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Film Fridays: “Dune”

<p><em>Graphic by Carissa Gurgul</em></p>

Graphic by Carissa Gurgul

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Two shrouded figures walk amidst a sea of sand. They are wandering, yet their movements are scattered -- random almost. They glide across the sand elegantly, as if they were dancing. The uneasy tension between the two grows as they feel a rumble from below. They stop. They freeze. Their hearts are pounding, their fear is ever-growing. The quiet whisper of sand in the wind is broken as the pair breaks into a sprint toward a rock outcropping. The man, lagging behind, knows what is coming. The once soft and gentle sand has transformed into a violent field of vibrations. His pounding footsteps echo throughout the vast desert, and the incoming sandworm hears it all. Just as the sand beneath his feet begins to break, he makes it to his partner. They stand in awe, watching the gigantic worm emerge out of its territory. The man stares deep into the worm’s maw and never-ending rows of teeth. 

This is merely a glimmer inside the world of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” First published in 1965, Herbert’s sci-fi epic is an extensive tale of the future of the human species, religious fanaticism and global environmentalism. Herbert was inspired to create “Dune” after writing an article on the Oregon sand dunes, which was never published but left him with a lot of spare material. Herbert also credits his experiences with psilocybin and his cultivation of mushrooms as inspiration. 

A true "Dune" film adaptation seemed impossible because it was very difficult to imagine a director being able to commit to the intricacies of Herbert’s world while also preserving the overarching themes. Trying to describe the plot of “Dune” to someone who has never been exposed to the material is incredibly challenging, let alone fitting that material into a reasonable film. Director David Lynch released a “Dune” film in 1984, and John Harrison directed a three-part mini-series, released in 2000, that attempted to tell the full story of the original book.

However, these presentations of Herbert’s original “Dune” novel had to cut or tweak aspects of the story for the sake of time. Minor events or characters were removed, or general plot dilemmas were cut entirely. 

The genius of “Dune” is just how detailed and important each trifle is to the plot. A minor lesson instilled in the main character or an encounter in the desert all compose the magnificence of “Dune,” and the other attempts failed to understand this.

Yet, director Denis Villeneuve has managed to create, in my opinion, the most accurate depiction of “Dune” audiences have seen on the big screen. 

With an incredible cast, composed of Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgård and Josh Brolin, I was eager to see what direction and tone Villeneuve would take.

For those that know nothing about “Dune,” this film could be very confusing from the beginning. The overarching plot of “Dune” follows Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides, as he grows into a leader through his journey and struggle on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. Paul and his family are given ownership of the hostile -- yet highly valuable -- desert world and are instructed to maintain order and generate profit. However, this exchange causes inevitable conflict, and Paul is thrust right into its center. Aside from tons of mysticism and prophecies, Paul is believed to hold an incredible dormant power that would turn him into a galactic messiah, otherwise referred to as Kwisatz Haderach. This potential power makes Paul both a hero and target by those who are threatened by what he could bring about. With this future role combined with the conflict plaguing his family, Paul must learn the ways of Arrakis from the native Fremen in order to ensure his family’s survival. 

This description is the absolute baseline. There is much more to the film to consider when writing this review, but I cannot dive into specifics without spoiling major plot points. 

The first thing I noticed when watching the film was how incredibly beautiful and cinematic each scene was. Whether it be vistas of the ocean planet, Caladan, or the thundering chants of an army preparing for war, Villeneuve keeps every shot captivating, and I was entranced for the entire 155 minutes of the film. I was often reminded of the first time I watched the “Star Wars” franchise.

I also thought Villeneuve did a fantastic job with the plot structure. The 2021 “Dune” film throws the audience right into the story with minimal information, whereas the other “Dune” films and the tv show relied on text explanations for more complicated lore. We see Paul and his father, as well as his other comrades, as they prepare for the journey to Arrakis. The audience is given new information as it becomes relevant. Nevertheless, not everything in “Dune” makes sense, but Villeneuve does his best to make the story digestible and interesting for first-time viewers. 

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With that being said, I do have one major criticism of the film. Following its release, it was announced that Villeneuve’s “Dune” would be part one in a two-part adaptation of Herbert’s novel. I originally thought that this film would be the entire story, but it portrays roughly half of the original novel. I have no doubt that Villeneuve will be able to deliver an excellent sequel that will tell the story in its entirety; this film feels like a massive drumroll for a sequel that was confirmed to be happening on Oct. 26, four days after the film was released in theaters and on HBO Max. There is a lot of story teased to the audience, only for them to discover that none of those things are going to happen in this film. 

For example, one of Paul’s main abilities is seeing visions. These premonitions can be past, present or future, and they allow Paul to learn more about those around him and grow closer to his environment. The audience has glimpses into what Paul sees, and viewers are led to believe those visions will transpire at some point soon -- flashes of a massive battle, a blossoming friendship and religious zealotry are all things shown, but they never occur in full.

Another criticism that I’ve seen about the film was the false portrayal of character importance in the trailer. What I mean by this is that certain actors were highlighted in the trailer, most notably Zendaya, and were not featured in the film until the very, very end. Zendaya, one of the title actresses associated with “Dune,” does not make her appearance until there are about 20 minutes remaining. I understand why this choice was made in regards to what aspects of Herbert’s novel would be portrayed, but I also think the promotional material misled audiences in terms of what they were expecting to see. 

I am definitely worried that the sequel will attempt to wrap up the story in a timely way and be forced to remove or edit parts of the original story. With a number of plot points addressed in this first film, I’m not entirely sure how Villeneuve’s sequel will meet expectations.

“Dune” is a gargantuan tale of war, religion, environmentalism and self-discovery. Although its source material does cause lulls in the story, the incredible visual spectacle and ambition of this film overshadow those gripes. It currently has an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a very good score given the nature of the film. By comparison, Lynch’s 1984 “Dune” received a 44% for its dry storytelling and lackluster presentation.

Having already amassed $300 million worldwide and exceeding its budget of $165 million, fans and critics of Villeneuve’s “Dune” adaptation can rejoice over the confirmation of the second film. “Dune” is the 2021 blockbuster that everyone should attempt to watch, although it is only available until Nov. 22. If you can move past the confusing aspects of the lore and characters, “Dune” delivers an action-packed science fiction adventure like no other and adds new spice to the genre. 

It is a film worthy of your time.

Contact columnist Quinn Humphrey at quinn.humphrey@richmond.edu.

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