NEW YORK — It’s not every day that a Jewish-American actor makes the cover of Time magazine, but then it’s not every day that cinema sees the release of a film as grand in scale as “Dune.”
Timothée Chalamet, the 25-year-old heartthrob who starred in the Jewish-LGBT-coming-of-age picture “Call Me By Your Name,” as well as the never-officially-released-in-the-United States Woody Allen movie “A Rainy Day in New York,” is the lead in French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s big-budget adaptation of author Frank Herbert’s mammoth science fiction epic. And though his role as Paul Atreidis, aka Muad’Dib, the possible Freman Lisan al-Gaib (but also the possible Bene Gesserit Kwisatz Haderach), is the ostensible lead in the film, the real star is simply “Dune” itself.
“Dune” the novel was first published in 1965, and my copy is a meaty 850-plus pages loaded with mind-scrambling concepts and in-universe jargon. (Each chapter break — of which there are many — comes with a lengthy quote from a “found source” that does a lot for world-building as well as head-scratching.) Publishing-wise, the “Dune” franchise is considered the genre’s all-time best seller. (Herbert wrote five similarly weighty sequels; his son continues to co-author sequels, prequels, and side-quels.) There is a lot that “Dune” went on to influence — the most obvious being “Star Wars” — but there’s also a lot Herbert took from the real world, primarily a romantic portrait of Western influence in the Levant.
“Dune” is mostly set on Arrakis, a desert planet, which is managed by a grotesque group of colonists from House Harkonnen of Geidi Prime. A new treaty puts the realm in the hands of the more benign (but still imperial) House Atreidis from the wet and rainy (British?) planet Caladan. Young Paul Atreidis will eventually join forces with the roving bands of desert-dwellers with ancient customs called the Bedouin — uhhh, I mean, the Freman. In the new film, when the Freman leader Stilgar played by Javier Bardem bellows a welcome to Sietch Tabr, it’s hard not to think about Anthony Quinn’s Auda Abu-Tayeh doing the same for Wadi Rum in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Arrakis is so key to interstellar affairs because of a substance found beneath its sands that cannot be manufactured: the Spice Melange. Spice does a lot of things in the “Dune” universe, and one of them is send doped-up interplanetary navigators into a kind of reverie that enables them to maneuver ships long distances. No Spice, no travel. To strip the metaphorical elements away, “Dune,” written just a few years after the formation of OPEC, is about oil.
But it isn’t only about oil. It’s got a lot of other cool stuff flying around in there, too — like the matrilineal society of witchy string-pullers called the Bene Gesserit. Following this line of strong women through thousands of years eventually leads us to Paul, and his calling to lead the Freman to a revolt and eventual path of freedom.
This new “Dune” was a long time coming for many fans. In the early 1970s, the Chilean-Jewish director Alejandro Jodorowsky began working on an adaptation, now considered one of the most famous unmade movies ever. (There’s even a documentary about its absence.) His collaborators were to have included Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and Gloria Swanson. Early artwork was commissioned by H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. It would have been wild. But Jodorowsky was also proud of the fact that he never read the book.
In the mid-1980s, producer Dino De Laurentiis, thinking he had a shot at the next “Star Wars,” got a movie version off the ground and hired David Lynch to direct it. Now, I personally love this version (I’ve even recorded a podcast miniseries all about it) but most adherents felt that it took far too many liberties with the source material, and mainstream audiences were simply baffled by its strangeness. One thing Lynch did was cut a lot of things out, which is something Villeneuve seems keen to avoid as much as he can. To that end, I have some news for you. “Dune,” the massive new Hollywood enterprise bursting into cinemas and onto HBO Max October 21 in Israel, the US and the UK (it’s already out in some parts of Europe), isn’t actually a full movie. It’s half a movie.
The first thing they teach you about storytelling in school is that everything needs a beginning, middle and end. Villeneuve missed that class. His “Dune” is basically the first half of the book. If you know that going in (as I did) you may avoid the queasy feeling of, “Yeah, so?” when the closing credits roll. So, if nothing else, consider all this something of a warning. (As recently as this week the director was giving interviews suggesting that he’s yet to receive a green light to finish the story. My guess is the invisible hand of the marketplace will be giving the signal.)
Is the rest of it any good? Well, it certainly has quite a look. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many cool helmets. The funny thing about “Dune” being such an influential artifact is that its appearance now in 2021 feels a little old hat. The Bene Gesserit use of “Voice,” to use just one example, was plundered by George Lucas to become the Jedi Mind Trick. It feels like you’ve seen it before, even if you haven’t.
But how’s our boy Chalamet, you ask. Um, a little passive, to be honest. Audience members coming in with their crushes firmly in place will no doubt swoon, but Paul Atreidis’s transition to action is mostly saved for the sequel. As such, the lead figure here is a little dull. (Luckily Jason Momoa, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac get plenty of movie star things to do.)
The “Dune” universe is a fun one to explore (I am midway through the fifth book — that’s thousands of pages of gobbledygook prose under my belt) and the fact that this movie is as cogent as it is is a major victory. That’s hardly the type of compliment that they put on posters, but it’s the best I can come up with. But I’m very curious to know what people with no connection to the story at all think of this thing.
I do feel, however, that even if you don’t much care for space opera, you should buy a ticket, put on a mask, and see this in a theater. The music and sound effects are worth it alone, and that’s before we get to the highly stylized ornithopters and gom jabbars. And let’s not forget that Timothée Chalamet looks dreamy on the silver screen, too.
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