Review of the New Dune Movie

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune


Note: The plot is slightly spoiler-free for readers who haven’t yet read the book.

My wife and I went to Denis Villeneuve’s last night. Dune film. We went to the movie theatre for the first time since before the pandemic. The wait was worth it.  The movie’s cinematic interpretation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science-fiction novel is far better than that of David Lynch in 1984 and the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series of 2000. It does an excellent job of describing the story and characters, as opposed to the confusing muddle that was the original. The miniseries was also far better than this one, which featured much more CGI and special effects than Lynch’s film.  Villeneuve is clearly an expert in his field. I cannot wait for Part 2 to be released. It was just greenlit, with a release date of 2023.

It is a complex tale of DuneThe story is very difficult to describe. It revolves around the struggle for power between the Atreides (or Harkonnens) and the Arrakis desert planet, which both want to conquer. Arrakis is home to the Spice, the most important substance in all of space. This is because the spice is required for interstellar communication and allows humans to live longer. The Harkonnens ruled Arrakis from the beginning until Emperor Shaddam V, who was the ruler of all the known universes human beings, ordered them to hand it over to Atreides. This followed decades of oppression against the Fremen natives. Paul Atreides, who gradually becomes the main character of the story, is the heir of  the Atreides leader Duke Leto. His psychic abilities are gradually shown to be vast, and he may eventually have the ability to destroy the political order, thanks to the Fremen’s support.

Actors, special effects, and pace of the movie capture the atmosphere and plot of the book very well. It effectively conveys a lot of the message of the book: the manipulative nature and dangers of charismatic leaders (though it is less prevalent than the theme in the book), as well as the appeal of power.

I have been through the book several times. Therefore, I can’t imagine what the movie might be like to people who have never read it. However, I believe they should still be able follow the main gist in a manner that was impossible with the 1984 movie.

The book’s first part, Part 1, is 2.5 hours long and covers just a little more than the other half. The plot is therefore more clear than in the 1984 David Lynch movie. Some details were cut. The Harkonnens (the Baron, and especially his “mentat” adviser Piter de Vries), Atreides  mentat Thufir Hawat, Atreides house physician Dr. Wellingont Yueh and (to a lesser extent) Atreides military leader Gurney Halleck, all get the short end of the stick. This is not surprising. However, those who have read the book will be able to feel some of these loss very strongly.

The actors portraying Paul’s mother Jessica, Duke Leto’s “bound Concubine”) and the Duke are excellent at portraying these characters. I am somewhat ambivalent about this depiction of Duncan Idaho,  another key Atreides officer. However, most viewers like it.

Villeneuve has mastered the art of economic exposition. This allows him to communicate the political and social context of Empire and Arrakis with ease, and with very little screen time. However, there were a few things that got overlooked: the mentats (virtually never mentioned) and the “imperial conditioning”, which makes Dr. Yueh’s treachery especially shocking.

Viewers may not have read the book to understand why the far-future/high tech society lacks artificial intelligence and computers, or why blades are used more often than the missile weapons. The answer to the first question  – conveyed in the book – is the society’s rejection of most artificial intelligence as a result of the Butlerian Jihad (a war against powerful AI that had begun to dominate humans). Answer to the second question, also described in the book is widespread use shields which render missile weapons useless in almost all situations.

This depiction shows Paul less concerned about his potential destiny than the book. He seems to be more open to accepting the leadership of the Fremen, eventually becoming Emperor. Villeneuve may have deliberately avoided giving the impression that Paul was the hero/savior in the story. It is grossly inaccurate to call Paul the “white Savior” in the book. This new version refutes the notion even more, I believe.

Villeneuve is, however, not unlike Sci Fi Channel’s Lynch or Sci Fi Channel version. DuneThe Atreides are almost completely white. However, almost all Fremen are Middle Eastern or black. It is possible that there will be PC/”Woke” backlash over this decision (though I don’t find it bothersome). This could lead to more use of “White Savior”.

The half-Fremen ecologist and imperial representative on the planet Dr. Liet KYnes has been gender-flipped into a female. That  doesn’t by itself bother me. The screenwriters didn’t realize that female Kynes would be more difficult to accept as Fremen leaders. Villeneuve subtly downplays Fremen society’s profound sexism (which is better described in the book). While the Imperials may also be sexist as the movie points out, not in the same way.

One recent review was not favorable. Washington PostIt was attacked by a commentator for its alleged downgrading of Islam’s influence in the setting of the book. The criticism is so erroneous that I would have to write a whole post pointing out every flaw. These are just some of the shortcomings.

We only get to spend about 15-20 minutes with the Fremen because of where the movie ends.  You will see more about their culture in Part 2. Nevertheless, viewers can still see enough of their culture to consider them to be an important analogy to Arab Muslims.

It is also a mistake for the reader to think that the purpose of this story is to praise the indigenous culture and resistance of the Fremen to oppression. The Harkonnens, and other “outworlders”, do oppress the Fremen. Herbert however makes it abundantly clear that their society is oppressive and hierarchical. Their ideology and religion are a result of external manipulation to help Paul ascend to the position of charismatic religious or political leader.

Herbert condemns the manipulation implicitly, but does not say that Arrakis could be restored to its original Fremen culture and freed from colonialism. In fact, the opposite is true. Paul isn’t a white savior, and he certainly isn’t the hero. It isn’t a straightforward story about indigenous people fighting evil colonialists.

Villeneuve’s portrayal of Arrakis is flawed in that Villeneuve hides the bad aspects of Fremen society and so at times seems to be buying into an “natives are good, white colonialists are evil” narrative. Fremen sexism in particular is an example. As we have already mentioned, Part 1 doesn’t really show Fremen society. This problem might be better handled in Part 2.

A few reservations are more subtle about Part 1. Overall, though, this is a remarkable achievement. It’s a must-see for anyone who loves science fiction, and especially if the book is your favorite.