#95 My impression of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021)
* * * SPOILER WARNING * * *
A group of friends and I saw Dune in IMAX last night. They loved it, I loved it! What. a. film! What a visual feast. Hats off to Denis Villeneuve; or rather, chapeau, since he’s French Canadian. I thought the casting and acting was great. Everyone knew their roles and channeled their characters well. The special effects were believable; I was actually made to believe that this world into which I was transported could have been the year 10,191.
I think it’s also important for Dune fans to not compare Villeneuve’s version to David Lynch’s 1984 version. I’ve heard the phrase “remake” thrown around; however, Villeneuve’s version is not a remake of Lynch’s film. We must recognize the fact that Frank Herbert published his original Dune book in 1965, therefore both Lynch’s and Villeneuve’s versions are original adaptations in their own right, both based off of Herbert’s book. If Dune wasn’t based on a book, then, yes, this latest version would be a remake.
I’m still blown away by this film, I really don’t know what to say. One friend told me afterwards that it was in her top three favorite films she had ever seen, and she knew nothing about the Dune book, Lynch’s film, nothing. She now wants to read the book to get all the backstory that was left out of the film after a friend and I were filling in everyone on technical plot details from the book. As Lynch found out, and director Alejandro Jodorowsky didn’t have the opportunity to find out, Dune is so complexly layered that it’s difficult to put into a single movie. Hence why Villeneuve only agreed to make the picture if it was split into two films. Good call in my opinion.
Since we’re on this topic of splitting Dune into two films, I think this is a good time to bring up the ending. I didn’t really like the ending at first and then realized soon after it was brilliantly timed. The knife fight with Jamis is a good place to end the film in an anticlimactic way. Prior to the fight, Paul sees some visions of himself getting stabbed (potential future timelines) and hears the voice of a woman saying something along the lines of, and I paraphrase: Paul Atreides must die for the Kwisatz Haderach to rise. I didn’t think about this when I read the book, but yes, Paul Atreides must die to become something greater. He must shed his old life, in sacrificial fashion, by killing a person for the first time. This serves doubly as a rite of passage for the young Duke and future leader of the Fremen. I think Paul was confusing the visions and voice of him dying as physical death when it was a symbolic death so that he may proceed with his new life on a new planet, and with a new name and identity. Also, Herbert said in a 1969 interview that he likes to spin readers out of his stories, leaving them feeling somewhat uncomfortable, saying to themselves, wait, what just happened here. I got that feeling from Villeneuve: we just witnessed the fall of House Atreides, an escape from Liet-Kynes’ research station, a fight to the death with Jamis, and then the film is over. I was spun out of the story! I want more, lots more!
A few notes about Villeneuve’s conception of the Dune universe:
Helmets. When reading the book, I didn’t get the mental image of people wearing full “space suits” with helmets, especially during fight scenes and the opening scene of the film. However, this makes sense to me. The Imperium is vast, connected only by spiced up Guild Navigators navigating their Heighliner spacecrafts that travel instantaneously from plant to planet. Even though the Dune universe seems to be inhabited mainly by humans, different planets would surely have different atmospheres, so people would have to wear helmets to breath their planet’s air composition.
Swords, not guns. The assault on Arrakeen saw Harkonnen attack ships drop bombs and fire missiles. So far so good. But when soldiers fought in hand-to-hand combat, they used swords and knives. This could be due to the fact that lasguns (mentioned in the book), when fired at shields, can produce big explosions. Since all soldiers regardless of home world presumably have personal body shields, it makes sense to not risk killing yourself by firing a lasgun at someone’s shield armor. One could use a bullet like current humans have now on Earth to penetrate the body shield (old school tech, analog), but the point still stands that everyone fights with blades. Just as atomic weapons cannot be used on other humans after the signing of the Great Convention (in the book), maybe there is a good reason for a lack of high-tech rifle/pistol tech when soldiers fight each other. Another interesting point is at the end of the film, when Stilgar asks Paul for the pistol and says he’ll get a pistol when he’s earned it or becomes older. I interpret the use of guns in the Dune universe as perhaps a dishonorable way to fight when challenging another human being in combat. Paul was prepared to use the pistol as a last resort to protect his mother and himself, especially when at a distance and outnumbered. At the beginning of the film, we see Fremen guerrilla fighters using rifles to attack spice harvesters and guards on the ground. The Fremen, as guerrilla fighters protecting and fighting for their homeland, likely don’t care whether they fight dishonorably against their occupiers. Anything goes.
Books and culture. I noticed that rooms and halls in the film were mostly empty. (I doubt this is because of the film’s budget since they had $165 million to play with.) Could this be how people live in the future, that is, hyper minimalistic? Duke Leto’s/Jessica’s room and Paul’s room were barely furnished. I would have expected to see a library or some books lying around. I remember seeing books only two times during the film: (i) in the hands of either Paul or Gurney Halleck (I can’t remember which) as Duke Leto’s ship landed on Arrakis for the first time, and (ii) in the office of Liet-Kynes. Why are there no books and only minimalistic furnishings in this universe? According to Frank Herbert’s story, denizens of the Dune universe don’t have “thinking machines,” our equivalent of artificial intelligence. Is there no one doing science, philosophy, or cultural studies? Of course, we are seeing this universe mostly through politics and warfare (and religion and ecology later) because that’s the story. Just as there are few books and furnishings throughout the film, we also don’t see much of people’s culture. We see some fashion regarding how people dress from the emperor’s convoy, how the Atreides and Harkonnens dress, Lady Jessica’s beaded facemask upon setting foot on Arrakis, and Fremen knives in addition to the knife sheath’s ornamentation. We also see spice coffee service in Liet-Kynes’ research sietch. Other than that, we don’t really encounter singing, dancing, or rituals, apart from military customs. Maybe we’ll see some more cultural scenes in Part 2 of the film.
Shai-hulud and consciousness. The sandworms of Arrakis are called Shai-hulud or “makers.” A potent drug called the Water of Life is extracted by drowning these worms in water and collecting the exhaled hallucinogenic bile used in religious rites, i.e., the Fremen’s Ceremony of the Seed. The reason I bring up this angle regarding consciousness and its alteration is because there is a scene at the end of the film when Paul and Jessica are running away from an attacking worm. They stop on the rocks to witness its grandeur. They’re at the large worm’s mercy but also mesmerized by it like a deer in car headlights. As the worm positioned itself in front of Paul and Jessica and we could see the beast’s fanged open-mouth, I noticed that the mouth looked like the iris and pupil of an eye. In this case, the thousands of fangs around the mouth resembled an iris while the center of the opened mouth the pupil, leading into blackness. I may be reading too much into this, but the eye reminded me about something being conscious, i.e., consciousness. I was also reminded of the “All Seeing Eye” from The Lord of the Rings and Alex Grey’s visionary artwork of infinite peering eyes. The Fremen consider Shai-hulud to be God, and for good reason: it produces spice that can be harvested from Arrakis’s sands and as already mentioned the Water of Life. Upon ingestion, these substances lead to visionary experiences of other dimensions, the nonphysical realm, perhaps a spiritual realm. Knowing this, the staring contest between worm and Paul/Jessica felt to me like God or pure consciousness looking at itself through Paul/Jessica’s eyes, and one could argue vice versa. As such, the worm is the All or the One looking at itself through the eyes of ego consciousness, while Paul/Jessica are individuated units or splinters of consciousness looking at themselves through the eyes of God consciousness. Whether intentionally put there or not, I thought it fascinating that I would see this particular Eastern spirituality and mysticism trope in the film. This is a sign I need to read the book again.
Visionary drugs. Dune was published in 1965 and written by Herbert at a very special moment in history. The Herberts were living in California, Frank was in constant contact with members of the intelligentsia, and psychedelic drugs were moving from the academics and intellectuals into the hands of ordinary people. 1960s-California must have been quite a place. It’s no wonder a book like Dune was a product of and helped fuel that scene. The reason I bring this up is because the word hallucinogenic is mentioned in the film when Paul studies one of his holographic lessons about Arrakis. Also, Dr. Yueh says spice is a psychoactive drug. Again, I may be reading too much into things, but it is interesting that a film version of a 1960s sci-fi book on visionary drugs is coming out now, roughly 20 years into the so-called Psychedelic Renaissance and when public opinion is changing rapidly about these substances. For me, it feels like we can have a conversation about drugs in general and realize there are different kinds of drugs that do different things. It feels like we have grown up a bit more as a society since the 1960s when it comes to consciousness-alteration and visionary phenomena.
Villeneuve’s interpretation of Dune is fantastic overall, and I think it could be a game-changer for sci-fi and other genre films going forward. How? I don’t know yet, but this film feels big to me, as if the first ripples of its influence are just now being felt. This is partly due to Herbert’s genius too as a writer and visionary. I would very much like to see this franchise expanded into more films based on Herbert’s other Dune books.
Herbert, B. (2003). Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert. New York: Tor.
Herbert, F. (2007/1965). Dune. United Kingdom: Gollancz.
Lynch, D. (Director). (1984). Dune [Film]. Dino De Laurentiis Company, & Estudios Churubusco Azteca S.A.
mengutimur (2017, May 6). Frank Herbert on the origins of Dune (1965) [Audio]. YouTube. Retrieved June 3, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-mLVVJkH7I [Originally recorded February 3, 1969, at Frank and Beverly Herbert’s home in Fairfax, California. For the transcript, see PDF document titled “Interview with Frank Herbert and Beverly Herbert by Willis E. McNelly” at https://libraryguides.fullerton.edu/c.php?g=389150&p=2640435, retrieved June 3, 2021.]
Pavich, F. (Director). (2013). Jodorowsky’s Dune [Film]. Highline Pictures, Camera One, Endless Picnic, Snowfort Pictures, & Jododune.
Villeneuve, D. (Director). (2021). Dune [Film]. Legendary Pictures.