Back to the movies: Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune

It’s been… literally… more than a year since I’ve been to the movies. I can’t even remember what the last movie I went to see in the cinema was. I blurted that fact out to the ticket collector when I wandered into the (eerily deserted) lobby of the Regal Cinema complex. “Welcome back,” she said, taking it in stride.

It was a 1:30 PM matinee showing on a Monday. I CHOSE it because of thet – because even masked and triply vaccinated there’s always the ghost of covid walking beside me these days when I venture into potentially crowded public places. But this particular showing… had six people in the audience. TOtal. in the entire cinema. The whole back to the movies thing is taking a while to catch on, apparently. And in some ways this is a tragedy for a movie like this because I don’t know how on earth it makes box office now. Not with six people in a matinee showing.

But I digress.

I wanted to go see “The Green Knight” in the cinema – but I balked, and never went. It was a movie I wanted – still want – to see but I can always catch it in the reruns, on demand, on TV, whatever. It would probably be grand on a big screen but it translates onto a smaller one without losing too much.

You can’t do that to “Dune”. This is a movie that a big screen was MADE for. Just like a movie like “Lawrence of Arabia” loses something fundamental if you experience those sweeping images of dunes in the credits on a TV screen – well, so does Dune, and for the same reason. A true desert is not to be constrained in that way, not without destroying its impact. And THIS desert… well, one does NOT watch the rising of Shai Hulud on a TV monitor. It is disrespectful,

So, Dune. Dune got me into the cinema again, back to the movies, because it demanded nothing less.

Let me step back for a moment, and hearken to an earlier cinematic edition of the epic – the infamous 1985 David Lynch iteration featuring Sting in space speedos and characters like Thufir rendered almost caricatured (yes, EYEBROWS. But did they have to look like you stuck a couple of hairy caterpillars on his forehead???) There has been a lot said and a lot of ink spilled in both attack and defense of that movie – and I say, here and now, at the risk of being thumped, that I LIKED that movie for a lot of things. It got the important bits in, most of them well. It also had the Presence, and I use a capital advisedly, of Francesca Annis, one of the most beautiful women on the planet, and I’m sorry, but she is still Lady Jessica to me, and always will be. But that movie was – well – you might almost say garish. It was rendered in neon. Everything was drawn in HARD, with pressure.As in, Here. Look. SEE this. SEE IT. Make absoutely sure you’ve seen it. I MEAN IT. Watch. Watch until your eyes bleed. (the Space Speedo outfit will poke them out, at least. If you haven’t seen Sting in his Feyd Rautha getup you’ve led a sheltered life. go find a movie still.) This version… is more muted. Greyer. More subtle, in a lot of ways. There are some nicely done touches, and they are handled with a light hand. Let me offer you one example – there is a conversation between Paul and a gardener about the row of date palms the latter is carefully watering, and Paul says something like, I didn’t know date palms grew here. And the gardener says, they don’t. These depened on me, utterly. Each of them drinks enough every day for five men. Twenty trees. That’s a hundred lives.

The next time you glimpse those trees they are all on fire as the Sardaukar stream into the city.

No further comment, and almost easily missed… but for that earlier comment.

A hundred lives.

Up in smoke. Wastefully. Wantonly. For no good reason at all except that they got in the way.

It makes you almost – almost – forget for one blistering moment what ELSE is being done inside Arrakeen that night, who else lies dying. But Villeneuve takes the time to make you- however briefly – spare a thought for those nurtured trees, and their cost in lives, and how lightly those lives were in the end held, whatever shape or form they had taken. It’s brief and it’s brutal but kudos, mr director. It hit what you wanted.

The movie… it’s massive, and it’s immersive, and it answers for Dune.Needless to say the setting does its thing – look, this is spectacular, open desert like that is always spectacular, beautiful and deadly, almost a character in its own right. You couldn’t possibly do anything to spoil that at all. Shai Hulud… is all I came to the movies to see (AND THANK YOU FOR THAT).The backdrop is beautifully rendered, be it Caladan or Arrakis, water or sand. And the hardware is suitably fascinating (I LOVE the dragonfly thopters although I am really taxing my brains as to how exactly they would fly.) The stilsuits look great. The details and culture clashes are well done (Stilgar spitting on the table before the Duke, Gurney taking  this with suitable umbrage, until paladin Ducan Idaho interprets – “thank you for the gift of your body’s moisture” – it’s all in the eye (or the spit, anyway) of the beholder, here…) There are a lot of things that do seem rendered in curious shorthand,though – I got more of a sense of the Bene Gesserit from Lynch’s move than I do here, oddly. They are (perhaps suitably) in deeper shadow in Villeneuve’s movie, but that does leave everyone’s motivations oddly hanging, without the proper grounding to it. I mean *I* know what’s going on but I”ve read the book. Many times. Is that supposed to be a prerequisite? Ditto, in a lot of ways, for the Fremen; Shadout Mapes had a bigger presence in Lynch’s version. And even Stilgar seems oddly lightly sketched here.

But there are still a couple of things that itch a little harder.

Was there a pressing reason to make Liet Kynes a woman? I mean, it doesn’t add anything. It’s just a wrinkle that makes my nose twitch a little. Representation and diversity is fine but sometimes it does seem arbitrary and done just for the sake of being able to point at something as your contribution to those things and THIS feels a little like that. It just feels… unnecessary. I’m not saying it’s done BADLY, I’m just wondering why it was called for at all.

The assault on Arrakeen and the annihilation of the Atreides – yes. I know. Thunder lightning shock and awe and LOTS OF EXPLOSIONS are what sells these days. All the same. Did there have to be quite so much of it? ESpecially since we don’t have that much of a sense of that city (except for the OBVIOUSLY pointed out sites of the spaceport and the refinery… but if the Harkonnen wanted to be able to pick up where they left off… they wouldn’t have hit those anyway they needed them… and so all those explosions were… what? They apparently caught the Atreides legions literally napping (Gurney had to be rousted from his bunk) and then – what – those legions sailed into a suicide rush against an enemy that outgunned, outarmored, and simply outnumbered them? I’d have to read the book again but I simply think that some more of that palm tree subtlety would have gone a long, long way here instead of the burn-baby-burn approach (Jessica and Paul watch the flames from the desert… but one does have to ask what would be burning so hot and so long. That was a city made of stone and sand, neither of which are precisely flammable as such. Aside from a fuel depot or two and perhaps an armoury…what was fuelling those fires? It can’t have been just twenty much treasured and much mourned date palms…

Comparing Lynch with Villeneuve? No, they’re different visions. But there is ONE thing.

Lynch took us to a conclusion.

Villeneuve… ends with Chani turning with an enigmatic smile and saying, “This is just the beginning”.

Those are the last words in this movie… which is Dune, *PART ONE*.

So far as I know Part Two is not only not in production but it hasn’t even been properly been greenlit yet. (and this is why I am worried about the box office, here. WIthout the backstop of $$$$… will part the second even be born…? Because it would be a tragedy, if it was not.

This was a risk, Monsieur Villeneuve.

I hope you have enough faith left in Dune to bring it home.