Spice of Life: Dune is a sumptuous sci-fi epic

Back in 1984, a sweetheart of a director with an eccentric twinkle in his eye named David Lynch refused directorial duties on Return of the Jedi in favor of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune to the big screen. The resultant film was a disaster at the box office, loathed by critics, and disavowed by Lynch. The auteur followed this misstep with a little ditty called Blue Velvet, and all was right again in Lynch world.

I saw Lynch’s Dune back when I was in high school and had little patience with it. I was in the throes of puberty so I had concentration issues, I didn’t care for the Baron’s severe acne and, having never read the books, had no tolerance for all of the weird plotting. Toto did do a kickass soundtrack though (with the exception of the drippy closing credits song). Always thought that. 

Now comes a new adaptation from the very reliable director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) and his spectacular eye for film worlds. This is the year’s best-looking blockbuster (right up there with Gunn’s The Suicide Squad), and a solidly coherent take on the Herbert tome.

Timothee Chalamet steps into the role of Paul Atreides, originally played by Kyle MacLachlan. Paul is some sort of possible messiah who will help a distant desert planet fight tyranny and really, really big sandworms. His dreams tell him all sorts of things and include visions of Zendaya with blue eyes. 

The drama includes that pesky Baron, this time played by Stellan Skarsgard in a fat suit. His Baron is still a monster, but a far more grounded and less cackly one at that (and considerably less afflicted by puss-filled boils). The planet Paul eventually travels to is the only one in the universe to possess spice, the fuel for space travel. Whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson provide a nice dramatic anchor as Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides and his mystical companion, Lady Jessica Atreides. Jason Momoa gives his most charismatic performance to date as military man, Duncan Idaho, a far more interesting creation than his Aquaman. Josh Brolin steps into the role of advisor Gurney Halleck, while Javier Bardem shows up briefly as Stiglar. Bardem and Zendaya will have bigger roles in the proposed sequel (more on that in a bit). Dave Bautista is mostly there for his looks as Beast Rabban Harkonnen, while the great Charlotte Rampling shines behind the veil as Reverend Mother Mohiam. 

The cast is not let down by the art direction around them as Villeneuve and his compatriots, once again, craft a world that is sumptuous both visually and sonically. Creations such as flying helicopter typed crafts that look like dragonflies and those infamous worms blend into a very believable desert world that constantly amazes. The scripting delivers the story in a way that is comprehensible for those who never saw the first film and never read the books. Honestly, I never really cared about the worlds of Dune but, thanks to Villeneuve, I care now. 

After viewing the new one, I went back and watched Lynch’s take. It’s still incredibly strange, and obviously incomplete (Lynch lost control of the edit), but Villeneuve’s Dune helped me to understand what the hell was going on in Lynch’s Dune. It’s sort of like Cliff Notes for understanding Lynch’s Dune when you don’t have the patience to read the books. I almost enjoyed watching the old, nutty movie, but I still can’t stand that Baron and his zits.  How did that movie get a PG-13?

The new Dune is the grandest of cinematic place-setters in that it only covers half the original novel and ends on a massive cliffhanger. Villeneuve made this movie with the hope a second chapter would be greenlit. The movie did OK in its opening weekend, where it was released to both theaters and streaming on HBO Max. 

Villeneuve will get to keep going with the spice, because the sequel just got greenlit, with a tentative release date set for October 2023. That’s a good thing for Dune fans old and new, because Villeneuve deserves to finish his vision and, dammit, we deserve to see that vision.

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