Dune: Part One


Paul Atreides’ catwalk is in the desert.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine, Souad Faress, Golda Rosheuvel. Directed by Denis Villaneuve

 

Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic novel Dune has very much informed the landscape of science fiction; its themes crop up in the Star Wars saga as well as in literally dozens of movies thereafter, including Tremors and even Game of Thrones. The novel was largely considered unfilmable, although visionary Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowski attempted it until the production fell apart of its own weight, and David Lynch finally succeeded in getting a version filmed in 1984 which he has since disowned; the studio cut it to shreds, making the film nearly incomprehensible, even to people familiar with the book. A 2001 SyFy miniseries fared somewhat better, but many feel it still didn’t capture the essence of the novel.

Acclaimed director Denis Villaneuve is the latest to attempt a shot at Dune. He takes the familiar story, but in a perhaps wise move, elected to divide the novel into two parts. Part two wasn’t greenlit at the time of the movie’s release, although it has since, so there was no guarantee that the sequel would ever be filmed, which was taking a huge risk, but it eventually paid off.

Young Paul Atreides (Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (Isaac) and the duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Ferguson) has been having dreams of a blue-eyed warrior woman on a desert planet. Paul is aware his father, head of the House Atreides, has been ordered by the Emperor to take over spice production on Arrakis, a world known more colloquially as Dune. It is a lucrative offer; the main rival of House Atreides, House Harkonen, has held onto Arrakis for more than 80 years and has amassed an immense fortune. Spice, you see, is the drug that prolongs life and allows space navigators to fold space, which makes interstellar travel and commerce possible. The drug is found only on Arrakis.

But Duke Leto smells a trap and he’s right. Baron Vladimir Harkonen (Skarsgård), a devious corpulent man with an anti-gravity belt, means to put paid to his enemies the Atreides with the aid of the Emperor’s own troops. Arrakis is therefore a trap, and Harkonen has an ace up his sleeve.

That’s just a VERY rough outline of the plot, which is much more intricate and confounding than I make it out to be. Most of the really interesting performances are coming from characters with more or less minor roles with the exception of Rebecca Ferguson, who is absolutely superb as the regal Lady Jessica, who schemes to deliver to the Bene Gesserit order of space witches the Galactic savior the order has long prophesized about, but that also exists as a legendary deliverer on Arrakis.

Describing the movie would really take up more time and space than you’d probably be willing to peruse; suffice to say that the scale of this movie rivals essentially anything you’ve ever seen in a cinema before. The sets are massive and absolutely gorgeous and each planet, like the stormy ocean world of Caladan where House Atreides is based to Geidi Prime, the iron caverns where House Harkonen schemes and Arrakis itself, have distinct personalities in architecture yet each retains its own individual grandeur. It is an absolutely gorgeous film to look at, made even more impressive by a large-format movie screen (or even a regular movie screen). The sandworms are spectacular, so let’s get that straight; so too are the spacecraft which Villaneuve uses comparative scaling; in space they are tiny but on the planet surface they are enormous, the size of a small city. The scale of this movie is unbelievable.

The trouble with epic movies is that often something has to get lost, and here there are so many wonderful characters and actors, many of which are onscreen for only a scene or two, that they get lost in the shuffle. Jason Momoa, as sword master Duncan Idaho, brings a larger-than-life presence to the part which barely was featured at all in the 1984 version. Charlotte Rampling has little screen time as the imperious Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam but is impressive in it for the brief time she’s around. There are a number of other actors who have moments that resonate but are quickly dispatched or fall out of the story.

The story revolves around Paul Atreides and indie film darling Chalamet does a fairly decent job in the role, although I found him a bit too doe-eyed and pretty for the part of a young man who was also supposed to be an outstanding warrior; his fight scenes are particularly unconvincing. It is one of the movie’s biggest drawbacks (but not it’s biggest one; see below).

Truth be told, I always had a soft spot for the 1984 version, even though I recognize that it was flawed. It wasn’t the movie that Lynch wanted to make, which was a blessing and a curse; the movie he wanted to make may well have ended up bloated beyond all recognition. Fans have been clamoring for a director’s edition of that Dune for decades but it will never happen; Lynch isn’t interested in revisiting it, and even if he was, I doubt that Universal would even allow it, given that Warner Brothers holds the rights to the property now. The legal ramifications would make even Frank Herbert’s head spin.

In any case, if spectacle is what you’re after, this movie has it in spaces. It is slow-moving in places and the plot can be pretty convoluted which is really going to put some people off, but it is a lot more easily understood than it’s 1984 predecessor. Is this going to be the definitive version of Dune? Probably. At least I’m looking forward to Part 2 when it is released in October 2023. After that there is a whole series of novels based on the Dune universe written both by Herbert and his son, after the author passed away. Potentially, this can be a franchise filling the coffers of Warner Brothers for decades to come. Let us hope so.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the most epic movies (in scope) of the past decade. Terrific work by Momoa and Ferguson.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving during the first half and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it graphic), disturbing images and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first trailer for the film used composer Hans Zimmer’s orchestral version of the Pink Floyd song “Eclipse.” This was a nod to the aborted Jodorowski version in which the Mexican director had planned to have Pink Floyd score his movie.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through November 21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Silent Hours

Jodorowsky’s Dune


Space...the way-out frontier...

Space…the way-out frontier…

(2013) Documentary (Sony Classics) Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, Michel Seydoux, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, Drew McWeeny, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Christian Vander, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Amanda Lear, Dan O’Bannon (archival audio). Directed by Frank Pavich

Getting a film made in Hollywood is a treacherous, heartbreaking process. For every movie that makes it to your multiplex, dozens more fall by the wayside, victims of escalating budgets, script issues or studio indifference – or any of a thousand different reasons. Some movies that might have been great just never get beyond the dreams of a filmmaker.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker, became famous in the early 70s for El Topo and Holy Mountain, a pair of surrealist epics that essentially created the midnight movie market. Both were successes in the United States which, given the modern more pedestrian tastes in movies, seems almost impossible. We did a lot of drugs back then though.

His success was such that French producer Michel Seydoux gave him carte blanche to do whatever project he wished and when asked what he wanted to do, he famously blurted out Dune even though he’d never read the Frank Herbert classic science fiction novel. One of the biggest-selling sci-fi novels of all time, Dune was everything that would seem to guarantee box office success; a rabid following, epic scope, sex, violence, monsters and intelligence. Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t guarantee box office success quite so much.

Jodorowsky set out to assemble a crew of geniuses both in front of the camera and behind it. To set his landscapes and draw up the overall look of the film, he enlisted Jean Giraud, better known as Mobius of the underground science fiction comic magazine Heavy Metal. To design his creatures, he called upon then relatively unknown Swiss artist H.R. Giger who would go on to design the title creatures in Alien. The spaceships would be designed by well-known book cover painter Chris Foss. One of his designs graces this review, above.

For the script he picked up Dan O’Bannon, who at the time had finished Dark Star and would later be known for writing Alien among others. He also added Douglas Turnbull for special effects. Jodorowsky wanted a frame by frame storyboard which he collected in a huge book which eventually became legendary throughout Hollywood.

Jodorowsky was no less eclectic for his choices in front of the screen. For the pivotal role of Duke Leto, he cast David Carradine, then at the height of his fame for Kung Fu. The Machiavellian emperor Shaddam IV would be played by painter Salvador Dali, who wanted to be the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for the privilege, demanding the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 an hour. That was a lot more than the budget that Seydoux had envisioned could tolerate, but he figured out a way around it by asking Jodorowsky how much onscreen time the emperor would get. When Jodorowsky told him three minutes, Seydoux went back to Dali and said “we’ll pay you $100,000 for every minute of time your character is onscreen!” which satisfied Dali.

He also enlisted the great Orson Welles as the corpulent villain Baron Harkonen, promising him that they would secure the services of his favorite French chef to be his personal chef during the shoot. He got Mick Jagger to take the part of Feyd Ruatha after running into him at a party. He cast his son Brontis as Paul Atreides, the Messianic hero of the tale put him through extensive martial arts and sword training – six hours a day for two years. That his son still talks to Jodorowsky today is something of a minor miracle.

The movie was at last ready to shoot. When it came time to get a studio to finance and distribute the movie however, every single one balked. They were concerned with the psychedelic nature of the movie and worried that it wouldn’t recoup its high for its time budget ($15 million). The movie wasn’t just stillborn, it died in the womb.

At 84, Jodorowsky remains lively, engaging and intelligent. He still speaks passionately about the project even though it must have disappointed him terribly that it was never made. Watching him speak about the project and about the events surrounding it is worth the price of admission alone but on top of that we get to see the amazing production art that was created for the film by Mobius, Foss and Giger. Some of the images would go on to influence other films in the genre from Alien to The Terminator to Blade Runner to Prometheus to the David Lynch version of Dune that followed (and that Jodorowsky proclaimed to be “terrible,” with some relief).

If the documentary has some drawbacks, there are at least two. First, the electronic score by Kurt Stenzel is annoying. Yes it sounds like the electronic film music of the 70s and is somewhat appropriate given the subject matter but I found it overly loud and unpleasant, which also signifies that I’m turning into my dad.

Secondly, there is a tendency for artists to be a little bit egotistical which is understandable given the nature of what they do but when you throw in condescending into the mix it becomes like nails on a chalkboard to me. It is art with a capital A to some people and they speak of art as essentially license to do and say as they please because, well, it’s Art. I get that this might well have been an amazing film had it been made but it might just as well have been virtually unwatchable. One of the talking heads (I think it was Faraci, an internet movie critic) mused that the movie business might have been changed forever had Jodorowsky’s version of Dune been made before Star Wars, believing that movie blockbusters would have wound up being more intelligent and more adult in general than they became because of the impact of George Lucas.

It is a bit arrogant to presume anything. It’s possible that this version of Dune could have become as influential and as game-changing as Star Wars  became but let’s be frank here: it’s likely that Star Wars would have been made anyway and even more likely that it would have been as big a hit. The era of the ’70s was already on its way out by the time “A long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away” first crawled across movie screens. The temperature of the nation was changing too. One movie wasn’t going to make a difference in that regard. The movies don’t change America; the movies reflect America. Anyone who believes differently is delusional.

These gripes aside, this is a fascinating look at a movie that never got made. It doesn’t really give us any sort of insight into the film business – this was being made far outside of Hollywood both literally and figuratively. It does give us insight into a madman slash dreamer who had the audacity and the will to chase his vision even though it never made it into the kind of fruition he wanted it to be. Some things are not meant to be but that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue them as far as we can take them. You never know what unexpected tangents may come of the pursuit and that is always worthwhile to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Jodorowsky is a fascinating interview. Production art is stunning. Definitely has some “what if” moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally gets a bit condescending to its audience.  Annoying soundtrack.

FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of swearing, some drug references and some violent and/or sexual images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming the movie, Seydoux and Jodorowsky reunited and decided to make another movie together. That film, La Danza de la Realidad, was Jodorowsky’s first in 23 years and made its debut at Cannes in the same year as this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 21