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Dune: Part One

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (2021). Warner Brothers, Legendary Entertainment, Villeneuve Films. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Villeneuve. Based on Frank Herbert's novel Dune (fixup 1965). Cast includes Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, Timothée Chalamet, Chen Chang, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Rebecca Ferguson, Stephen McKinley Hender, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Charlotte Rampling, Golda Rosheuvel, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya. 155 minutes. Colour.

Dune: Part One is the second film version of Frank Herbert's magisterial Dune (fixup 1965), a novel that arguably capped and put paid to the Golden Age of SF. No sf novel since published, it may be, has seemed so sure of the world it describes. Very unusually in the history of sf book-to-film projects, Dune: Part One is faithful to its source: it is Dune retold, almost sixty years after the novel appeared, as scripture.

As L P Hartley famously said, "The past is a foreign country". Dune was conceived while Dwight D Eisenhower was still president of the United States, and published well before the Vietnam war began to cavitate the high road to the future. The consequences of Dune: Part One's strict adherence to this old sf story – whose vision of the future is strictly constrained to issues that the world of 1965 agreed were tentpole (see below) – ramify throughout its two hours and thirty-five minutes, creating at points for contemporary viewers a sense that the film is surreally estranged from the centrifugal turmoil of history. Intensifying this sense that Denis Villeneuve and his colleagues have incarcerated Dune: Part One in another country is the sheer intramural weight of the tale, from which no discord escapes: at 215,000 words Dune was the longest Genre SF novel yet to reach book form, so long that it was broken in two for magazine release: "Dune World" (December 1963-January 1964 Analog) and "The Prophet of Dune" (January-May 1965 Analog). Villeneuve's faithfulness to the slow unfolding of Herbert's epic make his decision to restrict Dune: Part One to the events unpacked in "Dune World" seem both appropriate and inevitable: but also distanced.

The first film version of the tale, David Lynch's surreally crammed and hustled Dune (1984), did indeed tackle the whole, with the result that its climax was so cartoonishly rushed that it seemed to mock Herbert's fixated seriousness about properly unfolding his high-road pre-Vietnam sf future, down to the last detail. Lynch's enforced speediness turned much of the tale into a kind of postmodern joke (see Postmodernism and SF). There is nothing revisionist in Villeneuve's rendering. Its faithfulness seems to have been vindicated: at the end of 2021, Dune: Part Two, which should carry the story on to the end of the original novel, had been greenlighted.

So Villeneuve's film, conceived with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth (the only significant maker of the film who was born before the book was published), is not only much less modernistic than Lynch's banjaxed version, but also significantly less extrapolatory than most films inspired by sf from earlier generations. Almost any movie based on the works of Herbert's contemporary Philip K Dick, for instance, will take its source as an inducement to scattershot prolepsis. And the Television series Foundation (2021-current), based on the series by Isaac Asimov, radically understands, wisely or not, its Golden Age source-texts as cues for action spectacles that Asimov failed to write. Dune: Part One is free of such lése majesté.

Ten millennia from now in a galaxy inhabited solely by Homo sapiens and its Genetically Engineered kith and kin (the sandworms central to the tale are nonsentient), a rigidly top-down Galactic Empire exercises universal sovereignty over all known space. The current Padishah Emperor of this vast Space Opera arena, Shaddam IV, will not be encountered in the flesh until Dune: Part Two. Here, offstage, he has initiated a plot to destroy House Atreides, one of the vying dukedoms that govern whole planet clusters in his name across interstellar space. Under the command of Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac), House Atreides is now ordered to take over control of the planet Dune from his traditional enemy, Duke Vladimir Harkonnen (Skarsgård), head of House Harkonnen. It seems like a victory for the highminded Atreides family compact, which is patently based on a cod vision of Scottish clans of long ago. House Atreides is our sort of folk, while House Harkonnen, modeled on Italian city states where poisoners flourish, is patently not (see Race in SF).

As the only source of melange or spice – a Drug which conveys something close to Immortality on those who take it, while at the same time giving the guild of navigators Secret-Master power to guide ships between the stars – Dune itself is an immensely valuable prize. Without spice, there can be no empire (Dune: Part One does not narratively address the issue of how the planet could be discovered before Homo sapiens had the means to get there). In the event, despite bad premonitions backlit by noir landscapes, Duke Leto travels to Dune to enjoy his prize, accompanied by his son Paul Atreides (Chalamet) and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica Atreides (Ferguson). She is a member of the Pariah Elite of women of power known as the Bene Gesserit (see Women in SF), whose head the Reverend Mother Mohiam (Rampling) has put Paul to the test, and identified him as the Kwisatz Haderach, the future Messiah destined to save Dune, the sandworms, and the Imperium as a whole.

But the Emperor's plot now unfolds. Dune turns out to be a poison chalice: Leto's forces are decimated by a sneak attack mounted by Harkonnen soldiers supplemented by a force of elite "Sardaukar" warriors loyal to the Empire (they are like Gordon R Dickson's contemporaneous Dorsai gone over to the dark side). Seemingly terminal gloom descends. What might have seemed to have been the nucleus of a Seven Samurai [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] group of companions meant to shelter Paul in time of danger is broken at this point: his trainer Gurney Halleck (Brolin), the beloved knight-errant Duncan Idaho (Momoa), and the Mentat/Commander Thufir Hawat (Hender), all of them Heroes with special skills, are all killed (or seem to be killed) in well-conceived CGI battle scenes, where individual warriors are all provided with Force Fields that can only be penetrated slowly – one of the few "Sci Fi" Technologies Herbert allowed in his universe (see below) – so that modernistic weapons other than swords and knives are useless. The ensuing battles, all lost by House Atreides, are almost balletic, more reminiscent of Wuxia than of Peter Jackson's filmed version of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (2001; 2002; 2003).

Duke Leto is captured but escapes threatened Torture, having been provided by his betrayer with a Poison-gas Suicide capsule that also kills many of his Harkonnen captors. Paul and Jessica escape into the desert. Paul begins to have visions of a strait future. The two fall into the hands of Fremen, who are native to Dune; but Paul, rather like Lawrence of Arabia, convinces the male leaders of the clan, and the young Fremen seer and/or hypnopomp Chani (Zendaya), that he is the Kwisatz Haderach who will rescue them and the sandworms from the ravages of Ecology-destroying exploitative Imperialism. We begin to suspect that sandworms are somehow intrinsicate with spice, and that Paul will have something to do with both. We do not yet know what. There is a Slingshot Ending.

Viewers may recollect the original tale, but it is the visual faithfulness of Dune: Part One that triggers immediately a shock of recognition. Both parts of Dune itself were illustrated for Analog by John Schoenherr, whose landscape-centered illuminations, especially of the sandworms rearing their heads above oceans of sand, definitively captured the long tale's hieratic sanserif monumentalism, the granitic slo-mo panoramas that impart an unsmiling gravitas to its Pulp-plot heart. Herbert strongly approved of Schoenherr's rendering of his obdurate dream. The book version – released by a small firm when the usual trade publishers baulked at taking on a Genre SF of such length (see Sterling E Lanier) – featured more work by Schoenherr, who also created covers for the paperback editions, which sold hugely. The 1984 film had no time to reproduce his grave palette; but that palette – perhaps given some architectural zing by memories of Paul Lehr's roughly contemporaneous work as an sf illustrator – saturates Dune: Part One.

Just as there is nothing extraneous in what we see, there is nothing serendipitous in the text, nothing to shatter the ancient scenario. Dune was a massive Thought Experiment, a story form designed (in this case) to present sanitized unfoldings of issues like messianism (see Messiahs) and charismatic culture heroes; Religion, Imperialism and Ecology; Drugs as openings of the door to Transcendence; wicca (see again Women in SF) and aboriginal peoples (it is a marker of how accurately Herbert captured the 1965 zeitgeist that the Whole Earth Catalog soon proclaimed Dune a kind of bible). No Dick novel could be described as a Thought Experiment in this sense, because no Dick novel is designed to control its insights: which helps explain the power of these insights, which continue to strobe our day. The strength and ultimate failure of Dune and of Dune: Part One can be sourced, on the other hand, to the a priori restrictions Herbert, a controller writer, used to command his future to follow the plot. In the event, much of the 1960s toolkit (see SF Megatext) was not wanted on his journey. No loose-cannon hints of Computers or Robots; no AIs or Singularity; no Alien civilizations or Uplift (the Evolutionary polymorphy of the cast is instead due to Genetic Engineering); no adumbrations of anything like the Internet, or email; no hint that the galactic empire that rules this sevagram (see A E van Vogt) could be described in Utopian or Dystopian terms; no real hint of a surveillance state in action (though spies and traitors haunt the corridors of power); no Overpopulation; no Virtual Reality; no hint of the nightmares of Climate Change; no anxiety.

Decades earlier George Lucas, another controller maker, had been influenced by Dune's inward-gazing intensity in his researching what became Star Wars (1977), with its desert planet much like Dune; and a family drama that shares the claustrophiliac focus of its model; and an oneiric sense – more instinct with fantasy than sf – that a dream drama is unfolding. But Lucas, who seems to have known exactly what he was doing, made it clear that, even in 1977, his sf epic was very distant indeed from any future conceivable in sf terms as a linear outcome of Earth history. There is no tomorrow in Star Wars, as affirmed by its famous opening crawl, which appears in every main-sequence film in the vast series. The story we are about to witness, we are told, happened "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ..." Dune: Part One depicts a future as remote as Lucas's past; it is a vision more plausibly set in some unwritten future of the Star Wars universe than in our own. Dune: Part One conveys the tight-focus world of Herbert's 1965 vision into what might be deemed an alternate future (see Alternate History; Ruins and Futurity) where, for a moment of what seems like bliss, there is no today: the past is tomorrow. The fixed pharaonic melancholy of the film, its total absence of humour (such as might have been supplied by a C-3PO companion for Paul more convincing than one twee sand mouse), and its reverence for the hieratic all tell the same tale: Dune: Part One is a church-shaped homage to a world long gone.

Eppur si muove. But underneath the tumult and the shouting, arguments do move the tale. There is room in Dune: Part One's stricken amplitude to convey a deeply-felt if occasionally side-bar analysis of human husbandry of the worlds depicted (see again Ecology; Imperialism). Few punches are pulled in the story of Paul Atreides's slow realization that he is destined somehow to save a broken world: he is charismatic, but something of a prig; and he is a killer. The sandworms are seen not as Monsters or Moby-Dick stand-ins but, at least in this introductory film, as members of a genuine species whose life cycles are an integral part of the world they inhabit (see again Evolution). As in any traditional Thought Experiment from an era when it was easier than now to assert the efficacy of future-modelling, Dune: Part One is full of lessons. Every conversation is meant to teach. Every twist in the Atreus/Atreides family dégringolade hints virtuously that suffering can lead to godhead.

Dune: Part One invokes a Golden Age when Frank Herbert could bake a future in stone. The compact, the union, the contract of Dune: Part One is with that era and with the most implacable defender of the sureties that era's writers hope to capture: which should be enough for viewers who have not been fooled into thinking they are watching sf. They are watching a film about yesterday's tomorrows, set in a galaxy far, far away and unchangeable: a fantasy, for good or for ill: an escape from Prison.

This film won a 2022 Hugo as best dramatic presentation, long form. [JC]


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