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What was DUNE about again? — On getting your expectations too high

Plato wrote that those best fit to rule would have to be dragged into leadership. It is unclear whether the responsibility of directing DUNE would be something desired by many, but regardless of whether he intended to or not Denis Villeneuve has found himself at the head of this monumental project, and the expectations could not be higher.

Some readers might have heard the name DUNE before, if not for anything else but David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation. In principle, this was a match made in heaven. The story is set in the year 10191, long after a long war between mankind and machines that culminated with the absolute prohibition to make any sort of man-like machines again. After this event, humans had to learn how to perform many of the activities previously relinquished to computers by themselves, pushing their minds to unheard limits using the mind- enhancing drug: Spice, only present on the planet DUNE. Some train to calculate potential outcomes among an infinite number of futures, some to understand the different ways a body might be off-balance and thus prevent sickness, and some learn to force others to do their will using “the voice”. In short, one of the most interesting aspects of the original novel is how differently the minds of these people work. Lynch is, if nothing else, a master at portraying the subconscious and other inner workings of the mind in creative ways, so it is very disappointing that his adaptation is boring, overflowing with imagination in its set design, but insulting in its narrative.

Before him, Alejandro Jodorovsky, director of The Holy Mountain and El Topo, had already failed at adapting this project, in what probably is the most influential movie of all time that never got made. The fingertips of Jodorosvky’s team can be felt all throughout Star Wars, Alien, Matrix and Blade Runner—sometimes directly, like James Cameron hiring HR Giger to design the monster for Alien after seeing his sketches for DUNE, otherwise through less tangible influences that still permeate movies to this day. Jodorovsky’s approach was to “Make the audience feel like they were having a trip on LSD,” with impossibly colourful costumes and clothes, a consequence of a population constantly high on Spice. It was too creative for its own good and it got scratched before it went into production. The only thing we have left now is a record of the remains of this gargantuan project in the 2013 documentary Jodorovsky’s DUNE.

Could then Villeneuve deliver where other masters had failed? It sure seemed so. The Canadian director is probably the greatest science fiction filmmaker working today, having already delivered Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, two instant classics that get your gears churning and your philosophy- student friends excited. The sequel to Blade Runner in particular was considered impossible in principle, but he somehow managed to pull off a better film than the original, thus proving that if anyone should have a go at adapting the unadaptable, that should be Denis Villeneuve.

The 2021 adaptation of DUNE is now upon us, with as many stars in its cast as there are in the skies of Arrakis, and a strong divide in the critic’s opinions. DUNE is, on the surface, about Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Jessica, a young noble, tangled in a plot to destroy his family and trying to find a purpose. This is certainly the aspect of the story that Villeneuve’s film is mostly concerned with. The film purposefully spends time introducing the different planets, with long shots of landscapes and nature that makes the characters small pawns in a larger game. Paul starts as a confused young adult, full of potential and literal insights into the future but constantly being told off by the adults around him—far from the chosen one the legends speak about or the mature leader his father expects him to be. It is in many ways a coming- of-age story, one that takes its time to let the weight of the universe make a dent into the shoulders of our main characters, with gorgeous cinematography and cinematic soundtrack that is as Hans Zimmer as Hans Zimmer can get.

But DUNE is more than that. Herbert’s background as a war reporter and environmentalist activist seeps into all pages of the book, interrupting the narrative to give you a 30- page, extremely detailed explanation of the delicate ecological balance of the planet of DUNE, or chapters upon chapters of the political plotting behind a coup d’etat. The world of the novel is like a lake, extensive and deep, enough to be explored by a single person without feeling overwhelmed, but demanding if you want to see everything that it has to offer.

Villeneuve’s adaptation feels more like a river, not covering a lot of ground but damping many surfaces, very long with a strong sense of direction. This is a movie you have to watch a few times before one gets an idea of whether there is anything worth ruminating about; if this is worth it, I don’t believe anyone can say yet. It could be the final adaptation needed or another missed hit. Hopefully by 10191 we will know which one it is.

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