One of my earliest sci-fi experiences – before ever seeing a Star Wars or Star Trek film – was the infamous David Lynch-directed 1984 film adaptation ‘Dune’, of Frank Herbert’s 1965 epic novel. Whilst being far too young for this deeply disquieting and epically complex story, I was mesmerized by its scope, unearthliness and action – relative to the capabilities of the mid-Eighties special effects anyway. I am certain this went a long way to influencing me towards becoming The Blogging Goth I am today.
I’m equally grateful to John DeVore of Decider, who penned an article under the evergreen headline “Dune is Star Wars for Goths” and who put into words the feelings I carried for years after seeing it.
When I saw Dune in a theater I was mesmerized by Lynch’s bizarre, and often erotic, spectacle that included evil nuns, poison teeth, and a mostly naked Sting glistening with sweat. I had no idea what Dune was about and, in some ways, I still don’t.
So has Villenueve successfully achieved the trifecta – a box-office smash, an accurate adaptation of Herbert’s book and a movie to satisfy the kind of fastidious nerds who enjoy listening to an entire Dead Can Dance album in one go?
I can speak to the final question at least. Dune: Part One absolutely delivers visually. Whilst not approaching the baroque complexity of Lynch’s sets, Villeneueve creates visions of rooms, places and entire worlds that one can sink into completely, lost in a vista of breath-taking detail. Equally successful is his technological design – the spaceships are superb, from the finally-successful design of the Ornithopter, to the terrifyingly alien scale of the interstellar Highliners.
In a narrative masterstroke, author Frank Herbert reintroduced swordplay and melee warfare to a futuristic existence – personal shield generators that deflect bullets, or detonate dangerously if hit with lasers, can only be penetrated by slow moving blades. So our heroes pirouette and dance through action sequences that break up what is otherwise a pensive stalk through a storyline – and give some needed content for heavyset brawlers like Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) as they transition from sharp-cut black feudal uniforms to almost modern-looking SWAT style armour.
However, the heart of this movie is the psychological, cerebral journey of its main character, Paul Atredies. Many reviews have delivered dismissive opinions of Timothee Chalamet’s somewhat stilted and strained performance – missing perhaps the intent that Paul is a ducal heir trained from birth to stand in ceremony and pomposity for hours at a time with no expression on that handsome if empty face.
Add to that Paul’s superhuman induction in the arcane arts of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, on top of any adolescent struggling with one’s place in a world and society that is hostile to individuality, and Chalamet’s performance is convincingly impassive, yet hinting at a great emotional turmoil beneath. The scenes of Paul wandering moodily down the windswept beaches of Caladan swathed in ankle length all black outfits resonated incredibly strongly!
Equally disserved by commentators was Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, concubine to Duke Leto Atredies and mother to Paul. Fobbed off for a seemingly passive, emotional performance, this in fact obscures the real back-story to her character. Trained to a legendary degree by the supernatural shadow-manipulators of all human society, Jessica was to give the Atredies not a son as heir, but a daughter to further the impossibly-complex breeding scheme of the sisterhood that would produce a superhuman, a combination oracle and walking Wikipedia to guide mankind.
Instead, she fell in love and gave birth to a son she now instructs in the dangerous abilities of the Bene Gesserit. Ostracised from the all-powerful coven she lived her entire life serving, socially distanced from her ducal overlord and lover, and perhaps the architect of some horrific destiny for the son she loves, Lady Jessica is one of the most conflicted characters in the storyline. Ferguson masterfully shows a woman struggling with an immense emotional cargo.
In this she almost eclipses many of the male-dominated cast, a nice aversion of the book itself. Veteran fans of Dune will anticipate as well that these tough and talented space heroes have a tendency not to reach the end of this movie, which is only halfway through the overall story.
Almost as a compensation, Halleck and Idaho carry both comedy and action moments, whilst Oscar Isaacs squeezes all the dignity and gravitas – as well as sound fatherly guidance – from the role of Duke Leto Atredies. His silver-flecked beard and unyielding 500 light-year stare are a welcome upgrade to the pugnacious fighter jockey of Star Wars, and his confrontation with Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen is a crowning achievement of a set-piece.
Special mention must indeed be made to Skarsgård’s Baron, occupying the supreme position of villain in the absence of the Emperor. The Baron is like some sea-floor scavenger, lurking and extruding oily black tentacles throughout the story, a visceral presence when off-screen – and a dominant, barely-moderated mass of evil when present. Softly-spoken and clearly modelled on both appearance and insanity of Apocalypse Now’s Kurtz, Baron Harkonnen is a sufficiently nightmarish opponent in his ascendancy.
So then we must confront the challenge at the heart of this movie, and every attempt to capture Dune on screen. How to tackle Herbert’s vast world, a star-spanning feudal political thriller that tackles Messianic tendencies, ecological disasters and the hero’s journey in a manner that makes every single Star Wars story look like a local amateur dramatics performance. Where Lynch poured on the exposition with a big spoon, and even Herbert liberally sprinkled ‘historical’ excerpts throughout the chapters, Villeneuve glides through the backstory like a sandworm through the, well, dunes.
More is implied than ever shown. Where possible he tightly scripts his characters to deliver curt updates, to the audience more than each other. Meetings are held and the agenda mentions why the Emperor would suddenly summon the Atredies to Arrakis – or why the Harkonnens are employing Imperial Sarduakar in open warfare. It arrives swiftly, characters nod knowingly, and the film moves on to another slow-pan view of sand and rocks.
A cynical observer might conclude that experienced Dune fans know these facts already, whilst newcomers can relax and be swept along, losing nothing by not comprehending the machinations of power players like the Reverend Mothers or the Padishah Emperor.
So we arrive at final conclusions for a story which, admittedly, is only half complete. The stage is set for far more developments – for Chalamet’s performance to mirror the maturing of Paul Atredies and his struggle with destiny, for the conclusion of vast and nefarious political plots with ramifications for all humanity, and for the final debate over the ‘white saviour’ and the experience of the indigenous Fremen.
There is a brief but wonderful scene partway through when Paul experiences another vision of a possible future, and sees himself at the reluctant head of an intergalactic jihad in the name of his father, his house and the oppressed people of Arrakis, now turned galactic crusaders. It is another moment to treasure for those with well-thumbed copies of the sequels on their shelves, a hint at the vast storyline Villenueve briefly illuminates time and again through this glorious, convoluted spectacle.
I came away having happily watched a long and arduous tale, featuring beautifully desolate scenes, brooding and melancholy characters struggling with cosmic-scale worries, and experiencing neon-lit apocalyptic warfare amidst acrimonious and venom-splattered personal conflicts. If that ain’t goth, I don’t know what is.
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