In 1984, a director with an eccentric twinkle in his eye named David Lynch refused directorial duties on Return of the Jedi in favor of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune to the big screen. The film was a disaster at the box office, loathed by critics and disavowed by Lynch. The auteur followed this misstep with a little ditty called Blue Velvet, and all was right again in Lynch’s world.
I saw Lynch’s Dune back when I was in high school, and I had little patience with it. I didn’t care for the Baron’s severe acne, and having never read the books, I had no tolerance for all of the weird plotting. Toto did do a kickass soundtrack, though (with the exception of the drippy closing credits song).
Now, in 2021, comes a new adaptation of Dune from reliable director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival), a man known for his spectacular eye for film worlds. The result is the year’s best-looking blockbuster (right up there with James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad), and a solidly coherent take on the Herbert tome.
Timothee Chalamet steps into the role of Paul Atreides, originally played by Kyle MacLachlan. Paul is some sort of possible messiah who will help a desert planet fight tyranny and really, really big sand worms. His dreams tell him all sorts of things and include visions of Zendaya with blue eyes.
The drama includes that pesky Baron, this time played by Stellan Skarsgard in a fat suit. His Baron is still a monster, but a far more grounded and less cackly one (and considerably less afflicted by zits). The planet Paul eventually travels to is the only one in the universe that has spice, the fuel for space travel. Whoever controls the spice controls the universe.
Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson provide a nice dramatic anchor as Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, and his mystical companion, Lady Jessica Atreides. Jason Momoa gives his most charismatic performance to date as a military man, Duncan Idaho, a far more interesting creation than his Aquaman. Josh Brolin steps into the role of adviser Gurney Halleck, while Javier Bardem shows up briefly as Stiglar. Bardem and Zendaya will have bigger roles in the proposed sequel. (More on that in a bit.) Dave Bautista is mostly there for his looks as Beast Rabban Harkonnen, while the great Charlotte Rampling shines behind the veil as the Reverend Mother Mohiam.
Villeneuve and his compatriots help the cast by, once again, crafting a world that is sumptuous both visually and sonically. Creations such as helicopter-like crafts that look like dragonflies and those infamous worms blend into an amazing and believable desert world. The script delivers the story in a way that is comprehensible for those who never saw the first film and never read the books. I never before really cared about the worlds of Dune—but, thanks to Villeneuve, I care now.
After viewing this Dune, I went back and watched Lynch’s take. It’s still incredibly strange and obviously incomplete (Lynch lost control of the edit), but Villeneuve’s Dune helped me understand what in the hell was going on in Lynch’s Dune. I almost enjoyed watching the nutty old movie, but I still can’t stand that Baron and his zits. How did that movie get a PG-13 rating?
The new Dune is the grandest of cinematic place-setters in that it only covers about half the original novel and ends with a massive cliffhanger. Villeneuve made this movie with the idea that a second chapter would be greenlit. The movie did OK in its opening weekend, when it was released to both theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
The decent box-office take and good streaming numbers led to news on Oct. 26 that the second film has gotten greenlit. That’s a good thing for Dune fans old and new—because Villeneuve deserves to finish his vision and, dammit, we deserve to see that vision.
Dune is now playing at theaters across the valley, and is streaming on HBO Max.
(Updated on Oct. 26 with news that the second film has been greenlit.)