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), The Citadel of the Autarch (1983), Armored Trooper Votoms (1983), “Sunken Gardens” (1984), Ender’s Game (1985/1991), Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985), “Coming of Age” (1988), “Loud as a Whisper” (1989), “Deathwing” (1990), The Metabarons (1992), “Rightful Heir” (1993), “Earth’s Environment as Metaphor” (1994), “The Jem'Hadar” (1994), “Photon: The Idiot Adventures” (1997), “The Darkness and the Light” (1997), “’Til Death Do Us Part” (1999), Now and Then, Here and There (1999), Hellsing (2001), “The Pasho” (2004).

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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 instead of developing the setting was a mistake.

Even Duke Leto Atreides I and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen are still kicking, which is a terrible abuse of Alia’s superpower. That power is reminiscent of Anne Ancelin Schützenberger’s real-world pseudoscience of psychogenealogy. It 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) and the Lazar Wolf of Fiddler on the Roof (1971) than of 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). In Greek mythology, the name “Atreides” properly refers to any son of Atreus (“he who does not tremble”), a specific king of Mycenae. Agamemnon of The Iliad (ca. 700 BCE) is such a man and is confirmed here to be an ancestor of House Atreides, which is a distasteful conflation of crusty mythology and novel worldbuilding. That confirmation versus the explicit use of the Takbir makes for a flattened historical allegory of East and West. This is not a good direction, 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), Dune (2021).

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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. He 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.

References here: Dune (2021).

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God Emperor of Dune (1981Text)

Frank Herbert (writer).

Read in 2021.

Three and a half thousand years after the events of the first three books, Leto II reigns as a half-human tyrant with a need to explain his actions to an encroaching posterity.

I love that Herbert followed through on his bold departure at the end of the third book. I wish it had been bolder still, axing more of the old factions instead of having Leto maintain their balance of power beyond what the changing economic circumstances allow for. There are no more House atomics, no shields, yet society has come to resemble its medieval model more closely, with even cities on the old homeworlds being forbidden and dismantled. The self-sabotaging Leto II never quite manages to explain this, merely alluding to an effectively magical prescience that has the narrative role of Asimov’s psychohistory. A heroic, “Greek” mentality intrinsic to the Atreides bloodline is still prominent and the uniforms all sound like superhero costumes. Thankfully, the third book’s motif of people enslaved by individuals in their “memories” is gone.

There is not a great deal of depth here, despite Herbert’s oblique tirades on real-world gender, sociology and Abrahamic religion. The phrases are lofty, but tellingly vague. Much of it is an ambivalent power fantasy like the first two novels but on a still-larger scale, putting the self-castrated protagonist-antagonist Leto’s thoughts closest to the reader instead of hiding the monster as most SF authors would have done. Unfortunately, though he loved the monster, Herbert did not take the opportunity to go the route of Notes from Underground (1864) and lay out its philosophy to develop a self-consistent villain.

References here: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982), “Sunken Gardens” (1984).

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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.

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. Despite such significant differences, it’s more faithful on the whole than Jodorowsky’s version.

The VFX shots vary a great deal in quality. 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 such 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.

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), Alien: Resurrection (1997), Jupiter Ascending (2015), The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: The New Thesis – Encounter (2018), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

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‣‣ Dune (2006Moving picture, 177 minutes)

A 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)

This adaptation lacks the boldness, ingenuity and production values of the others, but is generally more faithful.

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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.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s version, with music by Hans Zimmer, starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica, Zendaya Coleman as Chani, and some more unconventional choices that bring to mind the wonderfulness weirdness of Jodorowsky and Lynch: Stellan Skarsgård, Oscar Isaac (Gomez Addams), David Dastmalchian, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Dave Bautista as Rabban, and Charlotte Rampling of The Night Porter (1974) as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the most powerful person in the galaxy. According to Frank Pavich, who made Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), Jorodorowsky himself wanted Rampling to play Jessica in Dune (1977). Zimmer’s music is weirded up with a lot of texture and Sardaukar throat singing in part one. In part two, the sequel, the cast is completed by Austin Butler as Feyd and Christopher Walken as Shaddam IV. Butler once played Elvis because Baz Luhrmann was moved by his singing, but he’s no Sting. Walken, on the other hand, did the music video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (2001). Walken flew, using the same technique of suspending the actor by wire as Villeneuve uses in this movie, while Bootsy Collins sang “Walk without rhythm and it won’t attract the worm”.

What I miss most from the Lynch version is Toto’s music, which went better with the hero’s journey, but I also miss 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 part one. It gets better in part two, as it should.

Ferguson is very good in an appropriately scaled-up role. She and Isaac improve significantly on their Lynch counterparts. 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). This also gets better in part two.

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. Ironically, they’re at odds; people are routinely framed together with the CGI to show scale. 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, and hard to reconcile with Herbert writing in Children of Dune (1976) that melange keeps “the very rich” living “at least four” times longer than they would without it.

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, 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, becoming more obvious in the sequel. 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. Herbert did lean toward the same style, but the Idaho of the fourth book is menaced by some burly women; he’s not a superhero like Momoa’s Idaho or Momoa’s Aquaman (2018). 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.

Visually, it looks 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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‣‣ Dune: Part Two (2024Moving picture, 166 minutes)

Seen in 2024.

Seen in the cinema, but not in IMAX.

This is Villeneuve’s continued adaptation of the 1965 novel, specifically its second half. There are more significant differences from the source material in this one. The biggest is the compression of the timeline. Alia is not born in this film. She appears only in a flash-forward cameo, as an adult, whereas in the book, she is two years old at the climactic battles shown in the film, and four years old when Shaddam IV abdicates the throne. The compression is unfortunate, because the shorter span makes the development of the culture and the characters less credible and more superheroic.

There is some more eating of Spice, and the Baron apparently smokes it, but if its use is common among the nobility of the Landsraad, there is no sign of that, or of any resulting longevity. In this detail, Villeneuve apparently went with the realistic lifespans of Herbert’s “Almanak en-Ashraf”, one of the appendices to the original novel, while Lynch went with Herbert’s later work instead. There is still no mention of shields versus lasguns, even though it’s the main explanation for all the hand-to-hand combat. The crucial experience of being a Reverend Mother is minimized, which I know confused a lot of viewers who hadn’t read the book. Chani’s more mundane role is enlarged. Paul’s betrayal of Chani is not carefully presented to her as a political ploy for appearances’ sake, the way it is on the last page of the book. In her friction with Paul, Chani’s heightened rationalism and outrage serve as a substitute for the heavy internal monologue of the novel. Her larger role is part of the preservation of Herbert’s feminism. Paul’s own cruelty toward her is part of Villeneuve’s admirable treatment of Herbert’s moral ambiguity, which Lynch did not preserve.

Villeneuve is not quite so faithful to Herbert’s old-fashioned vision of a homogeneous culture that’s been annealed by their mistreatment in a harsh environment, with “trials to toughen a man”. Villeneuve’s Sardaukar look as homogeneous as the Saxons but his Fremen look like the Global South of 2024, not like the first Muslims, or the Schythians of The Histories (440 BCE). Herodotus’s Scythians are perhaps the first nation described, without any evidence, as militarily strong because they are sparse and their land is poor and hard. That was Herbert’s basic idea for the Fremen, but Villeneuve softens it and symbolically repositions the rise of the Fremen as the rise of downtrodden peoples against colonialism and, again, the withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan. Given that shift, the treatment of religion is surprisingly skillful, although Stilgar is unfairly reduced to comic relief in his motivated reasoning.

There’s no throat singing, unfortunately. I have a feeling the IMAX version might have been better, since the film is heavy on spectacle, but I was glad to lose the father-figure bass. Irulan wears the least reasonable outfits on camera, and Coleman caused a splash when she attended the premiere dressed like a 1940s SF magazine cover illustration, but she’s sensibly dressed throughout the film. Feyd and the Baron approach Lynchian levels of fetishistic weirdness but don’t reach them. The scene of Paul riding a worm for the first time is excellent: Better than Lynch or the book. The many calmer shots of desert and Fremen are actually the least spectacular and often feel aimless, as if the film crew had just transported a bunch of modern actors to Jordan and Abu Dhabi and left them to loiter. I think that adding more native life than the mouse and the worms would have made the desert more than just a backdrop to the story of Paul’s integration as a knowingly artificial white saviour, but that story is ultimately handled and updated well. Chalamet is still not right for the role, but better than MacLachlan.

Part of the satisfaction of seeing this film is that it continues the general trend of increasing fidelity to Herbert, from Jodorowsky’s film to Lynch’s to Villeneuve’s. Of course Villeneuve had the bigger budget and the advantages of 37-or-40 more years of development in special effects, and he was already a director with experience of the genre. He combined the fidelity of the 2000/2003 TV series with the pleasures of cinema. Overall, it’s a satisfying conclusion and a better adaptation, albeit with the tool marks of a conventional superhero blockbuster.

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