The Thoughts Must Flow

The short preamble to this is:  I have seen the new Dune movie adaptation, and I have thoughts!

The longer preamble includes that I saw Dune the day it landed in theatres.  However, in a way that has perhaps never happened to me before, while watching it I was so in my head about what I was seeing and comparing it to both Lynch’s 1984 Dune adaptation as well as what I remembered of the novel (which I have since re-read) that I didn’t feel I could really trust many of my impressions on the film, especially as it related to storytelling and execution.  So I had to see it again, and I did, during the recent long weekend.

And seeing it again did make a difference!  I was present and could more properly take in the movie for what it was.  That said… I still wouldn’t fully trust myself to critique it’s overall storytelling and cinematic qualities.  I’ve still got too much familiarity with the greater material.  For what it’s worth, the first time around I found the movie disjointed and the narrative clunky; on second viewing, I didn’t find it as bad.  I’ve been hungrily seeking out the experiences of others, especially those who were coming to it without much knowledge of the universe and story, to hear how it landed for them.  Amusingly, that has also been a mixed bag, with some friends who also found the experience disjointed and others for whom it was fine.  One friend, who came in with little familiarity, found the storytelling alright but perhaps not the overall narrative, as by the end they weren’t really clear on the grander machinations of the houses and the universe and what was going on beyond the plot points of the main characters.

So I’m going to leave to the side whether, in isolation, the story and storytelling of this movie works. That still, however, leaves me with plenty of things I’d love to discuss around the adaptation, including the visuals and aesthetics.  So here we go!

  • One of the big issues in adaptation is that Dune the novel is quite dense, operating with many different through lines at once. It’s got intricate politics and small unit action.  It’s got prominent characters and thousand-year organizations.  It works in specifics and in metaphor.  It’s exploring many themes, trading in certain standard tropes while also working to hold them up to a mirror and even subvert them.  It’s many things!  How do you fit that into a movie?  (Or two, which this fortunately is doing.)  Well, for good or for ill, this adaptation focusses on Paul and Jessica.  Which is a strong enough choice, for they are the characters we spend the most time with in the novel.  And their relationship as mother and son is a common storytelling vehicle that is easy to tap into as a grounding point.  The downside, however, is that the movie leaves many other characters, and many other plot lines, lessened or eliminated entirely.
  • To which I wonder if the hope of having this clear/strong character arc/emphasis was that it would appeal to more people. Listen Warner Bros is not, IMHO, the best when it comes to the artistic side of movie making, trying too hard to fit the magic formula they think will reap the greatest return, so perhaps they influenced it this way?  WB didn’t even greenlight funding for part 2 until they saw how well this movie did (fortunately, it has done well enough that they have released the funding and we should see part 2 in 2023).  So maybe that strategy worked…
  • But even if it did, the biggest downside to that path is that, to me, this movie feels quite like generic sci-fi. Which is shocking given how rich the worldbuilding of Dune is.
  • We see (but not meet – we never really get to know him or his relationships) Thufir Hawat, but learn nothing about the Mentats. Or even the proscription against thinking machines.  Or how that spawned the guild and the bene gesserits.  Or that the BG are more than a voice and breeding programs, they also have their amazing body control/training.  Or what a guild navigator is.  Or about the Suk conditioning (and the implications about Yueh’s actions).  We don’t even learn that the year 10,191 isn’t 10,191 in our reckoning… it’s 10,191 after a great upheaval that was already thousands of years ahead of where we are now.  And without all of that, all we can grasp is magic speaking powers and spherical spaceships and that everyone’s using swords for some reason.
  • Of all of the above, the biggest sin here, and the most baffling to me, is regarding the spice. For something so integral to the Dune mythos it is weirdly vague.  What does the spice do?  Why is it valuable?  We’re told it is of the utmost importance and that we have to mine the spice or else we’re doomed (financially, or because the emperor won’t like it), but it’s so ill defined that it ends up becoming mostly a weird proxy in the background of the movie.
  • Now, in the opening monologue it is mentioned that the spice is vital to space travel. And from that you might infer that without it, the entire imperium would collapse (of course, not knowing how big the imperium is, or for how long it has been around, and etc, lessens the potential impact of that implication).  But that’s a single line of exposition at the start of the movie that’s setting up other things.  It’s easy to forget.  And it’s never referenced or, importantly, demonstrated, again.  And that’s a glaring omission.
  • The giant mutated space slugs in the Lynch version may not exactly be canonical to the novel, but one thing it does with absolute clarity is reinforce what an interesting method of travel folding space is, and, above all, why you need the spice to do it. Yet, this new Dune movie hardly shows any of the journey to Arrakis.  We see ships about to leave Caladan, we see a ship in orbit around Dune, and we see people stepping off the ships on Arrakis.  That’s it.  We don’t see anything about the interstellar journey itself.
  • And this, I say, is a big mistake! Showing the ships going to a guild highliner, then seeing the highliner fold space (travel without moving!) while highlighting the navigators somehow, then showing ships leaving the highliner (including potential enemies right next to each other) would accomplish two major things:  1) Worldbuilding.  Highliner ships are huge, they are what are needed for interstellar travel, and they are a monopoly run by the guild (even so much that enemies will travel next to each other and won’t make trouble as to not antagonize the guild).  Plus, this method of FTL travel is very different from other franchises, such as Star Wars or Star Trek.  All together this brings flavour and avoids genericness.  2) Emphasize the need for spice in this amazing travel method, which both helps 1, and, more importantly, 3.  3) Makes hyper clear why spice is so damn necessary and thus valuable.  No spice?  No movement between worlds.  EVERYONE needs spice.
  • This also highlights that the spice has an effect on everyone; it kicks up your mental processes. Paul in this movie is affected by the spice in a few key moments/scenes, but it’s almost handwaved away in a few lines by Dr Yueh, and it’s also not made clear that the constant exposure to spice is having a profound impact on him, especially as the perhaps kwisatz haderach.
  • What’s especially baffling about this omission of the special nature of spice, and it’s rendering into this fungible proxy for “valuable thing” (which also belittles its intended metaphor for oil), is that one of the key fundamentals of the novel is that it will be how Paul and the fremen will gain so much power later on. “He who can destroy a thing can control a thing.”  Because they can destroy spice harvesting, they have the power to control the entire known universe.  Everyone will do their bidding.  Not because they will have lots of money, but because the imperium 100% needs the spice to even exist.  CHOAM (the uber-corporation that controls all economic affairs across the imperium) and the Spacing Guild respond to that threat and even are willing to overthrow the emperor to do so.
  • All in all, this is very weaksauce handling for something so fundamental to the Dune universe and leads me to worry that it’ll be highly confusing or come across as vapid when the spice suddenly needs to take more prominence in part 2.
  • In the movie, the Reverend Mother goes to Baron Harkonen and tells him not to harm Paul and Jessica. This is very much not in the book (Dr Yueh does so, because he really isn’t interested in harming House Atreides). Now, there should be differences and even changes between books and their adapted movies, because they are different mediums.  But when there’s a big departure from the source material, it’s quite fair to ask “why?”  What purpose (narratively), is it making? So what’s up with this big change?  My guess:  they’re trying to emphasize that Paul is the perhaps kwisatz haderach.  By having the RM go there after administering the gom jabbar, it’s saying “well, maybe he is the one, and we want him alive to see what comes of it.”
  • Lady Jessica’s portrayal… SO MUCH WEEPING.    So many scenes seem to feature her weeping or with looks of consternation, and without the internal dialogue of the books (or the Lynch movie), I fear that this has her come across as way less confident, capable, and even powerful as she is the novel.  Even with the Shadout Mapes, when Jessica signals the guard “be ready for violence”, that to me sells her short – as a Bene Gesserit she would likely be able to handle the thing without assistance.  I think this movie is doing her a disservice, overall, and that when she bests Stilgar in her weirding way it may feel like it comes out of nowhere.  (That said, one friend of mine who came in fresh didn’t feel that was unwarranted and said they felt her strength and conviction throughout, so perhaps my concern is at least partially misplaced.)
  • Jessica signalling Paul not to use the voice on the guards when they’re being led to the desert is also not in the novel – is this another invented moment to try and demonstrate how powerful Paul is becoming? That he shouldn’t be able to do it, but because he’s the special one/the kwisatz haderach he can?
  • Switching gears here to talk about the aesthetics, artistic direction, and industrial design…
  • To start, this movie is 45% ornithopter porn, AND I AM ALL HERE FOR IT! Seriously. It was such a delight to see that concept brought to life in the visuals.
  • But, on the whole I’m torn about the designs in Dune. They’re certainly competent, with a definite militaristic and functional flavour to them (though see below).  Which is fine, as this gives them a certain grit and weight and a ‘reality’ to them.
  • At the same time, however, Dune is a story that is as much about politics and religion and history and pomp, and that functional flavour hinders that feel. Yes, it’s nice that the gom jabbar happens in a library, but it’s a drab and spare library.  Yes it’s nice that the spaceship bringing the emperor’s herald has a large rug on the ramp, but the vehicle itself is otherwise a nondescript orb.  (Though one that is hilariously similar to the hovering glowglobes! Intentional?)
  • This, unfortunately, strips much of the extra layers of themes from the story, as well as, again, contributing to the generic sci-fi feel of the whole affair.
  • Really, all the starship designs are an interesting example of this. They’re all simple shapes, whether round or angular.  And while there is a nice little “fuck you” to aerodynamics that hints at a certain amount of power and facileness to the idea of space travel, does it convey 10+ thousand years of space travel level of power and facilities?
  • To compare to the Lynch movie again, the entrances to the guild highliners have this hyper-ornate and baroque frame around them. And pretty much all of the sets and environments (except the fremen, which makes for an interesting contrast!) have a similar level of wrought baroque excess to them.  The import here again isn’t whether the Lynch version is the ‘right’ one, but instead that this level of ornateness conveys and really sells the fact that not only have these people have been doing this for a long time (they can afford to include such crazy decoration), it also gives a feel for the imperium and the noble houses (including who they are, what holds them together, how they operate, and all the the machinations and pomp and ceremony and etc that goes along with it).
  • So while such spare starship designs are cool in Arrival, I think it’s a missing here. Or, at least, it would have been better to make more distinctions, both for ships and for everything else, including the architecture:  military vs regal vs ornate vs utilitarian vs house vs fremen vs imperial vs …. etc
  • At least for the ‘thopters we get to see both military ones and a ‘research’ one that has a much more bug-like feel to it, which is neat.
  • Beyond the ‘thopters, another thing I really dig is how they depicted the lasguns. So very different than the typical blaster! (As well they should be!).  Understated, yet cutting through everything with its thin white beam.  So cool.
  • However! The two times they use lasguns in the movie, they use them in ways where it could have hit a shielded target!  Which in Dune lore is an absolute no-no, because doing so typically causes what amounts to a full-scale nuclear blast, on both the receiving AND sending end.  Hit a shielded target, and you’re more than likely to blow yourself up.  While that aspect isn’t strictly important to functioning or the narrative of the movie, it is a knock against, again, the worldbuilding and in illustrating the unique flavour of Dune.
  • On the other side, I’m not a fan of the design of the carryall or the harvester. The latter is quite boring, but the former I really don’t get how it works?  Is that balloon overhead giving the thing lift?  Compressed gas of some sort being let free?  Is that really the best way to run this thing?  I mean, you have f-you levels of antigrav ships (and floating lightbulbs even), but can’t spare something for this important task?  That just seems weird and incongruous.  (Plus the balloon inflation CGI was awkward and unconvincing.)
  • On the other hand (pun semi-intended) Yueh’s medical checkouts of Paul was another neat touch (pun also semi-intended). It is perhaps the one place where we can get a sense that there’s something different than the typical sci-fi, as there’s no medical scanners or other devices here but instead a reliance on (heightened) human capabilities.
  • Mmmmmmm, the soundtrack. It’s killer.  One of Zimmer’s better scores.  Clearly he and Villeneuve work great together!  Like with Blade Runner 2049, I get the sense that he was allowed free reign to create, and that this was a movie he was especially interested in and so put in the time to really create something varied and different and glorious and powerful (and the music mix is turned up REAL LOUD in the theatre – an interesting choice in of itself) .  It feels deliciously new and distinctive.    (Albeit the sudden bagpipes in a few places were a bit of a WTF for me.   To be clear, not because I dislike bagpipes or anything like that, but more because they felt out of place and unrelated to the lore we’ve been led through.)
  • Many more little things to note and discuss! I’ll stop here for the moment and finish up with one last bit:  Who do I feel this movie is for?  Was it for the fan or for the newcomer?   And I really want it to be something that brings in the newcomer!  Something that intrigues and entices and invites them to explore more, both in Dune but also in general.
  • I fear, though, that the result lands in an awkward middle ground. In the effort to keep the movie ‘simple’ and ‘straightforward’, they unfortunately crafted something that not only strips out a lot of what makes Dune an interesting/unique universe, but also what adds layers and thematic explorations to the otherwise (and intentional) typical hero/saviour plotline.  The movie may now be basically accessible, but it’s also now not necessarily   Worse, it might have been pared back so much that even what hints have been included to a grander backstory and worldbuilding have instead, by being so threadbare, been rendered confusing.
  • On the other side of the equation, a fan going to see this movie can fill in the missing bits, but it’s also not fun to not get to see all those bits be displayed and/or unfold onscreen. And the hollowness compounds as the runtime progresses and more and more are found missing.
  • Oh, and one other last observation: I’m quite surprised they didn’t end with Paul being given the name of Muad’dib.  It’s an important inflection marker in the story (and in the novel it’s given to him after he defeats Jamis).  It seems appropriate and even strong to have included it at the end here, as a marker to the point where he turns/evolves from Paul the Caladanian offworlder to Paul Maud’dib, the fremen of Arrakis (and begins to cultivate desert power).

Is this the pinnacle Dune movie of our dreams?  Unfortunately, I would say no.*  It is a solid enough movie, I loved seeing it twice, and I’ll likely rewatch it again and again in the coming years.  But it does have that vagueness that strips off much of what makes Dune , “Dune”.  The balance was missed here, and the final movie is lessor for it.

BUT!  I’m curious on to your experience.  As I noted at the start of this screed, I’m readily acknowledging that my own feels on this are likely quite clouded and even skewed.  So please sound off if you’d like!

 

* I say unfortunately as I think quite highly of Villeneuve and, given his work on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, thought he was well positioned for this movie.  My anticipation was high.

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