Originally scheduled for release in November of 2020, Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, finally made its way to theaters last weekend after long, agonizing months of celebrity bait and advertisement.
The curse of the adaptation is comparison, and it is impossible to remove this version of Dune from its cultural and political context. Frank Herbert published Dune in 1965. Heavily influenced by Herbert’s book, the original Star Wars, directed by George Lucas, was released in 1977.
Decades later, it is still impossible to separate Dune from Star Wars with their similar elements such as the Voice and the Force; the cinematic landscape is not starved of warring space empires, even considering that Herbert’s imagination of Dune came first.
Furthermore, it is hard to ignore the similarities of Arrakis, the desert planet in Dune, to the typical Hollywood depictions of the Middle East — warm-toned with an expansive sky. Though the book was written before 9/11 and the oil crisis, the filmmakers of our time have made conscious choices to place the characters in our cultural context of U.S. imperialism and destructive intervention.
This decision to contextualize a fantastical world in our political landscape could have been more impactful if Dune followed the oppressed rather than the oppressors. In this way, the filmmakers stayed true to the book — at a cost.
Set in a futuristic, intergalactic society, the film follows the conflict between two noble houses, the House of Atreides and the House of Harkonnen, as they fight for access to the valuable Spice on the desert planet Arrakis. The Spice, a psychoactive substance, allows intergalactic travel. The film opens with Chani (Zendaya) providing exposition and orienting the viewer to the political and geographic landscape. We learn that her people, the native inhabitants of Arrakis called the Fremen, have learned to deal with the planet’s limited resources and face constant oppression from other civilizations that desire the Spice.
At the end of the opening scene, Chani asks, “Who will our next oppressors be?” Her introduction sets up a false expectation that the film will follow her character and the story of the oppressed. However, the film is more concerned with the petulant Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his journey to power. The team behind the film tried to frame Dune as something other than a white savior narrative, but they failed to execute their half-baked intentions.
The first third of the movie drags, laden with exposition. We are introduced to the House of Atreides, led by Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), and their plans to occupy Arrakis. Leto seeks the power of the Fremen people and desires to consolidate the desert. The Fremen and the House of Atreides make a suspiciously nonconfrontational peace agreement.
Meanwhile, typical adolescent tensions between Paul and his parents are laid out in a cumbersome manner. The villains, the House of Harkonnen, are sufficiently disturbing and classically evil. Stellan Skarsgård gleefully leans into his repulsive role as the evil baron Vladimer Harkonnen. Chani is seen only through Paul’s visions — quite literally through the white male gaze.
Once the House of Atreides makes it to Arrakis, chaos ensues. Soon after they arrive, Leto realizes that their Spice-harvesting equipment is out of date and unsafe. It becomes clear that the Fremen people see Paul as a savior — their “Madhi” — while simultaneous attempts are made on his life. Arrakis is not safe for the new colonizers.
The House of Harkonnen attacks their new home to reclaim their stronghold on the Spice. Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) receive help from the imperial ecologist Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and the skilled warrior Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa). For much of the film, Paul and Lady Jessica are forced to traverse the desert on their own in hopes of allying with the Fremen. They face captors, extreme heat and giant sandworms, using the Voice and Paul’s visions to move them forward.
The adaptation suffers from the presence of the celebrities it employed. The world-building falters due to the recognizability of the actors. Chalamet plays Paul Atreides in his typical boyish manner, a frail embodiment of a rising leader. With nothing more than a furrowed brow, he fights to control his mind and learn the Voice, a supernatural command that would allow him to control other people. His performance as a rising leader, however, is unconvincing.
Zendaya, heavily advertised in the film’s promotional trailers, has very little screen time as Chani; she appears only through Paul’s visions until the very end of the film. What one expects from Dune based on its marketing may not be what one gets from the movie itself.
Despite its shortcomings, Dune is inarguably beautiful to watch. The sprawling sets trap their subjects in the center of nature’s ruthlessness. The film explores whether Paul is the Fremen’s savior explicitly and aesthetically. The lighting mirrors this sentiment, taking on an ethereal quality.
The beautiful images are captivating on screen, especially with audiences having been out of theaters for so long. The film is long and requires a significant amount of mental energy to understand; however, one could just let the beauty of the images wash past and enjoy the cinematic feat rather than struggle to grasp the plot.