What do you think about Dune? The book, I mean. Your reaction to the new movie is likely to depend on that. Mine does.
I read the book about 1980, when I was a 17-year-old libertarian. I didn’t much like it: the Fremen, whose virtue consisted in their being oppressed, holier-than-thou working-class-heroes stuck in my craw, and I could never quite forget the (deliberately funny) dictum from Yojimbo, “I hate pathetic people.” The penchant of the Fremen, once empowered, to lead a turnabout-is-fair-play holy war and impose their primitive beliefs on everyone was more deeply offensive to me than the brutal conniving of merchant princes. Despite that, I remember thinking that the final confrontation of the emperor and the forces of order against the great genetic and mystical die roll of the Kwisatz Haderach was brilliant writing.
I had come to the book years after having read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I was prepared to accept that a corrupt and decaying empire is preferable to the chaos that would follow it. Paul Atreides is a protagonist who embodies chaotic destruction, and religiously motivated destruction, at that, and I wasn’t having it in those days. You don’t, I then thought, tear apart the fabric of painfully-won high culture for retribution’s and religion’s sake.
I had also read ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen series, especially Triplanetary, the overarching story that he wrote to sew together the more opaquely connected stories published in the other books. The antagonists of Smith’s stories are the Eddorians, who seek power and control for their own sake and who systematically enslave all sentient life forms that they can lay their extensible pseudopods on. Smith’s values were bourgeois and democratic, his characterizations black and white. The secret protagonists are the high-minded Arisians, too evenly matched with the Eddorians to feasibly take them on and who therefore work in the shadows, invisible to the Eddorians, to raise up cultures among the lesser sentient beings and breed a set of superheroes in the younger life forms who could destroy the Eddorians and supersede the Arisians themselves. This is a project of many millenia, and the Arisians’ protégés become the proxy protagonists. Herbert, with his Bene Gesserit order breeding a superman who will (I guess) set things right, had evidently read his Smith, and the Ersatz Hatrack project, if a bit opaque in its ends to me then, made good sense as a practical expedient.
The 17-year-old me was not a canny critic, but I did manage to understand that Herbert built his universe by using colors drawn from the palette of Earth history. Asimov had done that, and while Smith’s Eddorians are described as literally incomprehensible to a life form like my own, Smith took the corporate boardroom as a model for their confabs. These appropriations are metaphors that help us insert ourselves into the fictional worlds more easily.
Herbert colored the Fremen with hues drawn from the palette of Arabic culture; the various noble houses seemed to me drawn from the Machiavellian schemers of the Italian Renaissance; the age-old but apparently rickety empire from the Byzantine Empire; the Bene Gesserit from the Jesuits; the Sardaukar from SS stormtroopers; the spice from world dependence on oil; and and and.
But of course, the duke and baron are not ersatz Medici, and the Fremen are not oppressed Arabs exploited for their oil. The story is built upon the combination of many disparate powers that boil together and interact like Stan Miller’s primordial soup. What happens when we put these characters with conflicting desires and contrasting powers together? Paul and the Fremen turn out to be monsters once they’ve won: Dune is a tragedy, not a cautionary tale about colonialism or capitalism in our world. Looking back at the story now, I think of it as a novel without a hero, like Vanity Fair. Interesting characters, yes.
So to be clear, the new Dune is just fine. Quite good, even—good enough to see a second time. It was interesting to watch and I did not find myself fidgeting in my seat as I commonly do in the overlong MCU movies. The story was presented seriously and we can be grateful it escapes trivialization by making it comment on today’s prevailing racial and global politics.
Some critics complain harshly about the backstory exposition such a complicated film demands. “Show, don’t tell!” is a guiding principle in filmmaking, not least in the face of subliterate American audiences. Yet Dune, like Apple’s Foundation, comes from a literary source that features big ideas. I read a review barely suppressing laughter at the voiceovers in the 1984 Dune. But while that information slowed the film’s pace, it added a lot to the scope and grandness of the story, because it made me see that big things were happening behind the scenes.
I came closest to fidgeting during the new film when we get Paul’s countless visions of Chani. One is so long that I wish I’d known about it so that I could have nipped off to the bathroom. Paul’s lengthy teenage freakout when the worm is about to eat the crawler is just junk clogging the story like so much plaque in an artery. Endless tumbling in the ornithopter (when will the crucial wing break off?) is needless (and expensive) filler running out the 2.5-hour clock. Could we not have had more backstory telling us about CHOAM and the Landsraad? Might we not have had more of the Reverend Mother? She’s the highly-trained, super-intelligent shepherdess of a project resulting from thousands of years of effort and thought. Everything we get cinematically from such a character is of supreme interest, while Chani, Paul’s future ‘love interest’, offers nothing. Yet the latter has more screen time. Well, I guess Zendaya was needed to lure in the younger audiences, but still . . . .
Of course, if you come to the new Dune knowing the details of the plot, you can fill in what’s missing. I’m serious that the film is quite good, but it could have been more intellectually stimulating had the grandiose visual beauty been supplemented with a grander sense of the story.