When I was around 12 or 13, I finally saw Star Wars. At the time I was a little confused about what all the fuss had been about. I’d been hearing about Star Wars basically as long as I’d been sentient, playing with my older cousins’ toys and internalizing the concepts of droids, lightsabers, Darth Vader, “the force,” etc. without ever experiencing the source material. When I finally did, I couldn’t quite grasp what it was that had blown all those Gen Xers’ minds. After a decade of buildup maybe it was inevitable that it couldn’t live up to the hype. Or maybe I just should’ve started with The Empire Strikes Back instead of A New Hope.
Whatever the case, watching Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel, has been in many ways the experience I had once hoped Star Wars would be. After years of never quite getting around to reading Dune, forgetting to watch Dune (1984) and Jodorowsky’s Dune, and pretending to understand memes about sandworms and the necessity of spice flowing, I now feel ready to jump into the world of imperial fiefdoms, Fremen prophesy, and Bene Jesserit tricks with both feet.
Yes, Dune, adapted by writers Jon Spaights, Eric Roth, and Villeneuve, is the first part of a planned serial and is essentially a movie without a third act. It might as well have a “TO BE CONTINUED” title card for an ending. But for this Dune virgin it was exactly what a Dune introduction needed to be: a compelling primer on the material that created a coherent universe, introduced intriguing characters, and left me wanting more. Fire up the thopters, we worm dance at dawn!
Like Star Wars, Dune is set in a dimension where technology has advanced to the point of intergalactic travel while politics have regressed to those of medieval Europe; authoritarian empires, warring clans, hereditary dynasties, even sword fighting (explained through invisible shielding devices that bullets can’t breach but blades can). Like Star Wars, the front line of imperial strife seems to be a desert planet. Dune though, offers greater narrative justification for this: the planet Arrakis is a rich source of “spice,” which for the locals is an ayahuasca-like sacred hallucinogen but for the rest of the empire is the driving energy force powering interstellar travel. Their “unobtanium,” say.
The Harkonnen have ruled Arrakis for years, growing wealthy on spice and treating the local Fremen brutally in the process, but the Emperor has recently dispossessed them. This remote, unintroduced Emperor has offered the fief instead to the rising Atreides clan, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), who thinks he can be a kinder, gentler kind of extractive steward, not just profiting from the spice but adding the Fremen to his coalition in the process. “Desert Power,” he calls this plan, about which his son, Paul (Timotheé Chalamet) and concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) seem suitably skeptical, but cautiously hopeful that he can pull off.
Most of the film takes place during this transfer of power, as the Atreides move to Arrakis, a harsh environment where the war-like locals have learned to adapt both to water scarcity and to giant sandworms that can sense vibration and devour entire spice harvesters (think: offshore drilling platforms). Yes, the local Fremen have developed a little sand dance (my words) they do to avoid attracting the worms (Let’s do the worm dance agaaaaaaa-aaaain…).
The big question for the Atreides is whether the Emperor has given them Arrakis as a just acknowledgment of their rising power, or simply as a deliberate quagmire designed to ratfuck a potential rival. “The Emperor is a jealous man,” says Baron Harkonnen, played by Stellen Skarsgard in a CGI costume combining revolting corpulence with unchecked alopecia. A Scandinavian-coded race of villains, how about that.
Paul’s mother, meanwhile, comes from a race of pseudo-witches with mysterious mind-control powers in which she has been tutoring her son. The Fremen too think there may be something strange and prophetic about young Paul. “I think I recognize you,” says Stilgar (Javier Bardem), leader of Fremen cell, the first time they meet.
Again, it’s hard not to notice the Star Wars parallels in a story with a desert planet, giant worms, an ancient religion, and a potential messiah, among other things (and Star Wars has been accused of being a Dune ripoff for years). Yet whereas I never quite understood what I was supposed to get out of a battle between “the light” and “the dark side” in Star Wars, Dune turns on a valuable commodity (“spice” can be actual spice, it can be oil, it can be rare Earth minerals, etc) and the feuds between warring clans with conflicting dynastic pretensions all trying to curry favor with an authoritarian state. The allusions there are endless, both historical and contemporary. Not that Dune needs to be an allegory, its characters simply have recognizable motives and the story has coherent levers of cause and effect. Star Wars feels like it’s all stitched together with vague platitudes and childish generalizations by comparison. It’s fitting that Disney owns Star Wars now because it feels, in mid-20th century parlance, pretty Mickey Mouse.
Maybe this is all hopelessly remedial for the Dune scholars out there but it was exciting for me. This Dune being the first of a multi-part story may even play to Villeneuve’s strength. He has long been the best in the business at staging a scene, creating massive, immersive spectacles that have occasionally been a little weak on story structure. In Dune, he balances the book’s storylines deftly, staging spectacle always with an eye to suspense without the burden of closure and a cast that’s fairly perfect from top to bottom. I could watch Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson paint a house and it’s been wonderful witnessing the continued evolution of Jason Momoa as he plays more and more Momoa-like characters. It’s hard to tell whether Jason Momoa has become that much better of an actor or if Hollywood has just become that much better at recognizing what stories could benefit from some Jason Momoa. Either way, I’m happy. Give me all of the Momoa. The Momoa must flow!
Maybe I’m just happy that I can finally do Dune memes now. In some ways it’s a blessing that Dune doesn’t have an ending. It allows us to focus on all of the best parts of the material (I can only assume) married to the strongest aspects of Villeneuve’s filmmaking: it’s an immersive, transporting, intriguing, fully-realized world that we can enjoy spending time in without rating against our ideas of which characters should “win” in that world. I don’t know how this story plays out but for now I’m content to bask in the spice glow.