CALLERI: Frank Herbert’s popular novel ‘Dune’ gets new film treatment

Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Timothee Chalamet.

For years, reading and re-reading a dog-eared paperback copy of “Dune” was a badge of honor for many members of the Hippie generation, especially those prescient men and women utterly dedicated to the environment, boldly unafraid to warn about the dangers of technology, and uncompromisingly curious about the magical properties of certain kinds of mushrooms.

These were writer Frank Herbert’s people, and they were followers of him and his 1965 novel “Dune” in a devoted manner that few books have enjoyed. Traditional readers of science fiction – some call “Dune” science fantasy – were also high in their praise of the author’s masterwork.

Not even the lackluster 1984 film version written and directed by David Lynch could dissuade them of the importance of “Dune” as one of the greatest science fiction novels ever published; perhaps the greatest for some fans. It’s a plodding movie; a bit of an intellectual mess, but not a complete waste of time.

Other filmmakers, including Ridley Scott, had considered doing their own version of Herbert’s book. The director closest to having something concrete to present to financiers was Alejandro Jodorowsky; he being the visionary artist behind the films “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain.”

His project eventually fell apart, one of the reasons being his belief that the only way to make “Dune” properly was as a theatrical presentation that ran at least ten hours and perhaps even fourteen. If you haven’t seen it, the 2013 feature documentary about the fascinating process, titled “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” is a delight.

In 2000, a three-part cable television miniseries of the novel, called “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” aired on what was then known as the Sci-Fi Channel. It was later released on DVD.

Now we have French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune,” which he co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. Villeneuve made the decision to shoot only half of the novel, subtitled Part One, with the hope that if the 156-minute movie was a box office success, Warner Bros. would allow him to film the second half of the book. “Dune” has succeeded in attracting ticket buyers as well as viewers on HBO Max, and Part Two has been approved. It will be released on Oct. 20, 2023 in theaters only.

Villeneuve’s “Dune” literally ends with no resolution. For some moviegoers, this will be a deal breaker. Why watch a film that has no ending? I’ll compare it to the popular futuristic “Flash Gordon” serial that played in theaters in 1936. Come back next week to see what happens to Flash and his outer space-traveling friends. People always returned. Regarding “Dune,” you have two years to wait.

On its surface, the primary story being told in “Dune” is relatively clear-cut. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of House Atreides, the family ruling the oceanic planet Caladan, is assigned by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV to replace House Harkonnen as fief rulers of a brutally harsh desert planet called Arrakis.

Arrakis is the only source of something known as “spice” (or melange) which is a priceless substance that enhances human vitality and is essential for interstellar travel. It’s a remarkably powerful element.

However, Shaddam’s intent is to have House Harkonnen stage a coup to retake the planet with aid of the Emperor’s troops who are part of a organization that makes decisions and advances armies when necessary. The influence of House Atreides threatens Shaddam's control. Duke Leto has decisions to make, and he sees benefit in allying with the native Arrakis population, the Fremen.

Does Part One work on the screen? Yes and no. Villeneuve tells the story deliberately, with a reliance on dialogue that occasionally borders on pontification. Characters talk as if they speaking for posterity. Voice tones are stentorian. It’s Shakespearean without Shakespeare’s flair for language. Speeches drift into being ponderous. For me, it became a matter of “move it along, folks.”

The cast, which includes Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Charlotte Rampling, and Stellan Skarsgard is good, but they’re trapped in a deliberate way of talking that becomes arch.

Where “Dune” succeeds is in its visuals. Arrakis is bleak, so why not emphasize its bleakness? The planet is covered in sand dunes. Sand blows everywhere. Visibility is filtered through a brown haze. Arrakis looks like what it should. The dark gray space ships resemble large concrete blocks. It’s definitely a form of interstellar travel different from the gleaming objects we’re used to seeing in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Trek,” or “Star Wars.” I congratulate Villeneuve for daring to create a stylistic interpretation devoid of vibrant colors. The film’s superb ambient sound is robustly effective.

Much of “Dune” revolves around Paul (Timothee Chalamet), who is a young prince of House Atreides and is Herbert’s Messiah figure. Paul’s romance with Chani (actress-singer-dancer Zendaya), a Freman, lacks the necessary emotion that energizes the moviegoing experience.

I was wowed by the Bene Gesseret, who are females that can control people with their voice. Give them their own movie. I was also grateful that Jason Momoa brought some life to the screen as Atreides’ swordmaster, Duncan Idaho. Momoa is energetic while everyone else seems overwhelmed by the alleged importance of the project.

As for the epic psychology and philosophy that helped fuel the passion for the book, well, those are difficult elements to film. And they were for Villeneuve and his screenwriters. The novel is less about technology and more about protecting the environment.

The heart of this “Dune” is art direction and sound production. It looks terrific, but it feels a bit empty, as if Herbert’s bold and invigorating ideas are still, like the movie’s sandworms, lurking in the shadows.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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