Some of you are going to despair at me for this but having watched Denis Villeneuve’s new Dune film and wanting to know how the story ended… well, I’m afraid I didn’t go the route of reading the book.
It could have been worse, I could have just gone and looked at the Wikipedia plot synopsis.
Actually, in retrospect I’m not sure that would have been worse. David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel is a bit of a slog. I think maybe ploughing through the 642 pages of the book would have been easier. (Yes, I know what those of you that love the source material are shouting at me right now.) Lynch’s film clearly wanted to be The Lord of the Rings meets 2001 but it came out as Masters of the Universe meets Flash Gordon. It shoots for being epic but it lands splat in the cheese.
More than anything else, and that’s saying something, the way it handles Paul becoming the Messiah is painfully corny. This is something Villeneuve is going to have to manage in his second film because it is key to the story. (Anyone who wants to come at me about the way Rey becomes the ultimate mythical Jedi at the end of The Rise of Skywalker but doesn’t have a problem with Dune, bring it on.) It will be interesting to see how Villeneuve handles this because actually his Paul is already less grounded at the start of the film than Lynch’s. In the form of Timothée Chalamet he is somewhat ethereal from the moment we meet him whereas as played by a young Kyle MacLachlan he is cocky and confident. I did like the initial character’s arc in Lynch’s movie and if there is fault in the film (if?!) it doesn’t lie with MacLachlan. It is the way everyone suddenly accepts him as their leader that seems desperately underwritten.
Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures have now green lighted a second Villeneuve Dune film and Villeneuve seems to have responded by tentatively asking for a third as well. He has expressed a desire to also adapt the second book which is called Dune Messiah. The man clearly has a firm idea of what he is doing with this aspect of the story.
As it was I was impressed by the beginning of Lynch’s Dune. I obviously knew of its reputation and was pleasantly surprised to find it engaging. I think you get more of a sense of the sophistication of the narrative than you do in Villeneuve’s version which is surprisingly simple in its plotting. Lynch’s set design is strong too and has more variety than we see in the new film.
The character design on the other hand is awful. The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Villeneuve’s film is hideous and repugnant but he isn’t disgusting like in the older movie. He isn’t coded as gay either which is pretty offensive in Lynch’s interpretation. (I understand this is even more explicit in the book.) The Mentats, played by Freddie Jones and Brad Dourif look ridiculous too with their huge eyebrows and jutting chins. It is as though they’ve had their make up and hair done by The Muppets. I appreciate this matches their description in Herbert’s work but Lynch changed enough other stuff so he should have seen how silly this looked on screen and fixed it. The striking and wonderfully benevolent look of Stephen McKinley in the current version is a million times better.
Worst of all of the characters’ appearances in Lynch’s failed opus though is the Space Guild Navigator who turns up near the start and tells the Emperor to kill Paul. He/she’s the one who looks like a giant pink slug with human arms. Again, I know about the mutations listed in the novel, I know why it looks like that but did it have to appear that it was talking out of its genitalia, and then later (in the single worst special effect sequence in any film ever) firing laser beams out of it? This weird creature isn’t in Villeneuve’s film presumably because he didn’t want to make anyone suffer the recollection of this part of the first movie.
The other infuriating thing about the 1984 film is the way we hear everyone’s internal monologue, all the way through. It is such a lazy storytelling method and robs the whole thing of any subtlety. If Lynch wanted to state what the people were thinking in the way you can on the page I’d almost of rather he’d put text cards up on the screen like in a silent movie or perhaps had the performers speak directly to the audience like Fleabag. Anything would have been better than the slow zoom ins on the faces as they provide voice overs to Joey Tribbiani style small the fart acting. Villeneuve thankfully gives his audience a bit of credit for working out the character motivations even if that does risk missing things. The ambiguity is a welcome alternative to Lynch’s spell it out approach too.
Then there is the pacing. Lynch and Villeneuve’s films have actually reached roughly the same point of the story by the one hour mark but rather than take things slowly (possibly even too slowly) and save a load for a subsequent film like Denis, David gallops off toward the end with the whole caboodle descending into a lot of explosions and shouting. What is almost impressive is that even with this rapid dash to the denouement, it still remains tedious. Also in Lynch’s film Duke Leto totally balls ups his attempt to poison the Baron, what was going on there? He didn’t even wait until he was close to him.
I do have to say I preferred the appearance of Lynch’s sandworms, at least in close up with those cool tri-beaks. In long shot they looked less convincing than the sandworms in Beetlejuice.
Of course there are elements of the story where Denis Villeneuve is yet to show his hand. If he carries on with his focus on the female characters then we’ll see more of Zendaya’s Chani who has already made more of an impact than Sean Young. It is likely that both the Emperor and his daughter Irulan will feature and I am keen to see what he does with one of my favourite characters in Lynch’s film; the plucky, witchy adolescent daughter of Jessica Atriedes Alia. With forthright performances in better films such as Vanilla Sky, Mr Holland’s Opus and recently I Care a Lot, Alicia Witt’s appearance aged seven in Dune might just be her finest hour.
The jury might be out on Villeneuve’s Dune, with at least half of it still to come. I’m confident in the long run though, that it will be seen as the better adaption.