Reviews of Dune (1965) and related work

Dune (1965Text)

Frank Herbert (writer).

The noble House Atreides is about to take over harvesting operations on the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. The previous contractors betray them, trapping and destroying them with the aid of the Emperor of the known universe. An Atreides boy survives on the desert planet, the only source of a drug critical to the present state of post-AI galactic civilization.

A mysticist ecological planetary romance. A Gothic acid trip written as if it followed a lecture on Marco Polo, the spice trade, the silk worm and the Takla Makan.

Dune is dirtier than and superior in all respects to The City and the Stars (1956). At the same time, it cleans up some of the ideas in the work of Cordwainer Smith, including superficial stuff like the ornithopters in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964) and deeper stuff like the life-extending single-source drug in “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” (1961), connected in Herbert’s rendition to psychic space navigation à la “The Burning of the Brain” (1958).

For all its improvements upon earlier SF, the first novel in the series is not fully formed. It doesn’t have the stereotypes of Herbert’s earlier space opera (e.g. “Operation Haystack”), but despite its New Wave richness, its vision is not yet thick. It is notoriously difficult to visualize the setting because, like Cordwainer Smith, Herbert keeps it suggestive, unfortunately through vagueness.

References here: Star Wars (1977), The Incal (1980), Armored Trooper Votoms (1983), Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985), “Coming of Age” (1988), “Loud as a Whisper” (1989), The Metabarons (1992), “Rightful Heir” (1993), “Earth’s Environment as Metaphor” (1994), “Photon: The Idiot Adventures” (1997), Now and Then, Here and There (1999), Hellsing (2001).

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Dune Messiah (1969Text)

Frank Herbert (writer).

Read in 2020.

Pilgrims bring water to Arrakis on the Hajj.

Whereas the original novel charted Paul’s ascent along the hero’s journey, this is, at its heart, something more interesting, more central and much more rare: The hero past the apex, straining at hard limits, no longer able to progress. Indeed, this book was in part written before Dune, which is backstory and exposition. Like Odin in Norse mythology, Paul Muad'Dib reigns supreme by his wisdom even after he is blinded, but the powers of a hero do not suffice to protect his position in the long term, do not guarantee its use for good, and do not vanquish his enemies in the long run. Herbert pretty much pulls it off; there are only a few moments where supposedly superhuman schemers come off as banal and the whole thing reads a little too much like an allegory of Muhammad’s conquest of Arabia.

References here: The Incal (1980), Children of Dune (2003).

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Children of Dune (1976Text)

Frank Herbert (writer).

Read in 2021.

By this point, the series has become something old and familiar, with few surprises. It’s fun, but a mixed bag of ideas. Among the good is Leto’s invasive metamorphosis, wherein he transcends the other factions’ schemes, which are all based on human limitations. This would, in itself, have been a suitable conclusion. Sadly, it wasn’t the conclusion. Herbert went on to write three more novels.

Duncan Idaho’s mentat computation outlines the premises of the now-established and continuing franchise, including the deliberate choice of feudalism as the best social structure for settling new worlds without cheap faster-than-light communications. Spurious, but good enough. The ecology advances apace. It’s still an impressive showcase of worldbuilding, including even the mysticism, with Leto’s description of the individual as an “autonomous sphere of mass experience” and the Bene Gesserit’s steely union of rational modernism (“all proofs inevitably lead to propositions that have no proofs”) and Tinkerbell fascism (therefore believe what you want to believe, with tests of will).

Alas, familiarity breeds contempt. You may be familiar with that phrase; you may even resent it. Herbert effectively decided to transition from the hero’s journey of Paul Atreides, which ends here, to a larger dynastic drama of good and evil: More betrayals, the threat of incest etc. Thus everybody is still around: Not only Duncan, but also Gurney Halleck, Jessica and Irulan. Stilgar is the best character in this novel, so I’m glad Herbert kept him, but I believe focusing so much on familiar characters was a mistake in general.

Even Duke Leto Atreides I and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen are still kicking, which is a terrible abuse of Alia’s superpower. That power is too central to this novel, where it is extended to more children. Herbert does manage to tie it all into the original novel’s model of prescience, but it is fundamentally introverted as a fantasy, and makes no physical sense. Accordingly, the case of possession is not one of the good uses of mysticism.

The laser (laza) tigers are among the bad ideas, more reminiscent of A Princess of Mars (1912/1917) than the mature space opera around them. The increasingly overt real-world correspondences are also dull, such as the Tanezrouft (real, part of the Sahara) and the Tanzerouft (fictional, part of Dune). Agamemnon as an ancestor of the Atreides, versus the explicit use of the Takbir, makes a flattened historical allegory. This is not a good direction for the worldbuilding, but Herbert does go the distance this time around.

References here: Dune (2021).

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Dune (1977Moving picture) – previously

Nobody has seen this.

Unlike in the novel, Leto is castrated and Paul is born from a drop of blod. This is also the version where Paul is killed but lives on in the galaxy’s collective consciousness.

Alejandro “Jodo” Jodorowsky’s version, with music by Pink Floyd and Magma (the latter working on the Harkonnens), visual concepts by Jean “Mœbius” Giraud, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger (the latter, again, working on the Harkonnens), special effects by Dan O’Bannon and starring David Carradine as Leto, Mick Jagger as Feyd, Orson Welles as the Baron Harkonnen, Salvador Dalí as the galactic emperor, and Dalí’s androgynous friend Amanda Lear as Irulan.

As usual, Jodorowsky put the weight on mysticism, injecting more Freud and surrealism than did Herbert. The 153-minute theatrical cut is superior, I’m ashamed to admit. It’s hard to believe in the universe painted here, but the inexperienced creative team went above and beyond to set the standard of mind-expanding science fiction film.

References here: On the Silver Globe (1988).

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‣‣ Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013Moving picture, 90 minutes)

Seen in 2014.

A pity it doesn’t mention Gloria Swanson’s involvement. The director, Frank Pavich, apparently believes in tarot, and seems willing to overlook the cult vibe of Jodorowsky’s management style. Judging by what Jodorowsky eventually reused in The Metabarons (1992), the film would not have been entirely great.

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Dune (1984Moving picture, 137 minutes)

David Lynch (writer-director).

This is the version with sonic weapons, cat milking, and sudden rain at the end. Despite such significant differences, it’s more faithful on the whole.

American director David Lynch’s version, with music by Toto, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Brad Dourif at his finest, Jürgen Prochnow, Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, and Sting as Feyd. Supposedly, Lynch wasn’t really interested in the project, accepting it mainly to fund Blue Velvet (1986), but it is also possible to view his Dune as a continuation of the mainstream career that started with The Elephant Man (1980).

According to the making-of featurette “Impressions of Dune” (2003), the failure of Dune supposedly convinced Lynch that the conventional high-budget production model wasn’t right for him. He certainly complained of not having final cut. He’s famous despite and because of mixing extreme weirdness with apple-pie Americana, of which this is neither.

The film misses or waters down a lot of what makes the book worthwhile, particularly ecology (Herbert’s most historically significant achievement), Paul’s sense of the future (artificial religion), the backgrounds of Fremen and Sardaukar, and the quaint sayings. Paul’s transformation of character doesn’t seem great enough in the film. The actual ecology is hardly plausible and there’s the same problem of royalism and SF detritus as in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), a similar film. Despite many flaws, it works. The cinematography, the repetition of lines from the past and future, and the eclectic casting all somehow come together. The result is uniquely meditative, preserving some of the profoundly human cultural density of the book by roundabout means. The effects shots vary a great deal in quality.

My favourite game for the Amiga was Dune II (1992), which may have helped make this film curiously enthralling the first time I saw it, which was before I read Frank Herbert’s original.

References here: On the Silver Globe (1988), Jupiter Ascending (2015), The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: The New Thesis – Encounter (2018).

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‣‣ Dune (2006Moving picture, 177 minutes)

177-minute re-edit of the 189-minute “Alan Smithee” television version, partially reversing the Bowdlerization of the latter and removing some redundancy, but not going quite far enough in either respect. Worth watching as a supplement.

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Dune (2000Moving picture, 4.4 hours)

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‣‣ Children of Dune (2003Moving picture, 4.4 hours)

An adaptation of Dune Messiah (1969), not just of the sequel to that novel.

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Dune (2021Moving picture, 155 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Seen in IMAX.

More faithful to Herbert and more technically accomplished than the Lynch version, with the advantages of 37 more years of development in special effects and a director with experience of the genre. This is the better adaptation, but not by much.

What I miss most from the Lynch version is Toto’s music, which went better with the hero’s journey, but also the stronger characterizations, both of the people and the strange places they inhabit. The mystical foresight is weak in both versions, but weaker in Villeneuve’s.

Rebecca Ferguson is very good in an appropriately scaled-up role; she and Oscar Isaac improve significantly on their Lynch counterparts. Timothée Chalamet on the other hand is too much of a stand-in for the viewer. His Paul, watching the most basic filmbooks about Arrakis to integrate the exposition, is about as far removed from the prescient saviour of the Imperium as was his role in Lady Bird (2017).

People in this movie seem to like walking long distances, even in an open battle. This suggests to me that while a huge CGI team is adequate to paint large environments that are convincing on a visual level, the worldbuilding on a human scale is not quite on par. There are brief moments of domesticity, and Paul displays his fondness for Thufir Hawat in one instance, but most of the environments are even more sterile and literally epic than Blade Runner 2049 (2017), which is a shame with that budget and runtime. There are a couple of jokes for the trailers, but not a single scene of sunshine on Caladan, nor any scene at a hearth or temple to characterize the cultures. There’s not even any eating of Spice, which is strange. The exposition suggests that only the Fremen benefit significantly from the medical effects of Spice, while elsewhere it is mainly an economic factor, not medical or mystical. Like the CGI environments, this feels oddly clinical.

Space travel in this version seems to consist of forming a tunnel between two distant points, which is quite nice and reminds me of Eon (1985). There’s some of the Harkonnens’ cruel weirdness patterned after Lynch, but none of the Guild’s weirdness. The Atreides have lots of troops on screen, but little else. They look and sound more militaristic than they did in Lynch’s adaptation. The long scene at the promontory grave site suggests an oppressively feudal traditionalism patterned after ancient Greece, in line with the open reference to Agamemnon in Children of Dune (1976), but in the same scene, Leto’s words contradict that traditionalism, suggesting barely enough individualism for contrast against the Harkonnens.

Along with the choice of colour-coding the shields, and not mentioning how they interact with lasguns, Villeneuve puts more focus than Lynch did on fighting, and particularly on Halleck and Idaho fighting. The Bene Gesserit socially engineering a saviour cult—which is more interesting—is mentioned in passing, but downplayed. This contradicts Leto’s expectation of “political trouble” and further emphasizes the narcissistic, morally polarized, fantasy-genre aspect of the narrative, focusing on just a handful of people who are special like superheroes. On the whole, it’s a little thin, a little too monotonous in its Homeric mode, but the Sardaukar—who do get a smidgeon of culture—are a lot more fun than Star Wars’s stormtroopers.

It does look good though; as good as it gets with more VFX people on computers than anything else. As a detailed and self-consistent visualization of Herbert’s world, it’s tasteful and pretty, right down to the occasional moments of granular flow when the worms come. The hyperreal sound was good in IMAX, except for the exaggerated bass in all the father figures’ voices. The strong emphasis on “desert power” seems fortuitous in retrospect; COVID-19 delayed the Swedish cinematic release to 2021-09-15, just a couple of weeks after US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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