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Dune (2021) - Does it hold up?

The legendary science fiction epic seeks an answer to the question: Is the third time the charm?

Dune poster

It’s the off-season, so that means we’re back to the old stand-by: Does it hold up? Last off-season, I covered pretty much every baseball movie I could think of, so this off-season will probably involve a lot of other kinds of movies. As per usual, I’m more than open to requests, so please give me what you got!

For context as to my bonafides, I have listened to the unabridged audiobook of the first two Dune books by Frank Herbert, but I don’t remember them very well. I have not seen either of the two previous screen adaptations.

Dune has long been considered unadaptable, mainly because, like many mid-century science fiction books, it is heavy on world-building, internal motivations, allegory, and - that greatest of cinematic sins - politics. Those things, of course, don’t make a film unadaptable. They simply mean that you need the right team. I could probably write a few thousand words on why movies happen the way they do and what it takes to make a good one in any genre or circumstances, but I said we were going to talk about Dune so let’s talk about Dune.

The first thing that needs discussion is the fact that this movie got made at all. Movie producers, like most rich people, are incredibly allergic to risk. This is the true reason remakes and adaptations are all the rage; it isn’t that people have run out of stories to tell. Instead, movie producers and studios have realized how more sure a profit is when they use a known intellectual property. If you doubt, ask yourself why, with an entire massive universe to play with, Disney has kept all of their Star Wars films as close to the existing canon as possible. Their new trilogy featured old, familiar faces; their spinoff films featured the Death Star and Han Solo. Their new TV series gave us one season of nearly wholly original content but quickly tied itself to previously existing shows in the second season. It also spawned two or three spinoffs of its own, rather than simply causing Disney to explore the universe more widely. Even when they tell new stories, they tie them as tightly as possible to things that already exist the same way you tie a boat at harbor to ensure it doesn’t drift off and become lost.

Dune is a pre-existing story - and a very popular one, too! It should fit right into that mold. The problem is that the previous two failures of adaptation - and the reasons for them described above - hang on to it as well as those positives. On top of that, the story is a clear analog to the wars white people fight in the middle east in order to get the oil while disregarding the health and/or happiness of the people who have to live there. That’s a scary story to tell in the best of times, but things are more politically divided than ever. Finally, the vision of this film was to tell only the first half of the first book. Audience members can revolt when a movie contains only part of a story, and, frankly, Dune’s first half is by far the weaker of the two.

Adapting the first half of Dune means figuring out how to show the audience everything they need to know without simply confusing or alienating them. Conveying all of the knowledge necessary was always going to be difficult. When it comes to Herbert’s work, channeling the tone is as essential as reproducing the raw text. Films are also much easier when the focus is smaller; personal battles between individuals are more accessible to empathize with than massive clashes between ideologies, political alliances, or cultures. Herbert’s work is much more interested in the latter than the former, though, and a good adaptation would need to remain faithful to that or suffer the consequences.

In the end, however, everyone involved had enough vision and understanding of the source material to pull off the impossible. The movie uses characters the same way the books did, as faces of the ideologies they represent - avatars to explain and enact them. It’s both very authentic to the source material and effective as story-telling. The movie team did a phenomenal job of making the characters relatable while also making them feel insignificant and impotent. Everything in Dune is big. The camera angles and placement very often make the object of focus look tiny compared to everything around it. The score builds on this with loud, sweeping movements. These are not tight, personal quarters. These are grand locations beyond understanding. Every character in this story is swept up in something so much larger than themselves that it is literally impossible for them to comprehend it all. The way it is shot and scored underlines that for the audience by making them feel the same way. These features are so strikingly good that the loudest refrain among those I have spoken to who have also seen it is that even after watching it using HBO Max’s streaming option, they felt compelled to see it in a movie theater so as to get the fullest experience possible.

Unfortunately, it is still impossible to say whether Dune holds up now. What can be said is that Dune will not be a movie for everyone. No movie is, of course, but unlike a lot of what you will see both on big screens and small these days, this isn’t even trying for mass appeal. This film seeks, instead, to be authentic. It stands loudly and proudly and says, “I have something important to say to you which is meaningful to me!” but then rolls the credits. The flaw in this is that we will all have to wait for the sequel(s)* to determine if that authenticity, rawness, and the actual message come through and justify what this film did. In the end, this may be a film that necessitates multiple viewings to squeeze every drop of goodness from it, but I can’t honestly recommend it until the sequel comes out. It is, by no means, a self-contained story.

Still, it makes a heck of a good first impression.

*The first sequel, which should tell the remainder of the original book, has already been greenlit. The rumor is that this should eventually be a trilogy, with the third movie telling the story of the second book, Dune: Messiah.