The Dune Deep Dive
So, we’ve been engaging in Dune Week here at my house. The conversations started a couple of months ago, when they set the official release date of the new movie.
Oh yes. There were “conversations.” However, these conversations were mostly one sided, and consisted of me saying, “I don’t care what’s going on with COVID, I want to see this one in the theater” (insert patient but noncommittal husband-nod here).
And a week later, I’d hear about another cast member, and say, “Oh my gosh, what a perfect Paul/Leo/Duncan he’ll make!” (insert another patient but only mildly interested nod from husband here).
“Timothee Chalamet? Charlotte Rampling? Oscar Isaac? Zendaya? Jason Momoa? How could we not see this in the theater?” (insert additional patient husband nods, with occasional murmurs that might be assent or might simply be pleasant noises).
Are you getting the idea that this might not have been quite as important to my husband as it was to me? I’m glad you’re getting the idea, because I refused to. I sometimes fail to notice that my levels of enthusiasm, which can be quite high, are not shared with quite the same fervor by my husband, who has his own interests (Jerry Seinfeld, the MCU, and so on).
It was like my attempt to alert him to the very important fact that Norse raiders apparently came to Newfoundland 1,000 years ago! So important! Pay attention! He looked at me, mildly puzzled but polite, nodded, and went back to his own screen. Luckily, my sister called right that minute to tell me she’d just read some very important news about the Vikings, and I could stop bothering my husband and geek out with her.
My husband has never read Dune, he has no Dune connections or Dune interest, but he’s had to absorb all this Dune fervor. He’s fine with it.
My Dune History, Chapter One
I read Dune Messiah when I was in college the first time, so, 1979-80. I didn’t care that it was a sequel, I somehow had obtained a copy of book number two, so I read book number two. I will give out no spoilers, but suffice it to say, Paul was not my favorite character in Dune Messiah. Those of you who know, know.
I loved that book but I didn’t understand how radical it was. Herbert’s vision of a computerless future wasn’t exactly unthinkable back when computers were large things that took up entire rooms and computed formulae for going to the moon. We benefited from computers back then, but most of us were blissfully unaware. The idea of living without computers is much more radical now, when we spend our days looking at phones that would hold the contents of the Library of Congress, thanks to the Internet.
At the time, I did recognize how impossible intergalactic travel would be without computers, so I grasped the importance of Dune’s spice. This might be a book about feudal succession on a remote mining colony (as a recent reviewer pointed out), but the stakes are high. They’re not just extracting bauxite.
As much as I loved Dune Messiah, I never got around to reading Dune. Many years later, I read one of the books written by (or with or under the direction of) Herbert’s son, in which many of the fantastic characters from his father’s books are cloned and brought back to life. The less said here, the better.
I finally read Dune last year. Well, part of it. It’s somewhere around the house. I’ll get to it.
My Dune History, Chapter Two
This starts a little further back, in high school. I had a friend, Steve, who auditioned for several plays at our school and was never cast. I have no idea if Steve was any good at acting, but that probably didn’t matter. Despite being very good-looking, deeply intelligent, and witty as hell, Steve was openly gay and came from the wrong side of the tracks. Those things mattered at our brutally classist high school.
Another key factor in Steve not getting any roles was that the important male parts at our high school were taken by a tall, handsome, gifted young actor who was a year ahead of us. He was generally nice and generally liked, and to add insult to injury, he had a decent singing voice. It infuriated Steve that if there was a role, and this other high school thespian wanted it, Steve was not going to get it.
So, sometime in 1983, I got a letter from Steve, because people used to write letters back in the olden days. He wrote to tell me that our former schoolmate who got all the good parts in high school was going to be playing Paul Atreides in the upcoming movie version of Dune. Steve’s letter crackled with rage and scathing epithets, including but not limited to “apple-cheeked,” “talentless,” and “schlub.”
I thought, Oh whatever, Steve, Kyle was great in My Fair Lady.
I settled in for the long wait between hearing about Dune, and actually seeing it. And then, of course, I saw it. Afterwards, I completely blanked it out of my memory. I couldn’t remember it, and I also couldn’t remember if I liked it or not. There were vague images of Sting in a padded, pointy Speedo, and the ever-present roses in Kyle MacLachlan’s cheeks. That was it.
Which brings us to now.
We just finished Dune Week. It started on Thursday.
On Thursday night, we watched the Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary. I wish you’d all watch this. It is fascinating, horrifying, hilarious. It was Jodorowsky’s goal to create a ten-hour movie that would affect a spiritual transformation of the world.
It’s okay that he never brought his vision to life, because hearing him talk about what he wanted to do is more entertaining than whatever botched debacle he would have brought to the screen. Really.
Or who knows, if the funding had come through, maybe he would have done it, even though he would have taken obscene liberties with the source material, and almost totally excised women from one of the few 1970s science fiction epics that gave women extensive and critical roles. Who knows?
Husband and I listened and watched and gasped and howled with laughter. It was all INSANE. You think Terry Gilliam has loopy visions? Go watch this. He makes Gilliam look like Mr. Rogers.
I won’t give you any spoilers. I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the moments when he reveals his jaw-dropping casting choices. But if you have any familiarity at all with Dune and its universe, or even any curiosity about it, please watch this. It’s 3.99 on Amazon, and it’s so worth it.
On Friday, I asked the husband, are you game for Lynch’s Dune? He’d never seen it. He said, sure, but the reviews are eeeech. I assured him that I didn’t remember it as howlingly terrible, I maybe even liked it, but I couldn’t remember because that was 40 years ago and my mind rarely holds on to movies and TV.
We started watching with open minds. It began with a voice over that was supposed to dispel confusion but somehow created it, and the guitar-heavy Toto score played over the opening credits, and there we were in a throne room straight out of Oz. A braid-bedecked emperor on the throne, a princess in a pretty gown with a bodice, royal retainers with odd little beards and places on their faces and ears that were mended with metal, like the Oz tinker had been working on them.
So far, so good.
The mood changed when some bald people wearing sleeping bags who spoke into vacuum cleaners wheeled in an enormous fish tank full of smoke, in which floated a gigantic tardigrade that spoke through a little puckering orifice and threatened the Emperor. Something about how he needed to start a war, or end a war, or keep the spice flowing, or something. I was too transfixed/repelled by the puckering orifice to pay attention to the words.
This whole scene looked like the most expensive episode of the old Flash Gordon serial ever filmed. Aesthetics change and old sets didn’t have the benefit of CGI, but this looked bad on purpose. Like Lynch, with his warped sense of humor, had actually said to his set designer, “Let’s make it look like the most expensive episode of the old Flash Gordon serial ever filmed.” And they did. And they laughed.
It was all too much for my husband. He responded by falling asleep, but no, he was not allowed that escape hatch, no sir, this was Dune Week and we were in this Dune Week together, so I woke him up.
We began to hate-watch in earnest. And there was so much to hate! Costumes assembled from materials not suitable for recycling and the contents of a great-grandmother’s sewing room. Pustules galore. Big thudding “oof” noises when blows landed during a fight, like in the 1960s Batman TV series, and oh my gosh, the space special effects? What about the space special effects?
Can anyone adequately explain the space special effects?
This movie was made AFTER the first Star Wars, do people realize that? It wasn’t made in the 1960s, no matter how much it looks like it. There were gifted special effects artists available for hire, and not all of them worked for George Lucas. So why does this movie look like it was made with electric razors, classroom overhead projectors, and a couple of flashlights?
Now, let’s talk about the acting.
I’d like to point out some of the fine actors in this movie, and my impressions of their performances.
- Kyle MacLachlan is a youthful and earnest and convincing Paul, until Paul loses his emotions and becomes a very handsome coat rack. But remember, he is the coat rack that will save the planet!
- Patrick Stewart shouts a lot at everyone in a Shakespearean manner. Very shouty, very Shakespearean. No one else is acting in this style. Was he perhaps in a different movie than the rest of the cast? Could I perhaps see that movie, instead?
- Virginia Madsen isn’t given a thing to do besides look beautiful in her costume. Uness you count the confusing voiceover. She does do that.
- Jurgen Prochnow is solidly, stolidly, robotically Teutonic until his death scene, in which he muffs a very important job while sweating. The end.
- Oscar winner Linda Hunt skulks around on the steps, lurking at the edges of various rooms, squinting and hissing mysteriously, then dies.
- Max von Sydow carries off his role with dash and flair, making me wonder if he was also in a different movie. Perhaps the same one as Patrick Stewart. And again, I’d like to see that movie.
- Francesca Annis is not bad, really, but not good, either. I found her alternately too contained and then gaspingly over the top, though glowingly regal at all times.
- Kenneth Macmillan is properly grotesque as the Baron, and I will never forgive him for some of the grossness I had to witness during his scenes.
- Sting. He has a knife, a wild haircut, and three lines. His abs have more lines than he does, so how can I judge his performance?
- Richard Jordan. Oh, Richard Jordan. Listen, Duncan Idaho’s part is trimmed down in this version to where it’s almost gone. All he has time to do is show up and make us believe that Paul loves him and wants to be him. That is Duncan Idaho. And in his brief, shining moments on the screen, Richard Jordan gives us that Duncan Idaho. I have nothing snarky to say about this performance or the actor who gives it.
Let me make it clear. These are talented actors, and there are MORE sprinkled over and stirred into this movie, like Brad Dourif and Sean Young and Jose Ferrer. And when a movie has this many fine actors delivering uniformly dreadful performances, there is only one person to blame.
Looking at you, David Lynch.
You, with all the things I don’t like about your work. The strange, aimless, disconnected young women characters you create, composed of seductive makeup and secret lives and sexual violence. Your insistence on using physical difference and homosexuality as signifiers for evil. Your taste for macabre humor that is so bizarre and unsettling that your audiences never know if it’s all right to laugh.
I left you alone long ago, and watching this movie made me remember why.
At this point it must be clear that if I made my husband sit through a long documentary about a creative madman, and a longer movie made by a creative madman, we were definitely going mask up and go to the noon showing of Villeneuve’s Dune in some deserted suburban theater.
And we did.
I had hopes with this movie, based on Villeneuve’s skill in bringing one of my favorite short stories, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life, to screen as Arrival. This is difficult source material about how learning a new way to communicate can alter your life and make you live it all at once. I mean, I think that’s what this story is about, so how do you put that on a screen and call it a movie? If he could do that, I trusted Villeneuve would be able to translate Dune into a comprehensible movie.
Plus “Timothee Chalamet? Charlotte Rampling? Oscar Isaac? Zendaya? Jason Momoa?” I mean, come on!
Yes, as previously mentioned, this is a movie about feudal succession on a remote mining colony. It is not an allegory about colonialism, it is an actual story about colonialism. It’s a big old White Savior mega-movie that is always sweeping and sometimes ponderous. But even for someone who has read (some of) the book, it can be electrifying and suspenseful. Just ask my husband’s right hand, which I clawed to death while climbing out of my skin at key moments.
You’ve heard about the special effects, which are unparalleled, and the score, which is wild and weird and unsettling. This movie throws you off balance and overwhelms you, it slings you over its shoulder and transports you through the vastness of space, to different worlds that feel so real, you can smell them.
That being said, it also absolutely nails the domestic details: worn edges of beloved books, a well-laid breakfast table, dust on an ancient knickknack Paul studies, trying to understand his heritage.
Against this visual and aural backdrop, the actors do what actors do, which is to make us forget they are actors. Excellent casting helps. Timothee Chalamet was born for this role. He’s a strong, whip-thin boy who fights, then accepts his destiny. I’d be worried about what he could do after this—where do you go after playing the Messiah?—but I just heard he’s going to play Prince Hal, and that might be even better casting.
Everyone is good to great. Everyone. Even Mr. Momoa (good, and that’s great).
But Lady Jessica is the standout. In a story about family bonds, it’s hard to imagine a more crucial character than the mother. She is mother all the way through; passionately devoted to her son’s father, but ferociously guarding the life of her son Paul, for so many reasons besides biology. I think Rebecca Ferguson deserves an Oscar.
I declare this movie the winner.
So, that wraps up Dune Week. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. And thanks to my husband for enduring my terrified writhing at the theater yesterday. Let’s hope that in a couple of years, there’s a Part Two, so he can go through it all again. Maybe for that one, we’ll watch the miniseries.