A friend of mine in high school read Dune, the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, upon which the recent film of the same name is based. He also saw the 1984 movie version. I never consumed either of them. The book sat on the back of his toilet. This makes more sense when you understand how much time he spent in the bathroom, but the less said about that subject the better. It has a lot of pages. I cannot say that I have ever been scared off by long tomes, then or now. I mean, I read both Little Women and Little Men. Those are less than masculine titles, to be sure, but something about the 1994 production of the former of those Louisa May Alcott works captured my imagination. I am a sucker for sap, a sap-sucker. Anyway, why New England transcendentalist fluff and not dynastic science fiction? Because, ultimately, I am not the biggest fan of the latter of those two genres. There are a few discreet titles outside of Star Wars that I enjoy, but they have to have a plot that moves. At all. Based on the limited understanding I had of Dune before the latest cinematic release, my sense of it was that it was deadly dull. My drumming fingers as they pounded away the prolonged minutes of a nearly three-hour run-time testified to my boredom.
I knew I was in for the cinematic equivalent of sitting in traffic with Dune when one of the first things you see is “Part One.” Oh no. Okay, so, there is this substance referred to as “spice.” Basically, think oil. On the planet Arrakis, it is mined by the House of Harkonnen, and sent off world in order to make inter-stellar space travel possible. The inhabitants of that planet are not so keen on this happening, as they use it for religious functions and for its hallucinogenic properties. In a sense, they get high on fuel. Think about that the next time you smell gas fumes while filling up your car. I digress. For . . . reasons, the emperor whatever (he is talked about, never seen) decides to take control of this extremely valuable resource from the Harkonnens and give it to the House of Atreides. Our main character, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), is the son of the House of Atreides leader, Leto (Oscar Isaac). Paul is pretty keen on getting to Arrakis because he has been dreaming of the place for a while now. In his dreams, he sees a woman named Chani (Zendaya), though he does not yet know her. She is a Fremen, what they call the indigenous people of Arrakis. Now, if you have seen previews for this film (as above), you would think Chani figures more prominently into the plot, but you would be wrong. I only bring her up now because these visions are of concern to Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). She is a member of a religious cult called the Bene Gesserit, who have telepathic abilities, and she is attempting to teach Paul to use these skills. Mainly, this involves forcing people to do things against their will. The goal of the Bene Gesserit is to create a superhuman, a sort of savior of the universe, I guess. They are also supposed to be women, but Lady Jessica, as Leto’s concubine, bore a son. In either case, Paul passes the test given him by Lady Jessica’s mother, Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit. As for the upcoming changeover for the House of Atreides, Leto takes it on obediently but cautiously. He understands the importance of spice, and how the House of Harkonnen would be reticent to give it up so easily. He is also committed to having a better relationship with the Fremen than his predecessors, seeing in the sand dwellers a potential ally if and when the House of Harkonnen attempt to seize back control of Arrakis. After a whole lot of expository scenes about the House of Atreides and their attempt to get spice production up and running and co-existing with the Fremen, the inevitable attack occurs. Despite Leto’s suspicions, it comes as a surprise, thanks to the treachery of their family doctor, Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen). His family is being held prison by the Harkonnen leader, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellen Skarsgård). Dr. Yueh secretly lets a group of Imperial and Harkonnen soldiers into the palace, the emperor agreeing to this plan because he does not like House of Atreides for . . . reasons. Still, Dr. Yueh feels a sense of loyalty despite his betrayal. Thus, he gives Leto a poisoned capsule in order to attempt to murder Baron Valdimir, and takes Leto’s signet ring, the symbol of the leader of the House of Atreides. This last he does to give to Paul as he helps them get away from the palace and escape into the desert with Lady Jessica. They are aided also by an Imperial ecologist and Fremen, Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Atreides soldier Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), for all the good it does. I am selling their relationship short, particularly Duncan’s, who Paul idolizes. Anyway, both of them die, along with Dr. Yueh eventually, in helping Paul and Lady Jessica flee. Anyway, they survive a bug-copter (my name for the vehicle of choice) crash, dodge the massive sand worms, and end up being found by a Fremen tribe led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem). One of their number, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), does not want any outsiders among them, and challenges Paul to a duel. Initially, Paul does not want anything to do with the fight, but accedes when he is told he had no choice. Paul’s triumph means further acceptance by the Fremen, who see him as the possible Mahdi. Oh, and Paul finally meets Chani. The end.
This description of Dune probably makes it sound ridiculous, and it is. For example, I did not adequately cover how letting the House of Harkonnen attack Arrakis is part of some vast imperial plot against the House of Atreides. Then again, the movie never really clues you in as to why the emperor is so grumpy about Leto’s bunch. There is something about a vague threat posed by Atreides. And yet, simply based on what you see in the film, I have trouble understanding the scope of this threat. Leto seems dutiful, and despite his misgivings, follows his orders. A little more development of this aspect of the plot, instead of the useless minutes spent covering Paul’s lunatic visions, might have helped. The dreams certainly were not helpful. Paul is particularly susceptible to the spice, which seems to suffuse the air on Arrakis, and it leads to him having premonitions of the future. Yet, sometimes they happen and sometimes they do not, and some of them appear to be set-ups for future films. Ugh. At any rate, they seem random, with no discernible pattern. This is particularly true of Jamis, who Paul sees in his mind before they meet. In those visions, Jamis is helping Paul learn the ways of the Fremen and the desert. In reality, Paul kills Jamis. So, what was the point of all the time spent seeing something else? Between not totally understanding pretty much anything, and the snail’s pace, I was heartily glad to leave the theater when the end credits rolled.
The one, brief moment in Dune I appreciated was the exchange early on between Leto and Paul. Because of Paul’s nonsensical visions (to me, anyway), he wonders whether or not he should be the one to succeed his father as the Atreides’ leader. Leto gives him some standard dad talk about finding his own way, which at least sounded nice. However, Leto’s best words come when he tells Paul that no matter what the young man does, Paul will always be what he needed to be the most: Leto’s son. What a great example of unconditional love. It is something that God gives us always, at all times, no matter what we do. Sin is problematic, to be sure. But that same love that God gives us when we do nothing more than simply wake up in the morning, also allows us to return to Him when we do sin. I wish more people, including myself at times, did not struggle so much with this concept. Our world would be that much closer to paradise this side of the grave. For Paul, this sentiment is the boost of confidence he needs to carry on through the difficult times ahead, and is another facet of God’s unconditional love. When understood properly, which is tricky, it can allow you to do extraordinary things.
Okay, that is enough good stuff said about Dune. I did not mention before that it is set in the year 10191. I do not know about you, but when I think of something that far into the future, I feel like technology should be a lot more advanced than what we see in this film. Physical books? Communication devices that sound like your grandpa’s ham radio? Look, I have no clue as to how faithful this is to the source material, nor do I care to find out. It is another movie about a space messiah that was a bit tedious for me. I will stick to the real Messiah, thank you.