Dune Review: Two Nodding Offs….

We review Dune and find it not as terrible as it might otherwise have been.

The other day, I mentioned that I felt it was a good thing to be negative in advance of the release of blockbuster SF epics based on familiar genre classics – mostly because being so is the odds on favorite for most accuracy, with a bonus that if you turn out to be wrong (it didn’t suck quite as badly as you had imagined it would) people would easily and quickly forget and you could gain some potential review cred by admitting your error(s) and writing an honest review.

But why be negative going in?  Why not just be neutral and accept what’s offered and judge it based on its own merits?

I’ll tell you why.  It’s because of the arrogance and hubris exhibited by the the director and the studio for having the unmitigated gall and unconscionable conceit to believe that they can successfully translate one of OUR cherished, beloved, seminal, influential, sacrosanct, important, game changing and already franchised in print epics onto the screen.

None of them are fit to hold the door for the attendees of a Hugo Awards ceremony, let alone be given unfettered access to our mythology.  The very act of thinking about “turning this into a movie” is cultural appropriation of the worst, most disrespectful kind:  not only do they not understand the mythology, or the iconography it manipulates, but they will make far more money off of their incarnation, and have far more (and wider ranging) cultural impact than the original ever will.

These are the obstacles any “film based on” [insert famous science fiction or fantasy property of your choice here] face.  Hollywood is playing with YOUR toys, after kicking you out of the sandbox and, more often than not, they are playing with YOUR toys the WRONG way.  (And can you think of anything more bedrock annoying than watching some kid play with your toys the WRONG! way?)

Well, at least that’s how I feel when I go to watch some director’s take on a story that’s been in my head for decades – a director who is younger than I am and therefore did not live through and experience the era in which the book was written like I did (translation, simply can not have the same life experiences as I, and can not receive the story in the same way as I did), and a director with an apparent fetish for the shade of orange that the game Candy Crush uses on its promo screens.

Truth to tell, I had a bet with myself that I lost.  I honestly thought that the “all orange” colorizing of this movie would take place a lot earlier than it did.  I was not surprised at all to see it make some kind of an appearance, especially when all of the advance copy for this film has played up the “stunning visuals”, and downplayed just about everything else, including acting and story.

But let’s get right down to Denis Villeneuve’s rendition of Frank Herbert’s Dune, rather than indicting Hollywood in general.  Does this iteration respect the source material?  Does it include the personalities from the original book that it needs to?   Does it tell a coherent story? Will it justify  the dollars needed for completion?*  Is it a good movie?  More importantly, is it a good movie of Dune?

I’ll damn it with faint praise:  it’s certainly better than the David Lynch abomination;  it’s also better than the television mini-series.

But its not better than the book (the original, based on two stitched together novellas originally published in Analog Science Fiction Fact magazine, starting in December 1963, a novel that had to be published in full form by an automotive repair book publisher, a novel that went on to win the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel and a novel that has inspired and supported a publishing franchise with some 19 sequels and prequels (of which few have been considered award-worthy but that nevertheless represent one of the most successful SF publishing franchises, perhaps only equaled by Germany’s Perry Rhodan series.)

BTW and for future reference:  I’ve not been very impressed with Villineuve’s oeuvre, really only like Sicario and finding the rest to fall short or to focus far too much on the visual impact than on the story impact.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT

I will say that the movie did hit on most of the important beats from the novel:  the Gom Jabber, the awarding of the fiefdom to House Atriedes, Paul’s fight with Idaho, the Bene Geserit weirding way, Paul being called the Lisan Al Gaib, the rescue of the spice crawler crew, Yueh’s betrayal….

All of those (and more) against backdrops that make it clear that someone did read the book(s) and acquired a respect for its aesthetic:  which very much invoked and brought the book to life.  Technological design, costumery, scale…all were obviously based very deeply on the imagery found in the  books.

But that was also the problem.  These important scenes are presented in a pro forma manner, often with acting that is flat and performative:  in this scene, this character has to say these words (otherwise the fanboys will be all upset about the departure from canon).

That’s the way it felt:  you need to stick your hand in the box and appear offended but afraid; you need to sit right here and make these hand gestures.  While we all want the important and seminal scenes from the book to be rendered in a faithful manner, we also understand that the change in medium probably requires that some things are changed;  not so here.  They key scenes are called out, seemingly from a list of “important scenes from the book you better not fuck with” and they are scripted, acted and directed in just that way:  you are not an actor in a movie, you are a meatpuppet that must deliver this dialogue (and it doesn’t matter if your emotional delivery is on cue so long as you get the dialogue right).

One other positive:  I didn’t fall asleep except at the very end.  Twice.  Fortunately, with HBOMax also streaming the film, I was able to catch the few minutes I missed.  (They were unimportant).

Overall, not a bad movie.  As mentioned previously, it hit all of the important beats of the novel (in a performative, perfunctory manner);  it certainly delivered on the visuals – the scale was appropriate across the board from the guild liner ship in orbit to the hunter-seeker sent to assassinate Paul.

Some things set me off in a minor fashion.  For example, “sand walking” was not invented by members of the Ministry of Silly Walks…I liked the dragonfly ornithopters, but the originals had wings that they flapped.  Some model maker really likes the apache helicopter…the manner in which Baron Harkonen escapes the poisoned tooth is stupid (as is every incarnation of the suspender belt offered.  It was merely used to offset the weight of a grossly obese individual, not act like some kind of second rate rocket pack.  I want to know why they chose to carrying spice miners around with balloons(?) or, at the very least, why anti-gravity technology looks like giant hot air balloons…

…and I felt the pacing uneven,  with a distinct and abrupt change in pacing, as if the director suddenly realized he was going to run out of film and he hadn’t advanced the story in any significant way.

I can’t say the film is bad, that would be unfair.  I can say that it is probably the most faithful rendition of Dune on the screen that we will ever likely receive, but that begs the question of “should a movie of Dune be made?” and I think the answer is still “No”.

***
Notes taken during the watching:

Sardauker at the beginning voice over, is that an Irulan quote?  (Memory says it is, I haven’t had a chance to check, but if so…wrong.)

Fremen don’t hate their planet…?  (Fremen have a dream of lush greenness for their planet and a reverence for it that precludes any amount of hate for it…that strikes me as being off)

Baron Harkonen reprising Colonel Kurtz was unnecessary and distracting homage (yes, it was at that:  no need to invoke Conrad here, the trope is well-worn)

Some of the characters on first meeting seem performative…as if the script was uncomfortable with transcribing portions of the book…here’s this character, we don’t know why he’s been painted this way, don’t understand his role, but these are the words he says at the beginning of the book.  (I covered this impression in more detail above.)

why is everyone wearing bubble helmets?  Bene Gesserit nuns, sure, wear a big hat, but  (the costumery for the soldiers bothers me…it jars and does not seem ‘right’ for some reason)

pace got abrupt right before Yueh’s betrayal.  (this is when they realized they were running out of both film and time)

gratuitous ornithopter  usage (they were very cool and the director knew it.  Look for model kits and plush toys soon!)

Baron’s escape from the gas stupid

boo hoo.  my father’s dead.  starting to get bored at this point

the sand walk was not invented by the ministry of silly walks

*  maybe we’re going to see the completion as a streaming mini-series.  After all, there’s plenty of original source material.

 

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