Over the years, though, so many people have expressed their undying devotion to "Dune" that I wonder if I didn't miss out on something. I have some regret about not making a better effort to finish that first book, so I was intrigued when I saw that Dennis Villeneuve was trying his hand at a big-screen adaptation.
Coming into the film with only the vaguest idea of the story allows me to evaluate it on its own merits, rather than some preconceived notion of what it "should" be, and I have to tell you that as a stand-alone experience, it's pretty good. Although "Dune" clocks in at almost two and a half hours, it never seemed to drag, and I was surprised that it was over so quickly. That may be partially due to the fact that it is just the first part of a two-part storyline, but it's a well-paced film that never seems to rush its material yet keeps the plot moving along.
The general story is that 10,000 years into the future, the galaxy is divided into feudal "houses" ruled over by a galactic Emperor. Rule of the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, is being transferred from House Harkonnen to House Atreides. Arrakis is the only known place in the galaxy where the spice, melange, is found. This spice is necessary for interstellar travel and may also help prolong life, so the House in charge of the mining operation there can earn fabulous wealth and live long enough to enjoy it. In theory. House Atreides may or may not know that they are being set up to fail by the Emperor, who fears they are becoming too powerful.
Layered onto all this is a mysterious religious sect called Bene Gesserit that has interwoven itself with House Atreides. The sect believes in a prophecy that a male child born to one of its primarily female members will be the chosen one that can unlock the final mystery of their faith. Lady Atreides believes that her son, Paul, might be the chosen one and seeks validation from a Truthsayer who subjects Paul to a test. That test is actually how the book begins, and so it is one of the few things in the movie I recognized.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.
While the question of Paul's exceptionalism is left ambiguous throughout the film, the mere fact that some believe he could be the chosen one has repercussions, and it is implied that he is not above using those beliefs to do good even if he doesn't exactly believe them, himself. That is a fascinating concept.
The Emperor's agents work behind the scenes to make life on Arrakis difficult for House Atreides and then assist House Harkonnen outright in overthrowing and slaughtering them. Paul and his mother survive by fleeing to the desert where the indigenous people, known as the Fremen, eke out a subsistence in the murderous climate. Paul is able to best one of the Fremen warriors in a knife fight, furthering his case as a potential savior and earning a place for him and his mother in their clan.
It's a compelling story, well-told, with outstanding visuals. Villeneuve wisely tones down the Middle Eastern aspects of the original story, which was pretty obviously a critique of colonial oil interests in that part of the world at the time the book was published in 1965, in favor of a more generic colonial setting.
The first couple chapters of the book clarify why the galaxy lacks computers and robots, an anti-tech uprising known as the Butlerian Jihad, but the film is oddly vague about that, which is somewhat weird because it is ultimately what makes spice so valuable. The superhuman ability to concentrate and process information it provides allows humans to do the calculations needed to navigate interstellar space. I'm sure that somewhere in the 12 Dune books, there is an explanation of how the spice on that distant planet was originally found if spice was needed to travel there in the first place, but for now, I'll call it a conundrum and move on.
The thing that most stands out to me about "Dune" is just how derivative "Star Wars" is of it. Desert planet. Chosen one. Evil Emperor. Mysterious religious sect with mind-bending powers. Swordplay. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Mrs. Dunham thought "Dune" would be a logical progression from "Star Wars."
I was originally a Radio/Television Communication major at Ohio University before switching to Business Administration. One of the core RTVC classes was "Interpretation of Film," which I took Fall Quarter of my sophomore year. It remains my favorite class of all time. Every Friday at 2:00, we would gather in the theater at Baker Center and watch a classic movie, then discuss it on Monday and Wednesday of the next week. A few of us from the class would go out for a beer or two before the screening and that became known as our "Friday Matinee." Fittingly, I award movies mugs of beer as follows:
🍺🍺🍺🍺🍺 - A modern classic. Entertaining, with no significant flaws.
🍺🍺🍺🍺 - A great viewing experience, with just a few minor issues.
🍺🍺🍺 - Well worth watching, but some significant quibbles.
🍺🍺 - Watchable, but not worth your time unless a fan of the director, actors, or source material.
🍺- Save your money.