Sunday, November 14, 2021

Spoilery Review of Dune (2021)


Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica in Dune (2021)

I've already written about my initial impressions the new Dune movie, and before that about why the Dune series is one of my favorites. Just to round out this little series of Dune content, at last I'm writing a full spoilery review of Dune (2021).

I've been excited for this movie for years, so it may be no surprise that I've seen it five times already: twice in the theater and three times on HBO. Obviously I loved it. I've noticed new things every time, and my love for the film has only grown.

<<<<<<Just to be sure this is clear: SPOILERS AHEAD! >>>>>>>>

Finding the Right Kind of Weird

As I said in my initial impressions, the major point is that Villeneuve and everyone else involved have finally captured the right kind of weird for Dune. The 1984 David Lynch version was weird but in a Lynchian sort of way, and the 2000 Scifi miniseries was not bad for a 2000 Scifi miniseries, but overall a bit bland and not weird enough (except for the Bene Gesserit hats, which were just sort of goofy).

is weird: a science fiction story set tens of thousands of years in the future with no robots, weird human computer-monks, weird politics involving feudal houses and an emperor, religions derived from Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, a spice that makes interstellar travel possible through quasi-human navigators that see the future, weird space nuns who will kill you, weird evil nobles who will kill you, intense desert dwellers who will kill you, weird giant worms that will kill you ... and the books get even weirder from there.

But this Dune finds just the right kind of weird for all that. The world of the novel is, to put it mildly, a lot. We don't get quite the depth or detail of the novel's world building in the movie, but what the movie misses in clunky exposition, it more than makes up for hints and visual story telling. For example, there's a scene where Paul and Leto are talking in some sort of graveyard. We're not told exactly how long the Atreides have been on Caladan, but if all those graves are their ancestors, it must be at least several hundred years.

What I think works about this is that Dune nerds like me can appreciate all the little hints (yeah, Mentats!), but people less immersed in the world or coming to it for the first time can still follow the basic story and be intrigued by all the weirdness to learn more (wait, what's a Mentat?). On that last point, the novel has been selling well since the movie came out, so hopefully at least some of those readers will be welcomed to the Imperium of Dune fans soon. The movie is just weird enough to please fans but with a story that more casual viewers can still follow. And there are even some weird surprises for longtime fans: what in the name of Muad'Dib and all that is holy is that spider thing with human hands?!! ... I love it.


Adapting a classic like Dune is treacherous for many reasons, but one is that longtime fans already have pretty concrete ideas about the characters. The movie took a lot of the characters in a different direction than I imagined them. Josh Brolin's Gurney Halleck is a bit gruffer than I always pictured him. In the book he's singing, playing his baliset, and reciting poetry all the time, but you don't get much of that in the movie (although I love the tiny book he's holding as they touch down on Arrakis... is that the Orange Catholic Bible?). Stephen McKinley Henderson's Thufir Hawat goes the other way, to be far less grumpy and more of a friendly teddy bear type with no hint of being suspicious of Jessica (I love his parasol, though!). 

We don't get as much of Piter as we do in the book, but David Dastmalchian is awesome (especially in that awesome Sardaukar scene). We also don't see much of Zendaya's Chani (outside of dream sequences anyway), although she has the opening narration that works well to set up the movie as well as the last line, and she will be a much bigger part of Part 2. Oscar Issac's Duke Leto is maybe a bit warmer than he is in the book. For his part, though, Timothée Chalamet is pretty much how I imagined Paul, or at any rate much closer than Kyle McLachlan in the 1984 movie! And I'm glad most people seem to have shut up about their knee-jerk misogyny about gender swapping, because Sharon Duncan-Brewster is a great Liet-Kynes. 

But the thing is: I'm okay with all the changes. In fact, I love them. Because an adaptation should imagine the characters in its own way that works for the movie. It's an adaptation. What works in novels does not work on film.

In some cases, I feel like it enhanced the characters. Duncan Idaho was always a swashbuckling type, and Jason Momoa is perfect for it, far more than ... I can't even remember who played him in the other versions (will we see Momoa again? Dune fans know...). Jarvier Bardem's Stilgar is almost... a bit goofy in this one, but I love it. And all the Harkonnens are simply amazingly, deliciously evil: we maybe don't see enough of Dave Bautista's Rabban (more to come in part 2!), but he's great. And Stellan Skargard's Baron is eerily terrifying (I love the scene in the banquet hall where you see him floating out of focus, looming in the background). Charlotte Rampling was equally terrifying as Revered Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, and drives home just how powerful the Bene Gesserit are supposed to be.


Jessica is my favorite character in the novel, and Rebecca Ferguson's portrayal has probably raised the most criticism of any of the characters. A lot of people feel that she's overly emotional and cries too much compared to her character in the book, who is a trained Bene Gesserit. I grant that Jessica is a bit different in the movie. I had the same criticism the first time I saw the movie. But I've thought about it more each time I've seen it, and here's the thing: in the novel Jessica is the emotional core of the story, but we get all that through her inner monologues (often in italics like Frank Herbert loves to do!). We don't get a lot of inner monologues in this one (thank goodness: look how awful they were in the 1984 movie!).

So I think the choice they made was to move Jessica's emotion to be more external, where, you know, an audience in a visual medium can see it. Maybe she cried a lot, but if you pay close attention, she rarely cries in front of other people (except Paul while they're in the tent after, you know, their entire family has been murdered). And the Litany Against Fear does work for her while Paul faces the Gom Jabbar (and remember, her son is most likely being killed in the next room by her old teacher). She stops crying and is completely dry-eyed before she talks to Leto about Paul (in a scene I loved where he says, "I'm not asking his mother, I'm asking the Bene Gesserit").

Even with Ferguson's performance, many critics say the movie is too cold and unemotional! What do people want? Jeez. (On the subject of critics, snooty film critics who don't understand science fiction in general or Dune in particular are amusingly misguided about this movie.) If you think Jessica is too weak, let's also not forget the part where she brutally kills three dastardly Harkonnens while she's mostly tied up. 

Maybe there's a deeper point here, though, that being tough and having emotions are not mutually contradictory. Women, or men for that matter, should not have to be emotionless Terminators to be taken seriously as resilient human beings. I don't know if the movie is making this point, or if I am, but maybe somebody should.

Anyway, I've loved Rebecca Ferguson since I saw her in Doctor Sleep, and I thought she was amazing here. My one real criticism is that Jessica doesn't get the deep worries about Paul's future that she has in the book, which are given to Paul in his visions in this movie. Still, I have a feeling that will be rectified in Part 2. And I can't wait to see emergency Revered Mother Jessica, whose mind blowing badassery in Part 2 will only be enhanced by having seen some of Jessica's more vulnerable moments in Part 1.

And Part 2 will also bring us Alia! It's going to be epic. I can't wait.


Another thing that's hard to capture in a movie are the various factions that make Dune so interesting. The beautiful scene toward the beginning when Leto affixes his seal to the scroll giving him Arrakis as his fief, also introduces us to the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, and the Empire, all without needing to fully explain any of this. Just a sense of their power. We don't meet the Emperor yet, but he has the power to send the universe's most handsome man (Benjamin Clémentine) to serve as his Herald of the Change.

I love the Bene Gesserit (especially in the later books), and we probably learn more about them than any faction besides the Great Houses in this movie. The scenes before and after the Gom Jabbar scene where we see the Bene Gesserit sisters arriving and departing from Caladan... great lighting in the fog with the glow globes... just amazing. And the depiction of the Voice, which could easily have been cheesy ... equally amazing.

We also get a bit of the Fremen toward the end, and I'm glad the movie started and ended with the plight of the Fremen and their resistance to occupation. There's a lot of talk about whether Dune is a white savior narrative, and the movie complicates this question almost as much as the book does. I'm glad the Missionaria Protectiva was mentioned (maybe not explicitly, but the idea that the Bene Gesserit implant mythology in various places for their own purposes was prominent).


The basic arc of the plot is much the same in this one, but there are some changes and additions.

The whole subplot about how the Atreides suspect there's a traitor in their midst is jettisoned in the movie, but I guess there's a hint of it in the "political danger" Leto mentions. It also frees up Thufir not to be such a grumpy, suspicious Mentat, although Chang Chen's Dr. Yueh hints at this suspicion when he talks to Paul earlier. I'd also like to see more Dr. Yueh or a little more insight into his betrayal, but he does come across as conflicted.

Jamis gets a lot more to do in this movie. He always seemed like an annoying angsty teenager in the novel, but in some alternate future that never exists, he serves as a friend and mentor to Paul. I have a prescient feeling this will pay off nicely at the beginning of Part 2 when Paul will (hopefully) say, "I was a friend of Jamis." 

Speaking of my prescient visions, I think Villeneuve is setting up Parts 1 and 2 to both end with ceremonial knife fights to the death. I can't wait to see who will play Feyd-Rautha in Part 2!

That Sardaukar scene on a rainy Salusa Secundus with the throat singing/upside-down cruxifictions/blood benediction... OMG, that scene alone is worth the price of admission.

A friend of mine noticed that Paul's vision sequences often have sun-soaked lens flares, which could represent a... Golden Path? Let's hope so, although adapting some of the later books could be... even more difficult, although it would give Jason Momoa some job security

Of course, splitting the movie in two annoyed some people, but I see no way around it. The first time it was fun to keep guessing where it would cut off. I was a bit surprised it ended where it did, but I guess like I said before, each part will end with a knife fight now.

Dune vs. the Marvelification of Science Fiction Cinema

I'm glad to see an excellent adaptation of a book I love do well, especially given the current "Marvelification" of mainstream Hollywood science fiction movies in the last decade.

To be absolutely clear: I like Marvel movies. I watch them. I enjoy them. Don't @ me! All I want is for there to be other kinds of science fiction movies to watch sometimes.

I get that Eternals was going to be a big money maker, but it was annoying it drove all the showings of Dune out of my local IMAX theaters.

One odd criticism of Dune is that it was humorless. Someone said there was only one joke. First of all, this is not true (upon repeat viewings I counted at least a dozen little bits of at least subtle humor, maybe too subtle by Marvel standards). Second, why should a movie have to have little quips all the time?

It's all driven by the Marvelification of science fiction movies. Marvel is so hegemonic these days that it drives people's expectations of what a science fiction movie is supposed to be. And that's not a good situation not matter how good the thing driving it is. 

But it could be worse: At least DC movies aren't hegemonic!

Theater vs. Home

Was it worth it to see this movie in the theater during a pandemic? Yes. I've only been to a movie theater three times since the pandemic began, and two of those times were to see Dune. The movie theater experience with the giant screen, big sound (especially needed for Hans Zimmer's score, which I love). I could do without all the unmasked patrons (like, do people want this pandemic to actually end ever?), but I try to sit away from them and so far my vaccine and/or luck has held out.

Some people might wonder if Dune would make a better TV series than film given the complexity of the universe and the plot. I see the point, but that movie theater experience would be missed, and I think it's worth it.

That said, Dune is still pretty amazing at home. If you're not comfortable in a theater, seeing it at home is still an experience, just a different one. You'd have to spend an absurd amount of money on a home theater  system to really get anything exactly like a real movie theater experience, but we all have to find our own paths into the desert of the real.

Concluding Weirdness

Dune (2021) is destined to become one of my favorite movies, and it's one of the most successful adaptations of a classic book I've ever seen. It's not because it simply puts the page to screen, but that it captures the right kind of weirdness while making its own cinematic weirdness. I'm in awe of director Denis Villeneuve and the huge team of people who made this film possible. Part 2 is expected to be released in October 2023. I will be eagerly awaiting the next coming of Shai-Hulud.

Coda: Nitpicks

I would have kept "A. G." after "Year 10,191" and just let people figure it out. A lot of people probably assume this movie takes place in about 8,000 years, but it's more like 20,000. Oh well. I guess "a long time in the future" is all you really need. 

Gurney didn't say one of my favorite lines of the book ("mood is for cattle and love making"), and we never hear him play the baliset, although on my fifth viewing I finally noticed there is a baliset sitting next to his bed when he wakes up as the Harkonnens attack.

Liet-Kynes maybe got stabbed a little too easily by Sardaukar considering her Fremen training, but she was distracted by her awe of Shai Hulud. And what a death scene!

I also was a bit disappointed we didn't hear "Muad'Dib" even when we saw the cute little desert mouse. And why not mention the Butlerian Jihad or a few other weird things and just let people wonder about it? I guess you get the idea that there are no robots or AIs without that, and it's not like people would mention that all the time. But still. Just a little bit more of the "flavor text" might have been nice.

The most nit pickiest of things: the rules about shields, lazguns, and crysknives don't seem to be entirely coherently followed, but I may have missed something. But I also don't really care. Once you start picking nits at that level, you are, as the Bene Gesserit might say, at a level of fandom that's no longer human.

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