Dune Part One
starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem
screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth, based on the novel by Frank Herbert
directed by Denis Villeneuve
by Walter Chaw I couldn't get through the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was a kid, but I devoured Frank Herbert's Dune in a fever and read it again immediately. I have a tactile memory of it. Mostly, I was haunted by the frequent use of passages from the diaries, histories, and philosophies of one Princess Irulan, inserted throughout the text to give the book's story a sense of lost time, immense. I wouldn't experience this feeling reading something again until years later when I finally got into Proust, this thing where you read it in the present, but the text is irretrievably past. You've arrived at the dock, but the ferry, impossibly beautiful and decked out with incomprehensible pleasures and mysteries, has left, and it's not coming back. Princess Irulan opens the book by warning us not to be deceived by its hero, Paul, having spent the first fourteen years of his life on a planet called "Caladan"--that his story is inextricable from the fate of a place called "Arrakis." It reminds me of the many epitaphs for T.E. Lawrence. Herbert told his son that he left multiple threads unresolved in Dune so its readers would want to revisit it--return obsessively to it to follow different paths, suggestions, prophecies. I think it's why I've read four or five of the subsequent Dune novels only once and retained so little of the stories they tell and the answers they provide. It's like Arthur C. Clarke's sequels to his 2001: A Space Odyssey novelization: I don't actually want to know what's inside the Monolith.
I didn't understand Dune as a political allegory when I read it as a child. Nor did I understand it as either a criticism of colonialism or, contrariwise, a paternal white-saviour defense of colonialism. I didn't trace it back to Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 environmental study Silent Spring as a cautionary eco-horror tale. I didn't know that the language Herbert invented for the Fremen, the "native" residents of a desert planet, Arrakis, modelled on Arabian Bedouin, was cobbled together from Arabic, Navajo, Finnish, Russian, Old English, Turkish, Romani, Serbo-Croat, and Aztec. In Denis Villeneuve's new adaptation, he even adds Mandarin in place of what Herbert describes as a "Northwest Caucasion" language called "Chakobsa," mentioned mainly in a 1960 book called The Sabres of Paradise. It's said to be a language exclusive to royalty. When I heard the Mandarin in Dune Part One (hereafter Dune)--where and how it's used--the feeling for me of being included in this, one of my true foundational texts, was exquisitely, uniquely devastating. Add to its impact how it's spoken by an actor, 張震, who is the star of A Brighter Summer Day, a film that provides for me a bridge to the Taiwan of my uncle's and my father's youth. 張震 gives Dr. Wellington Yueh, one of the arch villains of my childhood's imagination, a level of pathos I couldn't have imagined. Can I disentangle my reaction to him and this film from the emotional payload of his representational importance to me in this context? Nope.
There are representational opportunities presented by this Dune painfully squandered as well. One should fairly expect that a film set in the desert and revolving around colonial forces battling over its invaluable natural resource at the expense of its native inhabitants would have a greater Arab presence in its cast. The primary representatives of the Fremen are Spanish actor Javier Bardem and American Zendaya. There are excuses for this, but I'm not going to make them. I will say that I no longer trust white people to adapt white properties and, in the process of adapting them, to make problematic things written in 1965 something to suddenly be championed and celebrated. I used to wish that Star Wars would honour its Asian roots in its central saga. Now I'm glad it didn't bother. Keep it. Toshiro Mifune was right when he let Alec Guinness play Obi-Wan Kenobi. The end result of white people attempting "representation" is Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The core is white. The core will always be white. Dune is a well-meaning "Islamaphilic" piece that treats the Fremen as idealized "Free Men"--the way we treat Native Americans as Children of the Earth imbued with a mystical connection to the planet given to arcane rituals and notions of civil discourse. Stilgar (Bardem), when first meeting his new colonial steward, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), spits on the ground as a sign of honour. For desert people, you see, the sharing of moisture is a demonstration of respect. I don't see much benefit in asking an Arab actor to represent his culture as strange and disgusting.
For the uninitiated looking to make literal sense of it all, Dune is going to be tough, though what Villeneuve has done, brilliantly, is to offer up its Byzantine exposition as background noise to a flow of epic and at times overwhelming imagery. David Lynch's cult classic interprets the book's impenetrable genealogies and palace intrigues as a Keseyian Kool-Aid acid test of body horror and costume camp. I like both approaches, bolstered by a genuine love of the source material's grand-bordering-on-bloated operatic pretension. (Fans of George R.R. Martin have no room to criticize Herbert's relatively clean prose.) For this adaptation, however, find something akin to Visconte's The Damned, a film released a few years after Dune was published that follows the fates and fortunes of a doomed family of wealthy industrialists who, after losing their patriarch along with his wife and children, fall into hedonism, betrayal, and madness. More than its broad thematic similarities, note how Villeneuve's expansive style mirrors Visconte's, with both artists exploring the corruption of the aristocracy (see also: Visconte's The Leopard) as a process of progressive rot and florid, moral decay. In Dune, Duke Leto has been given the desert planet of Arrakis in order to, ostensibly, oversee the mining of the Spice "Melange," whose hallucinogenic qualities make hyperspace travel possible. An obvious analogue to oil, although it was not obvious to me as a kid. Instead, I have always thought of the "Spice" as opium--the addictive, society-destroying bogeyman of stories my dad used to tell me about how the British stole Hong Kong from us.
Duke Leto goes to Arrakis with his family in tow: wife Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a priestess in a powerful religious sect called the Bene Gesserit, and his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet). They are surrounded by attendants and bodyguards--military leaders, philosophers, ambassadors, academics, all there in support of Duke Leto's first order of business, i.e., to build a coalition with Arrakis's Fremen population. Their home on the planet is Arrakeen, a city-state recently left by the ruthless Harkonnens, led by the grotesque Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew, Rabban (Dave Bautista). The Harkonnens are not happy to have lost the post, but what the offscreen emperor wants, the offscreen emperor gets. Duke Leto sends the master of his guard, Duncan (Jason Momoa), ahead of him to infiltrate the Fremen and gain their trust. And then one night, the Emperor, who is distinguished by his excess, reveals how this "gift" of Arrakis for Duke Leto and his House is a means for him to eradicate a faction he finds threatening. When I first read this book, I had never at that time encountered anything that was so willing to assassinate major characters. When the dust settles, what's left is Paul in the desert with Jessica and his dreams, which are, one by one, becoming prophecy. Of all the things I didn't expect to see in Dune, it's a series of direct references to Antonioni's Red Desert in Paul's "awakening." Sufficed to say that my copy of Dune is 521 pages. This film ends around page 316. There's too much plot in Dune and it's to Villeneuve's credit that rather than pare it all away, he presents it as Kazuo Ishiguro presents the birth of the twentieth century: via the butler Stevens's perception of it in the employ of Lord Darlington. That is to say, as whispers in the halls, heavy intimations, bloody portents and their brutal outcomes. Empires rise and fall while the centre, a perfectly-poured cup of tea, holds.
It's the minute details of Dune that Villeneuve absolutely nails. The way the spines on a tiny drone ruffle up like the hackles on a dog. The way the Ornithopters are exactly like helicopters, had the creators of helicopters been more literal. The way the massive sandworms, attracted to rhythmic noises at odds with the constant shifting/slithering of Arrakis's particulate surface, emerge like divine judgement, their maws the vaginal leviathans of Freudian nightmares. Each attempt at Dune (save the miniseries, which makes the mistake of trying to be Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet rather than Michael Almereyda's)--Lynch's, Jodorowsky's aborted version, now Villeneuve's--has taken on the problem of how best to evoke the feeling of reading Dune. This one, finally, is exactly how it feels. Villeneuve's film is ineffably strange and shockingly familiar. Look at the dials in the Ornithopters, which resemble Jimmy Stewart's panel of gears and clicking meters in The Spirit of St. Louis; or the mini-projector that teaches Paul about the history and customs of Arrakis; or Baron Harkonnen's oil bath, during which Villeneuve and his incredible cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright Star) focus not on the abomination, but on the way the liquid's surface refracts light and coalesces in bubbles and whorls.
Can I express to you the cloying sense of rot that Villeneuve has mastered here? The Tennysonian acedia packed into every inch of Dune? Or how the explosions of the Harkonnen attack bloom like mushrooms--the study of which formed Herbert's basis for the mysterious, mycological origins of the Spice--and how this sequence simultaneously evokes, of all things, the hypnotic, infernal opening of Apocalypse Now? Let me tell you about a moment where the Mentat Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a man engineered to be a calculating machine, does a quick computation and his eyes fold over white. (Such a little thing; such a big thing.) Or the look on the face of Dr. Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster)--the Judge of the Change, who's responsible for the smooth transition between conservatorships for Arrakis--when she manages to summon a god with just the pounding of her fist. Dune is a film so immense it isn't containable by the frame of the screen. There's an entire universe here where these human parasites work out their pathetic, ugly, petty concerns. The universe doesn't care. The miracle of our otherwise meaningless existence is when, through your agency, you somehow get the worm to notice you. And then it's over and you're gone, a pebble in a well of limitless time. That's what Dune is about. Fuck, it's good. PROGRAMME: SPECIAL EVENTS