Dune 2 Review

March 5, 2024

Tedium is the Mind-Killer!

— but the New Dune movie makes three hours just fly by.

What can I say about Dune Two?  Everyone will be talking about it stunning visuals, its amazing sound, the fact that Villeneuve’s conception hews much more closely to Frank Herbert’s novel than David Lynch’s.  They will mention the mostly superlative casting, from having in Timothée Chalamet an actor who actually looks like the 15-year-old mouse-like boy in the book, to the expanded and more richly characterised female roles, to the revisionist, somewhat woke reimagining of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.  They will mention that Herbert’s “unfilmable” epic is expertly streamlined into a slow-burn package that spans a “mere” six hours (when you include both parts) yet preserves a remarkable amount of the substance of the original.  They will no doubtless mention that everyone is pining for a sequel, which doubtless would actually be based on Dune Messiah, the second, much shorter book in Herbert’s series.

I think I should take a more big-picture view because I’ve lived with Dune for close to half a century.  The “golden age” of science fiction, defined by some experts as the 1930s-40s, was perhaps more accurately characterized by Peter Graham as “12”.  And that indeed how old I was when Dune was first published.  We shouldn’t even really think of “breaking Dune into two parts” because originally, the novel known as Dune was two separate serials that ran in Analog Magazine.  By filming Dune as two films, Villeneuve arguably restored the novel’s incarnation as a serial and a sequel.  This also explains why Dune Messiah was so much shorter than Dune; in a real sense it’s the third of three, not the second of two.

For the past half-century fans of this book have yearned for a movie version.  But apart from its vastness and the plethora of effects it would need, the actual content is also pretty intractable.  Much of it is, like many of the most important novels in science fiction, not that well written in a “literary” sense.  In the case of Dune, much of the book consists of tortured interior monologue in italics, a major feature of the “pulp era.”  That kind of thing is deadly in a movie; movies thrive on show, don’t tell.  And the one thing a movie can’t show without narrative gymnastics is the inside of someone’s head.

I think that many of the differences between the Dunes are about the the times and the audiences.  Herbert’s Dune was written for Analog, a science fiction magazine whose readers were overwhelmingly white adolescent males (as was indeed the audience for the entire genre at the time.). The audience was on the verge of widening, but it wouldn’t really start to get huge until the 1970s when Star Wars made the genre mainstream.  But Star Wars wasn’t based on contemporary science fiction — it drew its inspiration from an earlier period of swashbuckling space opera, and indeed one of the screenwriters of The Empire Strikes Back, Leigh Brackett, was an iconic writer of that golden age.

There were things that worked in the culture of the 1960s that by David Lynch’s 1984 version were already making some people queasy.  Baron Harkonnen, in the book, is a sadistic gay predator, and this homophobic trope, in the writing of its time, was an acceptable shorthand for “evil villain,” meaning the author could get away with wasting less wordage on characterization.  Indeed, when you get down to it, most of the characters in Herbert’s book are drawn in primary colors; the women, in fact, are barely colored in at all.  

Every adaptation has had to deal with the “Harkonnen Question” and the Lynch film does so by adding the “heart plug” scene with the flower boy, basically beating us over the head with the fact that this guy is evil.  The Syfy series, twenty years later, is a bit coy, but in the end more explicit.  The Villeneuve edition reinvents the character and completely gets rid of this cringeworthy aspect.  By bleaching out the camp, which David Lynch played up, this new Dune makes Harkonnen, and the entire Giedi Prime milieu he rules over, a world without color, and he does so literally as well as emotionally — the sequences on Giedi Prime are so desaturated that I can’t really tell if they weren’t actually shot in black and white.  

The Dune story as conceived by Herbert is subversive.  It starts in a familiar place: the young boy finding his true identity and becoming The One who saves the universe.  It has the beats of that archetypal mythic journey, but it subverts it at every turn, showing the young protagonist as a two-edged sword, as much destroyer as creator.  Around mid-way through the arc that begins with the first of the Dune serials and ends with Dune Messiah, we start to understand that Paul Atreides is as much anti-hero as hero.

Villeneuve’s Dune stays true to this ambiguity.  He even does things to throw it into starker relief.  The character of Feyd Rautha is made more complex than the books to show how the Bene Gesserit make no bones about preparing alternate plans in their millennial plans to breed their kwisatz haderach.  In Herbert this is a two dimensional character; as portrayed by Austin Butler and more richly scripted, he becomes a true counterweight, compensating for the fact that Baron Harkonnen is less of a malevolent cartoon.   As portrayed in film he is a true dark twin; he an Timothée Chalamet have the same blend of androgenous beauty and raging testosterone, and the final duel becomes a real match where the old “fate of the universe boils down to two dudes slugging it out” cliché actually seems to be in play. 

Fans of the book will see a few glaring omissions; one is the precocious little sister Alia, who in the movie is basically just a talking fetus.  Unavoidable when you squeeze a couple of years of Paul growing up amongst the fremen into what looks like just a few months.  Cinematically speaking it’s just as well that the pesky little sister is out of the picture, because frankly it’s hella unfilmable.  Every attempt to show on film what is supposed to be (according to the book) a 2 year old girl with millennial intelligence and the combined memories of a hundred generations of ancestral witches has fallen flat.  You need someone who looks like Shirley Temple acting with the nuanced technical virtuosity of Meryl Streep to make it work.  I believe this role is more impossible than any number of effects creatures, CGI vistas, or clever conlangs.  Now, we need to see if Alia (conveniently older) can pop up in the sequel.

The sequel is what is going to make this entire structure perfect, because in Dune Messiah we see the tragic repercussions of Paul Atreides’s choices.  As he has risen, so must he fall and, like Anakin Skywalker, the innocent must transform into the iconic villain.  If we don’t see this whole arc, we don’t really see the grandeur of Herbert’s concept.  So, the third film is essential, and hopefully Villeneuve will get to make it.

Dune Messiah is a very short book and perhaps, if the third film is as long as the other two or longer, we will also see a few choice things omitted from the first two films, such as a major role for mentats, or a closer encounter with the spacing guild.

We do see things that aren’t in the original and most of them are in the direction of a more balanced story. Women are much more believable and aren’t just ornaments to the plot (see my note above on the original audience demographic of the first book) — Princess Irulan, who is basically just a source of chapter epigraphs in the book, really comes to life.    Lady Jessica acquires layers.  This is an aspect in which (sacrilegious as it may sound) the film improves on Herbert.  Chani, too, isn’t just some barbarian, but a complex and conflicted woman, more three-dimensional than the original.

I still have an affection for David Lynch’s film — although it’s probably true that no version of this that reflects the director’s real intentions has actually been seen anywhere.  I like the baroque, steampunk design of it.  I love its weirdness.  I think that it is more true to Herbert than diehard book fans claim.  In fact there’s at least a dozen “facts” that David Lynch gets right from the book that Villeneuve doesn’t.  I enjoyed the two series on Syfy as well despite their lack of sweep.

But the new version has a gravitas all its own.  It has a sumptuous beauty.  Unlike the previous versions, it uses few colors and uses them with care and precision.  Despite taking some liberties, I think it is closer than any other version to what the average Dune fan sees in his head when extrapolating from the printed page.  And it’s more matched to contemporary sensibilities than the original would have been.  

We’re all waiting breathlessly to see the completed trilogy, and hoping we won’t have to wait three more years to see it.

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Author: SP Somtow