MOVIE REVIEW: DUNE
I met Frank Herbert, author of Dune, over 40 years ago at “Comics and Comix” a premier comic and book store in Berkeley that was a favorite haunt of mine at the time. Of course, I got him to sign my paperback, but he was interested in talking about the movie version of the book that was in discussion.
“It would cost over $100 million to make it”
he told me. When David Lynch wrote and directed the first film version in 1984, they spent about $40 million. But this latest version, directed and produced by Denis Villenueve (who also directed sci-fi hits Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival), cost $165 million. As of today, this new film has grossed $170 million worldwide. David Lynch later disowned his version as one of his greatest failures; it did not get either critical or box office support. But this new one is:
Magnificent, spectacular, immersive, a visually stunning feast for the eyes and ears. It is operatic in its atmospheric feed, almost no part is without music or sound. There are layers upon layer of foreshadowing on subjects political, cultural, hereditary, and mortality…
At least that’s my take on seeing the movie my first two times. But first, here’s the story behind it.
Dune: The Origin
Frank Herbert was born in the Pacific Northwest in Tacoma, Washington, and attended the University of Washington but did not graduate. He worked in journalism for the Seattle Star and the Oregon Statesman.
His inspiration was the sand dunes of Florence, Oregon, where I once vacationed with my family. The dunes invited “dune buggy” adventures, and the lakes invited canoeing.
Frank Herbert started thinking about sand dunes while researching a magazine article about research going on at the Oregon Pacific coastline. “They Stopped Moving the Moving Sand” was never published, but it was the kernel of an idea of how waves of sand could be blown by the wind and could be as devastating as a tidal wave in terms of property damage, and fatal to humans. It could “drown out forests, kill game cover, destroy lakes, fill harbors.”
Admittedly, the beginning of the novel is dense, scaring off both publishers and even readers. The book was rejected by publishers 20 times. Chilton Books finally picked it up, better known for printing auto repair manuals back in the day of paper manuals. It won a Nebula for the best science fiction novel of 1965, but sales weren’t particularly outstanding initially, despite the quote on the cover by science fiction luminary Arthur C Clarke:
“I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.”
Its topic of ecology was popular in the mid-’60s and early ’70s, especially where I went to college at Berkeley. Author Neil Gaiman called it
“sort of Lawrence of Arabia in the stars,”
Dune: The Book
When I first read it 50 years ago, I didn’t like it. But I had to finish reading it; it was the first book to win both the major science fiction book awards: the Hugo Award and Nebula Award for Best Novel. My college friends had read it. It was the popular “contemporary” sci-fi novel of the early ’70s: themes of ecology, military-industrial complex, psychotropic drugs, teenaged heroes…
Scientists like Carl Sagan praised it, and sci-fi authors like Robert A. Heinlein and my favorite Arthur C. Clark extolled it. However, J.R.R. Tolkien disliked it “with some intensity.” Although I didn’t like it, I knew it was a great book: epic in scope, deep in introspection, expansive in world-building.
What didn’t I like? Herbert seemed to prefer “Muslimness” over Christianity. He disparaged the Orange Catholic Bible (which the Appendix said had been significantly “re-edited by committee” over the centuries) while elevating Arabic and Muslim language, culture, themes, mysticism, and traditions. He paraphrased the Qur’an, Muslim authors, and prophetic teachings.
Appendix II at the end of the book is on “The Religion of Dune,” where he expands on these sources. He selected elements from many religious traditions, including Zen Buddhism, and projected what they would look like after the advent of space travel. But everywhere are Islamic undertones, Arabic words, and Arabic-sounding names.
But beyond that, there was the ever-present theme of coming “jihad,” a word popularized in this book decades before Islamist terrorism appeared on the world stage. In this movie, the word does not appear; instead, there is talk of “holy war,” a “crusade,” and more war.
But I read the book and his five novels that followed it. I tried to read a couple of the many Dune books by his son Brian Herbert and co-author Kevin J. Anderson, but their writing is not the same as Frank Herbert’s.
Dune: Who’s Who, What’s What in the Movie
Here are a few people, places, and things that will set the stage for this complicated movie:
- Duke Leto Atreides, played by Oscar Isaac, “Poe Dameron” in the most recent Star Wars trilogy. He’s the head of House Atreides, which has at the beginning of the movie, the Emperor has given the planet Arrakis as a fiefdom. Atreides means “son of Atreus,” the name of a king of Ancient Greece.
- Paul Atreides, performed by Timothée Chalamet, is the son of the Duke and Lady Jessica. At 15, he seems to be a moody, sallow youth, a bit fey, with a weight of destiny upon him. The movie traces his journey to become ever so much more. He is a youth burdened by destiny and dreams of one day ruling. Think of the dreamer Joseph in the Book of Genesis. This actor is “so hot right now,” having been featured in Interstellar, Little Women, and Lady Bird.
- Lady Jessica is played by Rebecca Ferguson, who you’ve seen in Mission: Impossible and The Greatest Showman. She is the consort and concubine of Duke Leto Atreides and the mother of Paul. She is a sister of the Bene Gessert order. She has broken protocol by having a son and training him in the ways of the Bene Gesserit.
- The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is played by Charlotte Rampling, who was featured in the 1974 sci-fi classic film Zardoz with Sean Connery. She comes to Caladan at the beginning of the movie to test Paul.
- Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, played by Stellan Skarsgård, is the head of the immensely powerful and rich rival House Harkonnen. They ruled Arrakis for over 80 years, becoming more wealthy even than the Emperor before he turned the fiefdom over to House Atreides. A “rhino in human form,” he’s brutal, clever, and cunning. In attempting to destroy House Atreides and its line, he is immensely corpulent and uses anti-gravity devices attached to his body to both support his weight and to levitate over short distances. He even has an action figure.
- Chani, played by Zendaya, is the first voice and face we see. She’s a Freman girl that Paul sees in his dreams and visions as the woman with which he will fall in love. This actress is “so hot right now,” having played “MJ” in the recent Spider-Man and as “Anne Wheeler” in The Greatest Showman.
- Gurney Halleck, the loyal troubadour warrior of the Atreides, is played by Josh Brolin, much more underplayed than his portrayal of the villain Thanos in the recent Avenger movies. In the 1984 movie, he was played by Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
- Duncan Idaho, swordmaster for House Atreides, is played by Jason Momoa of Aquaman fame. He steals every scene he’s in.
- Caladan is the ancestral home of House Atreides. It is lush and watery and filmed in Stadlandet, Norway.
- Arrakis, the Dune planet, was filmed in the deserts of Abu Dhabi and Jordan.
- Bene Gesserit (Latin for “Well Done” or “Well Behaved”) is a quasi-religious order of sisters. They are much more than nuns; instead, they were like priestesses. They’re rather like the ancient Roman Vestal Virgins, without the 30-year vow of celibacy but with unequaled influence. The Bene Gesserit welded enormous Imperial power, and while ostensibly not involved with politics, they have been conducting a centuries-long interplanetary propaganda program seeding “prophesies” among indigenous populations and a eugenics breeding program to create the “Kwisatz Haderach,” a “messiah” type of individual who has access to his lineage’s memories and can see the future as he comes to power. They possess unusual physical and mental powers and are called “truth sayers,” “witches,” or “weirding women” by some.
- Litany Against Fear is a Bene Dessert litany quoted by Lady Jessica and repeated by her son Paul:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
- Sardaukar is an elite military caste of Imperial warriors who dress in full pressure suits, fight like Spartans, sing like Mongolians boing to battle, and wield samurai swords. They operate at the discretion of the Emperor but — SPOILER ALERT — were surreptitiously loaned out to House Harkonnen. “We are the blades of the Emperor!”
- Fremen are Bedouin-like inhabitants of the deep desert, native to Arrakis. There are millions of them living underground in the tunnels beneath Arrakis. They consider the ruling Great Houses to be oppressing invaders. They have blue eyes from consuming the spice but have a mysteriously symbiotic relationship with the sandworms that is not yet explained in this movie.
They wear stillsuits that cover their body to protect them from the desert sun and heat and at the same time reclaim and their moisture and the included nose tube to breathe and filter out the blowing sand. It is said of them that they “fight like demons,” with a dessert power and self-sacrifice for their planet that can defeat even the Sarduakar warriors. The Fremen await the coming of Mahdi, a Muslim word for “rightly guided one,” and wonder if Paul is the one.
- Film fight director Roger Yuan has choreographed many Hollywood and Bollywood film fights, with expertise in several martial arts. He gave House Atreides a Filipino martial arts style. Indeed, Paul’s “heart and head” salute is very reminiscent of a Filipino form of “kali stick” fighting form that I have studied.
Swords and knives are used instead of handguns because the nobles wear a personal defensive shield enveloping their bodies. The shield can stop any fast-moving projectiles or sword thrusts and glow blue when operating. But they are ineffective against a slow-moving thrust and glow red when they permit passage through them.
- Flying devices include the Spacing Guild’s interstellar tubes, massive aircraft carrier-like House Atreides ships, and winged ornithopters. These were just as I envisioned when I first read the book, a “dragonfly” type of helicopter with four sets of paired wings (2 sets for the smaller versions) that flittered like an insect.
- Sandworms played by CGI are 400 meter-long giant sand snakes who move through and under the sand as effortlessly as sea serpents moved through the ocean. They are the Beowolf of the film. They are attracted to the sound of movement in the sand, go on a killing spree when encountering a field generator (forcefield), and can swallow spice harvester machinery in a single gulp.
The Fremen refer to the sandworm as “Shai-Hulud,” an Arabic term for “immortal thing.” Their teeth are used to make the Fremen sacred “crysknife.”
- Desert Mouse, or Muad’Dib in the Fremen language, is featured in several places in the film. They are hardy, clever, and survive in the desert. Paul later takes on the name Paul Muad’Dib as his own.
- Spice or “mélange” is an invaluable substance that preserves life and brings health benefits. To those who know how to consume it, unique insight is afforded. It is a sacred hallucinogen that allows the navigators of the Spacing Guild to navigate between the stars at superluminal speeds presciently. It makes the eyes of those who consume it a telltale blue. It is uniquely found only on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. The initial book series was published during the ’60s and ’70s when Herbert was experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms.
Spice is what Dune is all about. It shows up in the second sentence of the movie when Chani says of Dune.
“My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low. Rolling over the sands, you can see spice in the air.”
Obligatory etymological history:
While this movie does not use this name, the books refer to the spice as mélange. The French word mélange means “mixture of spice” which comes from the Old French verb mesler which means to mix or mingle. We get our English words “madly” and “medley” from this. Going further back, the Latin verb miscere the root for words like “mix,” “miscellaneous,” and even “promiscuous.” French synonyms are “potpourri” and “pistachio.”
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Ben Zimmer mentions that back in 2018, the Twitter user @HikerYote speculated that since:
- Spice is called mélange
- Spice confers power and longevity
- Mélange means variety
Therefore: “Variety is the spice of life.”
Dune: The Movie
While both the film and the HBO Max streaming service became available this week, it is preferred to see it on the big screen to get the scope and scale of the movie.
It is the year 10191 since the beginning of interstellar flight by the Spacing Guild, which began around 23,352 A.D. The most precious substance in the Empire is the spice which extends life and health, but most importantly of all is the sole required ingredient that the navigators of the Spacing Guild must have to calculate how to fold space. Think of it as “oil.”
Spice harvesting is a lucrative but dangerous business. When done during the day, the heat of the Arrakis sun can kill in two hours. The spice mining operation is conducted in light of a potential attack by sandworms. But primarily, the ferocious Fremen consider the mining to be trespassing on their land.
Here are a few things that immediately jump out at the viewer at the beginning of the movie:
- Cinematography: unbelievable in its scope and variety
- Costume design: I hear an Academy Award nomination in the wind.
- Sound editing: immersive in every way, from native cries and calls to foreboding sound tapestries, the score by Hans Zimmer is impressive.
Dune and Star Wars
The most obvious parallel to Dune is the Star Wars series of films. George Lucas makes no secret of how Dune influenced him, along with other ancient legends, myths, science fiction writers, and Japanese samurai movies. Frank Herbert himself, on seeing Star Wars, identified “16 points of ‘absolute identity between his book and the movie.
Here are just a few that I noticed from Star Wars:
- The original trilogy, starting with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, shows the two droids on the desert planet Tatooine.
- Their first scene on the planet features without explanation the giant skeleton of a worm or snake atop a sand dune.
- This is fleshed out in The Mandalorian, where our hero faces a giant sandworm.
- “The Voice” in Dune, which allows its user to control others with a mysterious power, is seen when Obiwan Kenobi uses “The Force” to tell the Imperial Troopers:
“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for… you can go about your business, move along.”
- Duke Leto confesses to his son Paul that he “wanted to be a pilot,” like Anakin and Luke Skywalker.
- A “galactic empire” appears in Star Wars as it degrades from its Republican period into its Imperial period (shades of the Roman era between Julius Caesar and Augustus.)
- Hydroponics farming is what Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen did on Tatooine. The Fremen did the same in Dune.
- C3PO’s worries aloud to R2-D2 that
“We’ll be sent to the Spice Mines of Kessel, smashed into who-knows-what!”
- Han Solo did “made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” We have all forgiven him for confusing parsec with a unit of time rather than its actual measurement of distance: 1 parsec = 3.26 light-years.
Dune and Foundation
There are no computers or robots in Dune, like the Foundation series. In Dune, this was a result of the long-ago “Butlerian Jihad,” which was
…two generations of chaos where the god of machine logic was overthrown among the masses and a new concept was raised: “Man may not be replaced.”
Instead, on Dune, there are “mentats,” human calculators who act as advisors to the noble Houses.
Isaac Asimov wrote many popular science fiction series, but the most compelling were the Foundation and the Robot series (example: “I, Robot”). In Foundation, there were no robots, though ancient legends talked about them. Or that those robots who existed hid or disguised themselves as human. Asimov brought the two series together toward the end of his life in a series of novels, some published posthumously, along with other authors sanctioned by his estate after his passing. They’re a satisfying conclusion to novels first published in the 1950s and concluded in 1986 with “Foundation and Empire.”
This contrasts Star Wars, which tells the saga across all nine films through the only recurring characters, the droids C3PO and R2D2.
Similarly, the story of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “Middle-earth” involved over a dozen books edited by his son Christopher Tolkien, and this year, one by Carl F. Hostetter with The Nature of Middle-earth.
Dune is a counterpoint to Foundation. Where the latter emphasized rising technology, decaying Imperial politics, collapsing economics, and cognitive science, Dune emphasized religion, culture, ecology, and the biological mysticism of the unconscious dreams and visions.
Dune and other Book-to-Movie Sci-Fi/Fantasy Franchises
As I related, Foundation by Isaac Asimov has recently been adapted to the small screen by Apple TV+. While visually delightful to look at, sadly, it has almost nothing to do with the book, aside from using some character and planet names. Gone is the subtle interplay of economics, politics, and technology, which the books made so delightful when we see “The Foundation” getting the drop on its rival neighbors, whether barbarian or Imperial. In its place is a more domesticated episodic melodrama mainly spun from whole cloth.
The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was turned into an immensely successful movie franchise by Peter Jackson. I wrote movie reviews of a couple of them. While not cleaving as close to the books as some Tolkien fans would care for (like me), they were relatively faithful to the novels (except The Hobbit trilogy) and were enjoyable on their own without reading the books. But go read the books!
How popular were the LOTR movies? The third movie in the original LOTR trilogy, The Return of the King, earned $1 billion at the box office, the second movie to do that after Titanic and tied with Ben Hur and Titanic in most Academy Awards won (11.) The LOTR trilogy has grossed almost $3 billion worldwide, based on a combined budget of $281 million for the three films.
Netflix has bought the rights from the Tolkien Estate to adapt for TV the “Second Age” of Middle-earth from the LOTR prequel The Silmarillion (we saw the end of the “Third Age” in the Lord of the Rings movies.) Netflix spent a quarter of a billion dollars for the rights and $450 million to produce the first season. Since the Second Age covers over three thousand years, there’s lots of room with which to work. Will we learn about Aragorn’s ancestors on the island of Numenor? I think so.
The Harry Potter movies were immensely enjoyable with both young and old readers alike. While the books provided much more backstory and gravity than the movies do, and J.K. Rowling is a page-turning writer, she does not have the depth in myth, folklore, and languages as does Professor Tolkien. She uses Latin; Tolkien invented languages. Nevertheless, her writing improved with each book until her Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, won a Hugo Award for Best Novel. It’s an outstanding read and my favorite. She even beat out George R. R Martin’s A Storm of Swords book from the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series in 2001.
Speaking of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” HBO adapted it for TV as The Game of Throne series in 2001. It was a monster hit for them, approaching the fan “fanaticism” of The Sopranos. HBO spent about $90 million, or $15 million per episode. There are seeds of Dune in these books and TV episodes — SPOILER ALERT — the authors are willing to kill off your favorite “good” characters early in the narrative sweep of political intrigue.
Do I think this new Dune movie series can compete? I think it will be much better than the Apple TV+ Foundation series — indeed, this first film already is. But I don’t think it can catch Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. However, I suspect it may take a run at The Game of Thrones franchise, though it’s hard to beat a TV series.
This is only Part 1 of the first book of Dune. If box office returns support it, another part will be produced. [It was given the green light on October 26, 2021.] But this is not a film for everyone. It moves ponderously, like a spice harvesting platform through the desert, and much is left unexplained. The time-shifting of dreams and prophesy mixing could be confusing to those who have not read the book. The dialog is rather hard to follow.
You’ll like it if: you enjoy immersively (visually and auditory), atmospheric films, eye candy spaceships, cool uniforms, good-looking actors.
You won’t like it if: Rapid plot movement is a high requirement with you, world-building overwhelms you, unfamiliar names and foreign languages put you off.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian