong, it errs on the side of blandness. That is, I would argue, sci-fi's only cardinal sin.
You can see Villeneuve’s Dune flirt with ideas—all originally Herbert's; perhaps we should call them gholas of ideas—then discard them as soon as they register. Is this a story about ecology, or colonialism, or a deconstruction of the white savior narrative that looks an awful lot like a regular old white savior narrative? Sure, knock yourself out; who the hell am I to tell you what a movie’s not about? There is just enough dialogue gesturing in the right directions to support the thinkpiece-industrial complex, and not a drop more. But what made Herbert’s Dune a phenomenon, especially in the heady days of the mid-’60s, wasn’t subtext at all—the ideas were the supertext, the action appealing but largely in service to something longer lasting. If this sounds like it wouldn’t make a profitable or even an entertaining movie, well, that’s probably right. Herbert’s Dune may well in fact be unfilmable, in that the specific heady idiosyncrasy that sets it above the typical sci-fi epic are things that can’t be put on the screen. Take all that out and you have a story about knife fights and brooding.
You should feel free to disregard what I have to say here, especially if you have no prior loyalty to the book or the sequels that follow. What I like isn’t necessarily what you like. And considering my favorite Dune book is the fourth one—in which Leto II is transformed into a giant sandworm-human hybrid and spends millennia enforcing stagnation and predation upon the known universe, in order to “teach humanity a lesson that they will remember in their bones” in order to prepare them for some unnamed future calamity, and we the reader see none of this but are only told about it, in extended philosophical musing after musing—you have to understand that what I like is weird.
But even the original Dune novel is weird. It is a story about a group of space nuns who use eugenics to produce a boy who does so many drugs that he can see the future and ride a big worm and become the ruler of the universe. When you spell it all out like that, you get closer to seeing how Frank Herbert fits in the sci-fi tradition. He's easy to miscategorize half a century on, because the visuals of Dune are what linger in popular imagination, since they are so often singular. But Herbert was less a successor to the grandeur of Clarke or the wonder of Bradbury or the almost erotic warmaking paeans of Heinlein, and more a contemporary of the outré, psychedelic—as John Semley so aptly puts it—pulp of a Philip K. Dick. Things didn’t always make sense because making sense wasn’t the point; you were supposed to be entertained, you were supposed to feel things, and you were supposed to come away altered in some way. Herbert’s Dune is not space Shakespeare, as so many of Villeneuve’s actors seem keen to play it; it is space opera, for all the low-rent and grimy and tawdry connotations that once-pejorative genre name implies. It is a battered paperback, not a prestige hardcover.
The best pulp adaptations treat their source material not as gospel but as a sandbox to play around in, and bring their own ideas to the table. The classic example is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which jettisoned so much of Dick's hallucinogenic novel in favor of asking its own questions about the nature of humanity, and ended up a masterpiece for it. Villeneuve should know better than most; his Blade Runner 2049 recaptured much of the shine but little of the soul. Sound familiar?
David Lynch also got it. I do not love his Dune, or even like it very much, but it is undeniably a spectacle. A bloated mess, yes, but there are things that stick with the viewer decades on. Why is Sting shiny and hairless and wearing a winged codpiece? Why does Patrick Stewart carry a pug into battle? Who knows! It is batshit, which is to say: it has ideas. It is not slavishly faithful to Herbert, but it is spiritually faithful because it is a work overstuffed with ideas that could not have been produced by anyone else.
You cannot say that about Villeneuve’s film, which borrows its entire visual lexicon from the extant canon of sci-fi cinema, and sticks its mostly good actors with a script full of industry clichés. It’s a decent movie for a movie. If it is not the best cinema version of Dune I can realistically hope for, it is probably close. But it’s not weird. It’s not my Dune and more importantly it’s not Frank Herbert’s. We will see in Part Two, but I strongly suspect Paul’s arc will ultimately not prove to be a grand warning against falling for charismatic rulers, be they the messiah or otherwise. Chalamet’s Paul is an unwilling hero on a hero's journey, a Hollywood archetype, whereas Herbert’s Paul was something richer and less satisfying and with a dramatic pedigree that dates back to the original Greek Atreides from whom Herbert borrowed the name: a tragic figure whose personal triumph makes the universe a much worse place. If that’s not filmable, or perhaps more crucially, not marketable, that’s fine; I’d just like to see Villeneuve come up with some ideas of his own.