The 1965 Novel Returns to the Big Screen
By Carlos Santana ‘22
Dramatic explosions, sarcastic quips, and fast-paced action have become the bread-and-butter of the modern action blockbuster. Many would attribute this to the influence of Marvel Studios and franchise juggernauts such as the Fast and Furious series, while others point fingers at ballooning production budgets and demand for overseas appeal.
Denis Villeneuve’s newest movie, however, is a remarkable exception to the conventions of the modern action film. Dune is a slow, methodical, and intelligent film that, in many respects, invokes an older sense of performance that is more typical of theatrical drama than of the mass media’s tongue-in-cheek thrillers.
In many respects Dune is an old story, told new. Based on the 1965 book of the same name, Dune adapts the first act of the 412-page novel into movie form. Set in the far future, the politics of Dune have regressed into a feudalistic regime and power is maintained by military dominion. The interstellar imperium of man is ruled by a hereditary lineage; the courts and affairs of the imperium, meanwhile, remain under the control of an assembly of the Great Houses, or the noble families that lord over entire star systems.
In this futuristic world, there exists one planet more important than all of the others: Arrakis. Also known as “Dune,” Arrakis is the most valuable planet in known space for one pivotal reason: it is the only world where the miraculous spice known as melange can be found. Without this superdrug, faster-than-light interstellar travel would be nigh-impossible. Similar to countries that produce oil, any faction that commands the spice’s manufacture and price holds the keys to unimaginable wealth and power.
But spice is also a dangerous substance to acquire. The Fremen people have thrived in the inhospitable environment of the planet Arrakis for generations before the spice had even been discovered. They are a fierce kind and oppose mining intrusions in their lands. Capable of beating the greatest fighters in the imperium, they are a thorn in the side to anyone who would otherwise claim sovereignty over the harsh desert wastes that cover the planet in its entirety.
The threat posed by the Fremen, however, is nothing compared to that which dwells below the planet’s dunes: the sandworms. These titanic creatures grow to more than a thousand feet in length and come to the surface to consume any people or craft unable to flee quickly enough.
The difficult wildlife and cruel environment has made the once-profitable planet a liability, passed from one noble house to another.
Dune’s plot is set in motion when the previous masters of the world, the members of the deceitful and sinister House Harkonnen, are relieved of their fiefdom by the Emperor and the world is transferred to the honorable House Atreides.
The technology of Dune, meanwhile, seems to contradict itself. In the 10th Millennium, soldiers fight with swords and shields made of energy. There are no computers or robots in this imperium—only humans trained to work as calculators for accounting and logistics. As the Dune book series describes, this is due to a restriction on the development of artificial intelligences.
Their flying vehicles, called ornithopters, resemble dragonflies due to their oscillating wings and bug-shaped cockpits. It is fairly standard for science fiction works to size space-viable craft similarly to that of airplanes but, in the imperium, the crafts in Dune are silent mountains. Despite their sheer size, they glide gracefully from the high atmosphere to land elegantly on large platforms. Crowds of soldiers and devoted followers surround the vehicles, providing a benchmark that allows viewers to appreciate the scale of the craft.
As a whole, the scale of Dune is breathtaking. The great sandworms are as colossal as the universe’s ships and cityscapes. The magnitudes of the creatures are captured through sound design and magnificent digital effects. It is a film that demands to be played on the largest screen and strongest speakers you can find, and the sound and scenery of the movie dance together in a complementary waltz. The acting is emotionally earnest yet contained, and each member of the main cast is portrayed with the weight and gravitas expected of their rank and responsibilities.
Dune is not a film that could be replicated and mass-produced. It is not a churned-out product, but rather the result of a talented director, production crew, and a cast willing to give their all. It is not a conventional film (the style itself is alien to most), and it represents a great investment of time.
But to those willing to try something unique, they will be rewarded with a wholly successful adaptation of one of science fiction’s most revered works.