With the re-emergence of Dune into the public discourse, my friend had the distinct pleasure of- right before quarantine locked us all down- bringing the original Dune to my house and having me watch it. I had read the book and I am following the anticipation of the next film, but I had never seen, or had the desire to see, the original. His father, however, is a Dune true believer (so hardcore he has no room for the new film in his Dune-loving heart) so he had seen the film and wanted to see my reaction to it.
So here is my reaction as best as I can manage. And the best way I can both capture my feelings on the film and react to it at the same time, is through a series of distinct questions.
Why is everyone damp?
Everyone. There is a general moistness in the film that is a bit mind-boggling when considering they are, for a large portion of the movie, on the arid planet of Arrakis, where the whole ideology of the indigenous life is that water (perspiration included) is precious. This was infinitely harder to believe with the sheer amount of it coming off of all parties involved. And what’s more unsettling is that I am not even sure what the moisture was- sweat, spit, water, or, god forbid, some other bodily fluid. This is an important starting point in any discussion about Dune, and one I have seen people broach before. Here’s to hoping that Villeneuve’s vision does not include unnecessary moistness.
Why is everyone throwing fastballs?
There is a lot of reasons people have dialogue in films- develop a character, provide background, develop the plot to name a few. And because of the plethora of reasons that any given character could be speaking, not all dialogue is important. Except for in Dune. Based on the performances in Dune, ALL lines are important. They are all serious and consequential and significant to the arc of the character and every word should be listened to with discernment and anticipation. Every character is trying to be the scene stealer in every shot. Its one 95 mile an hour fastball after another for 2 hours and 17 minutes (unless you like the director’s cut, in which case it is 95 mile an hour fastballs down the middle for 2 hours and 57 minutes). Take a breath Dune. I’m exhausted and I’m not the one riding a giant sand worm.
What’s with those costumes?
I got some strong medieval vibes to start, but this isn’t a high fantasy story, it’s much more in the science fiction genre, so the ballroom gowns and tunics threw me for a loop. And boy was I not ready for the flying fat suit. Harkonnen was like if Augustus Gloop and Violet from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had a kid after Violet had turned into a blueberry (assuming the Oompa Loompas were unable to turn her back into a normal human, no disrespect to Oompa Loompas who seem incredibly efficient at a very messed up job), and then someone poked that child with a pin and let it fly around the room like someone let go of a balloon.
At other times there were strong steam punk, or S & M, vibes to the apparel. I don’t have a reference point. I am just throwing out my best guess. Regardless, it felt like a high school theater troupe made do as best they could with what they had in the moldy closet under the stairs. Not the product of a 45-million-dollar budget.
Speaking of S & M…
Is that a vagina?
When the steam punk band rolled in the Guild Navigator in the opening scene, I wasn’t quite sure what was happening (and I had read the books- I have no idea what people who hadn’t read the books were going through). And then the steam punk/S & M guys revealed what was inside the giant Spice container, and I thought it was a vagina. It wasn’t, but there were some close-ups that validated my misunderstanding.
There was also a scene where a witch asked Paul to put his hand in her box, which worried me for a second. But then she brought out a literal box, and I felt better. But then she seemed to derive immense pleasure when Paul put his hand in her box, and I got worried again.
Is that a penis?
Lots of phallic symbolism in the film. The thing that tried to assassinate Paul when he was in his bedroom was, I am pretty sure, a flying penis. The training system that descended from the ceiling into the room was a fighting penis. The sand worms were giant angry penises. Once I saw one I couldn’t stop. I would’ve been loath to point it out if I hadn’t also seen all the vaginas.
How are people who didn’t follow the book supposed to keep up with this?
I had to ask some questions during the film, and I remembered the general premise, main conflicts, and characters from when I read it. I can’t imagine what it was like to go into it cold, hoping that the movie did what movies generally do- tell the story. If it is any indication how a non-book reader felt while watching, the opening line of the New York Times review of the movie started with, “Several of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie.” Ouch…
Which leads me to…
Why do they keep narrating their thoughts?
I am conflicted by this. Not whether or not it was bad (it was bad) but as to why it is bad. At first I thought it was bad because they seemed to be narrating stuff that was obvious, things that in the course of normal films are communicated through a facial expression or the tone of one’s voice. But at the same time, I was wondering how people could possibly follow the story, and the narration was added as a way to guide the viewer through the movie. So I don’t know what to think. It seems to me that at the point where the producers feel the need to have the characters talk the viewer through what was happening after it happened, you need to call it a wash, and just go for ‘inaccessible’ and ‘misunderstood.’
How’d they get Sir Patrick Stewart for this film?
Sir Patrick Stewart played the minstrel-warrior Gurney Halleck. A minor role in a bad film. I don’t know how they swung it.
Is that Sting?
Yeah. It was Sting. With maybe the best performance in the film?
Is that Toto?
The soundtrack is provided by Toto. Not horrible, but at times out of place.
No. In a movie that took place on a dry arid planet of mostly sand, we didn’t get the most iconic song from the band that was providing the soundtrack.
By midway through the movie…
How much more of this?
Part of the reason I asked this question was because I didn’t like the movie, but not all of it. Some of it was because I knew how much more of the story needed to transpire, and about halfway through the film, we had about three-quarters of the story to go. Not an enviable position to be in. Little did I know, the story hits overdrive at about the midway point, and covers massive amounts of story through narration and montages. Well, they didn’t really cover it, but it was assumed to have happened and understood by those watching.
In the perfect example of bad pacing, the entire story is told- Paul conquered Harkonnen and retook Arrakis as Muad Dib- and in the final scene where all the people gather together (awkwardly because all the blocking in this film is like a bad high school play) Sting steps forward and engages Paul in a fight to the death! It was bizarre watching them fight with knives under the assumption that any viewer would, at this point, have a vested interest in this fight or its outcome. In a movie full of odd choices, this may be the oddest.
Do people really like this movie?
Yes they do. And I love that they do, because that is the very best part of film. I didn’t love it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t connect with it at any level at all. But I didn’t need to because Dune found its niche. Its guys like my friend’s dad who watch it and have affection for its strangeness which has now become iconic. Dune is a terrific story, one that is going to be revisited soon, and I can’t wait. But others can because the story was already told to perfection in 1984. Long live storytelling.
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