Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Frank Herbert’s opus isn’t perfect, but it is still a cinematic extravaganza that demands a viewing.
Dune (2021 Film) Synopsis
The desert planet of Arrakis is not only inhospitable and dangerous, it is also the only source of Spice, an all-important powder that confers longevity, cultivates prescience, and facilitates space travel via huge space vessels. Duke Leto Atreides thus knows he is walking into a political trap when assigned by the Imperium to manage Arrakis, a task that places him in direct conflict with the previous administrators, the House Harkonnen. Meanwhile, Paul, Leto’s teenage son, experiences elaborate hallucinations, which intensify after he is exposed to Spice. When open battle erupts on Arrakis, Paul envisions his true destiny too. This destiny begins with an alliance with the Fremen, the mysterious natives of the desert planet.
No thanks to the 1984 flop, Frank Herbert’s Dune is considered by some sci-fi fans as “undoable” for movie adaptation.
These views are not unnecessarily harsh, IMO. The layered complexity of the novel defies easy portrayal on the big screen; the lambasted 84 movie is a tutorial on all that could go wrong. Apart from that, there is the fact that Dune is in essence, nothing at all about space exploration or laser dogfights, or superhuman battles.
Instead, it is a deeply reflective, often distressing exploration of political and religious dilemmas. Put it this way, while desert planets the likes of Arrakis and humongous sandworms are nowadays easy to depict on screen, how do you address the question of viewers heading into a cinema expecting space-age action and effects, but instead dished a philosophical thesis?
It’s not doable, some would say.
Denis Villeneuve clearly doesn’t think so, though, and to his credit, I’d say his envisioning teethers on an acceptable if tenacious balance. There is reasonable fidelity to the source material. There’s also sufficient action to keep you munching on popcorn, although here I’d share, I would have preferred more complete sightings of those terrifying sandworms.
On the other hand, and without surprise, the religious and spiritual angles take a beating. These are not entirely removed but skimming does reduce Paul Atreides’ awakening to no more than that of a standard superhero saviour. The messianic angle, with all its implications and questions, is lost.
And then there’s the matter of story flow. Rightfully, Villeneuve adapted only the first half of the novel for this movie and therefore, prevented one of the worst failures of the ’84 Lynch version.
But in doing so, he inevitably ended the tale in the valley of the novel, i.e., the subdued mid-chapters. Not to say he concluded on a down note but the final hour of the movie strays into dreary territory. I kept wondering when it was going to end, and not just because I (badly) needed to use the loo.
In short, a commendable if expectedly flawed adaptation. Possibly capable of creating a small new generation of Dune fans too, I guess.
Naturally, it again exemplifies the sophistication of Herbert’s prose. There’s just no way of adapting it right, is there? Will there ever be?
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