The new 'Dune' is a great start — but can't outrun the book's biggest problem

Stop searching: Finally, there is a definitive film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune. Or, at the very least, an adaptation of the first part of this 896-page monster paperback.
Denis Villeneuve has created a moody, dark sci-fi tone poem that is as big and rich as his previous film, Blade Runner 2049. You'll enjoy this if you enjoyed it, as we did. It lasts 150 minutes in a pleasant, hypnotic trance with some humor to ease the tension.

Thursday night saw the launch of Dune on HBO Max. Villeneuve would rather you risk the danger of rousing the giant covidian sandworm Delta-variant COVID. If you are able to see it in theaters (relatively) safely and you don't mind getting a bit dizzy, home viewing would be "a diluted event". This movie, like many desert classics, is best enjoyed in an epic setting. Hans Zimmer's evocative, bass-heavy music will make you feel right at home. A large portion of the first third is dimly lit. This makes it a pleasant contrast to Arrakis' sunlit light, but also means that home viewers with TVs below $5,000 may be in a Battle of Winterfell scenario.

However, your feelings about Dune and Herbert's book may be more important than the audio-visual art. Villeneuve's script is a good way to get through the lengthy original. However, you might wonder why Villeneuve asked us to sympathize so much with the militaristic, aristocratic Atreides family. Villeneuve is the man for you if you loved it. You may find the updates, omissions, and flash-forwards to make it less about a story about a colonizing white man savior more appealing if you read it.

Dune, in its first half, is still about a colonizing white male hero. Paul Atreides, the book's protagonist, is a creepy rich boy from a religious family who takes a lot of drugs on a desert trip that goes horribly sour. (Burning Man anyone?) Then he joins a group of locals, his former servants. They are all examples of the noble, savage trope. Although Herbert's story is more bizarre and interesting, Villeneuve stopped there.

Dune, however, is still a tale about a colonizing white man savior.

Herbert had some intention to subvert this one-percenter crudeness. Paul was to subtly defy a lot of expectations regarding saviors, but our expectations have changed in 2021. It is easier to see past the gorgeous language and fascinating world-building that Paul has added to his troubled arc. Villeneuve, who claims he loved the story as a child and unintentionally identified with Paul Atreides, has remained faithful to it.

While native Fremen are given more screen time and respect than the 1984 Dune, it is only a handful of precious scenes. Chani (Zendaya), a beautiful presence, barely manages to speak. You might be wondering who to root for if Paul (Timothe Chamet) and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), both so beautiful and sad and adorable.

Chalamet might be the most appropriate big-screen Paul, with an apologies for Kyle MacLachlan. He may find some warmth from the characters around him. But you are still, by design, going to get some serious Bran-in-Game-of-Thrones vibes here.

Do it right

Many movie buffs are familiar with the long and torturous story of Dune adaptations. Alejandro Jodorowsky was a Chilean indie author who had a vision for the book that was so specific it could only have been fulfilled by Salvador Dal as the Emperor of all the universe. He appeared in the 1970s. The funding was withdrawn by his Yankee studio bankers, and we never saw the film that he wanted to make. The documentary Jodorosky’s Dune, which was so funny and off-the-wall entertaining that it could win the award for best celluloid piece to cover Herbert's story, did get funding.

In 1984, David Lynch attempted Dune. This film is most famous for Sting's portrayal of an evil spike-haired assassin. Lynch lost control of the film's final cut and disowned it. He wanted it as long as he wanted. Lynch can still be blamed for oddly static scenes and the endless internal narration they use, as well as his campy, gross, homophobic interpretations of Baron Harkonnen.

Lynch is right to admit that the Baron is difficult to crack. The Baron is so cartoonishly evil in the book, gliding through the air like a bad boy in a cliched child's adventure. How can you not make him laugh instead of to fear? Even Villeneuve's Harkonnen, played by Stellan Skarsgrd, tends to lean towards the gross side. This Baron is not too two-dimensional due to the combination of lighting, music, and Skarsgrd’s sinister, subtle grumpiness.

Villeneuve has managed to accomplish what his auteur predecessors failed. He has translated Dune onto the screen in a generally reasonable manner, with clear exposition and no Emperor. And enough diversity to make it leap and bound into the 21st Century. Villeneuve could have paid more attention what is happening to his characters of colour; once we have seen it, there will be more discussion about that. He made the Atreides clan likeable, which is an amazing feat these days.

Villeneuve will now be able to show what he can do with the complicated, hazy and hallucinatory part 2, if he has learned from his predecessor's failures (do it slowly but in two parts), it will be fascinating to see how Villeneuve does. It could be more than any sandworm.