• Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

As with my review of the first entry, I will not hold back with spoilers. The book is six decades old, it’s been widely and rightfully lauded as one of the all-time great science fiction novels, and it’s already been adapted twice. If you don’t already know the story and/or if you haven’t read the book, tough shit. If you want to know how the film would look from a newcomer’s perspective, I can’t help you. I can only say with all due respect that there is truly no substitute for the source material, so read the damn book already.

All that aside, let’s continue.

Right up front, Dune: Part Two adapts a huge stretch of the original book that unfolds over multiple years and several time jumps. And the film compresses all those years into months. Not surprisingly, this means a lot was skipped over in the process of adaptation.

For starters, this means that Leto II was never born, but it’s not likely we were ever getting the main character’s infant son murdered in this picture anyway. More notably, this means that Alia Atreides isn’t actually born, though Anya Taylor-Joy obligingly stops by to play her in a prescient vision and a few brief voice-overs. This also sadly means that most of Alia’s more iconic contributions to the plot are skipped over or delegated to other characters.

Far more disturbing, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) actively converses with her unborn daughter, even speaking and asking questions on Alia’s behalf. As if that’s not creepy enough, remember that we’re talking about Alia Atreides here, influencing the Lady Jessica. Fucking YIKES.

What’s potentially even worse, the process of becoming the new Reverend Mother, coupled with her ongoing conversations with her psychotic unborn daughter, have apparently unhinged Jessica to the point where she’s actively pushing Paul (Timothee Chalamet) to become the Kwisatz Haderach. As opposed to Chani (Zendaya), who’s doing her best to keep Paul grounded and reject any fanatical religious mobthink. And she in turn is opposed by Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who’s a hundred percent all-in on Paul as the prophet of legend.

It’s interesting to note that in the source text, Stilgar is Chani’s uncle. In the movie, Chani all but explicitly comes right out and says that the two are not in any way related, and Stilgar’s backwards-thinking Southern religious fanaticism couldn’t be further removed from her Northern pragmatism. This is how far they’ve deviated from the source text with regards to these characters.

And what about our antagonists? Well, Stellan Skarsgaard and Dave Bautista stay on course as the Baron Harkonnen and Beast Rabban, alongside Austin Butler chewing scenery as a psychotic Feyd-Rautha. Charlotte Rampling returns as the insufferably arrogant Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, assisted by a sadly underutilized Lea Seydoux in the role of Lady Margot Fenring. And of course we have Christopher Walken, who is also regrettably underutilized, but it’s not like Emperor Shaddam IV had much of anything to do in the book anyway. Florence Pugh gets more use as the Princess Irulan, nicely serving as a plot device to convey the political maneuverings behind the scenes.

(Side note: I had to look it up and confirm that Lady Margot Fenring’s daughter was only glint in her mother’s eye at the time of the original novel, and Marie Fenring doesn’t actually appear in any of the original books. Rather, Marie Fenring appears in “Paul of Dune”, one of many supplemental novels co-written by Brian Herbert on the basis of his late father’s notes. This is the extent to which the filmmakers are future-proofing the film against any possible sequels.)

The point being that “Dune” is typically perceived as a straightforward tale of “good versus evil”, but Villeneuve always knew better. This is a tale of politics and war, neither one of which allows much room for “good guys” or “bad guys”. Sure, the Harkonnen are unambiguously and irredeemably evil, and the Emperor certainly deserves comeuppance for betraying the Atreides like that. Even so, they’re not the real antagonists here. Not in this picture.

As portrayed in this movie, this is a conflict between free will and destiny. Paul doesn’t want a holy war in his name. He doesn’t want the destiny that the Bene Gesserit have set him up for. But given everything that’s going on, everything that’s happened, and everything that still has to be done, Paul may not have a choice in the matter. If he wants to defeat the Harkonnen, avenge his family, and free Arrakis, he needs the Fremen united and on his side. And that might not be a task for anyone less than the Mahdi to accomplish.

At all times, Villeneuve frames the ascendant Paul as a force of nature too powerful to be contained. Yes, the Harkonnen are destroyed and the corrupt Emperor is fallen, but at what cost? Could it be that in creating their own worst enemy, they created a power far more deadly and terrible than they ever were? It’s at once awesome and genuinely frightening how Chalamet and the filmmakers sell Paul Muad’Dib as a charismatic leader who could just as easily destroy the Fremen as save them. They sell the Kwisatz Haderach as a power so much greater and more irresistible than Paul’s humanity.

Even better, while the filmmakers kept the bit about how Jessica and Paul are direct descendants of the Baron Harkonnen himself, they went even further with it. On the one hand, Paul’s native-born status as the Duke of Atreides opens doors and gives access to resources that no Fremen would’ve had access to. On the other hand, that same native-born status gets in the way of his status as a Fremen immigrant trying to gain credibility and favor among the native desert-dwellers. But then comes this third aspect: Paul carries the bloodline of a family known for its heartless ambition and merciless cunning. And Paul has to consider that he can never defeat the Harkonnen until he becomes his own sworn enemy and embraces the Harkonnen side of himself.

All of this helps to counter the “White Savior” trope, as there’s a distinct possibility that Paul might not be the good guy here after all. I appreciate leaning into “Dune” as a parable about what power really means, how it can be abused, and how empires rise and fall over time, all valuable themes in the book. The film puts a great deal of effort into showing how Paul feels utterly powerless to resist his grim destiny even and especially as he gains more power among the Fremen, and it’s a great development arc to watch. But there are serious problems here.

To start with, Jessica is the main driving force compelling Paul to become the Kwisatz Haderach, while Chani is the skeptic who rejects religion and blind faith as a means of controlling the frightened masses. If it had been the other way around — with Chani encouraging her lover to become the leader Arrakis wants while Jessica gets increasingly frightened of what her son is transforming into — it would’ve made a lot more sense and it would’ve been more in keeping with their portrayals in the book. As it is in the film, it doesn’t track with how these characters were depicted in the prior movie, and sends the characters off into wildly different directions that could have dire ripple effects in any forthcoming sequels.

Another prominent factor is that the Chalamet/Zendaya chemistry isn’t anywhere near strong enough. They have an easygoing kind of sibling chemistry, sure, but it’s not strong enough to sell them as romantic or sexual partners. Granted, it doesn’t help that Paul Muad’Dib and Chani couldn’t get married for the sake of the plot. But when they never have a child together like they did in the book, when Paul keeps whipsawing back and forth in how badly he wants and needs to claim his religious mantle, and when Chani gradually loses any kind of influence she may have had over Paul, it’s all too much for these actors to sustain a plausible romantic connection.

What about the action? Honestly, I could’ve used more. Yes, Paul’s big inaugural sandworm ride is a showstopper. Yes, Feyd-Rautha gets a marvelous stadium fight, aided by infrared photography that helps to make him look creepy as fuck. But then we get the big climactic siege of Arrakeen, which was so awesome and so pivotal to the entire collective six-hour runtime that it really should’ve gone longer. And then came the Paul/Feyd-Rautha duel, which ended with a terrible letdown. That whole fight scene was so deliciously brutal, the final killing blow deserved so much more gusto. And it’s not like that first hour wasn’t padded to the gills with beats that could’ve been cut to make more room.

Overall, I’d say that the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries was closer to the letter of the book, while both Villeneuve films were closer to the spirit of the book. I certainly can’t fault Dune: Part Two for lack of talent or effort, and there’s no doubt that Villeneuve is deeply passionate about the source material. I commend his courage in taking on such an incomprehensibly epic source material and making it his own while attempting to honor and illuminate the original text. Most especially, adapting the source material while daring to portray its protagonist in a less sympathetic perspective — even with the author’s original intent in doing so — takes serious guts.

With all of that said, I think this duology was our last best shot at a live-action adaptation worthy of the source material, and it still came up short. There will never be a film or a TV miniseries adaptation that really does justice to the book. There is simply no substitute for reading the convoluted politics and harrowing adventures and psychedelic spiritual awakenings in the original text. In particular, I really am sorry to say that the second part dropped the ball hard with regards to Jessica’s development arc and the Paul/Chani relationship.

By all means, go see the movie on the big screen (though fair warning, the extreme close-ups might be a bit much on IMAX). It’s a movie with an impressively epic scale and a lot of fun action scenes. But don’t let it distract you from reading the book. I can’t possibly stress enough that the book is the best possible version of this story, fucking read it already.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

Leave a Reply