By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
There are problems with costumes too and makeup and hairdos. The Harkonnens here are all bald, in emulation of the Baron. But in the original novel they are bronze blonds and have big lips, and in the old movie they are redish blond and have a distinct haircut, and distinct rubbery uniforms. The blondness is important since the problem with House Harkonnen is that they are too genetically inbred, a problem afflicting the galactic order, in contrast to the racially mixed Fremen and House Atreides. You need to ‘show’ this problem through the blond hairdos but no, have to make them look sinister with baldness. It leaves the Baron looking like a bloated monk or a Sumo wrestler who got a haircut, and makes a mockery of having the Hispanic Dave Bautista as the Beast Rabban. (He also is so minimally used he’s not worth mentioning, another real shame since the actor is a cool guy, one of the few characters that worked in BR: 2049).
There’s lots of lack of originality on display too. The Atreides family uniforms look almost like those in the old movie while the dress and face gear the Lady Jessica wears on arriving on Dune is clearly taken from India. Thufir Hawatt being an overweight blob also harks back to the old movie, although Thufir in the novel has leather-like skin and I presume is thin and tough and battle-ready as ever. There’s also the ‘look’ of the Mentats. In the old movie they have stained lips from a certain drug they drink to speed up their thought processes, and they have very bushy eyebrows. (I don’t think these marks were in the novel). Here they have a tiny dab on the lower lip and have no eyebrows. What a resounding difference!
I guess Mr. Villeneuve was trying to pilfer the older movie while pretending to be original. How sad. Changing the Mentat’s irises white looks original here but you see it happening to Feyd-Rautha in the old movie, when Paul uses Voice on him. The Bene Gesserit are problematic too. You can’t tell if they’re telepathic, something they weren’t in the original novel, or just obnoxious. They’re certainly obnoxiously dressed.
Missing in Action
Now for some plot holes and points missing from the novel. The first casualty is the voiceovers, not that important in themselves but they would help with exposition. Another missing point is the ‘water of life’, the blue bile of a drowned sandworm, something that gives Bene Gesserit women access to genetic memories and will give the Supreme Being (kwisatz haderach) they are creating access to those pesky male memories they can’t get at. Guess they had to take that out for political correctness, along with the sexual harassment scene.
Now for the character casualties. Remember Dr. Wellington? He has a diamond-shaped tattoo or mark on his forehead, and this helps Paul and his mom escape afterwards. So far so good. But what the newfangled director forgets is that this is an imperial seal that proves the good doctor is incorruptible. He’s been conditioned to be loyal. That’s why it’s such a shock that he’s the traitor that the Shadout Mapes warns of. And that’s also why the Baron Harkonnen’s Mentat was such an evil genius since he was the one who broke Dr. Wellington’s conditioning – in the novel and the David Lynch movie. No ‘wonder’ Piter De Vries gets such shoddy treatment here. And is Thufir Hawatt (Stephen McKinley Henderson) going to become the Baron’s new Mentat, like in the novel and the old movie?
I didn’t like Stephen McKinley Henderson one bit, another character who appears so infrequently he’s not worth mentioning. The original Thufir, played by Freddie Jones, was an English aristocrat-type and did a wonderful performance, especially at a key scene in the movie as in the novel when it came to killing Paul. If this happens in part two, it won’t have ‘any’ emotional impact since we’ve seen so little of Thufir here and are not impressed by what we did see, even on the personal level in his relationship with Paul. (Carrying a paper umbrella doesn’t help either, another indicator of aged frailty without the cunning to go with it). Thufir in the original novel is suspicious of everybody, even the Lady Jessica – more so actually since she’s a Bene Gessirit – and has her spied on at one point, since the Harkonnens plant false intelligence to distract him from the real master spy. This plot point is not ‘really’ needed here but if you want to score plus points for feminism they should have left that in here since Jessica uses Voice (hypnosis) on him and defeats his masculinity, so to speak. (Here Jessica practically betrays the sisterhood by training Paul in Bene Gessirit ways, although we never hear the reverend mother say no girl-child has ever withstood so much pain. Trying to have it both ways, are we?)
A HELPING HAND: Josh Brolin and Timothée Chalamet. If only Gurney’s training focused on character-building instead of body-building!
Here’s another plot point that was annoying and uncalled for. You have a scene where Paul and Leit are at an ecological hideaway and the Sardaukar (somehow) track them down there. The Fremen detect their presence and surprise them, inflicting casualties, only for the Sardaukar to make their way in with plenty of soldiers to spare, so what was the point of the Fremen ambushing them? So, are we ‘supposed’ to be impressed or not?!
The way Paul and Jessica escape also has some problems in it. One of the Harkonnen troops is deaf. That’s from the novel but it was deliberate there, to make sure Jessica could never use Voice on him. Here it’s random and stupid, and so pointless, unless the Harkonnen’s are equal opportunity employers in secret! These are the same plot and world-building holes that afflicted BR: 2049 – check out my old incomplete review – along with the aesthetic mistakes there too. And why do we never see the emperor? He’s such a key character in story. Maybe the director is keeping him in store for the next movie. We’ll have to wait and see, but if it means more plot holes, I’m not sure I can stomach the wait. Or is that weight?
There are some character inconsistencies too. Dr. Wellington has one of his lines (in the novel) about the mystery of life stolen by another character, downgrading him even further. Also Duke Leto is a likeable buffoon here. He never suspects the emperor is after him, despite the fact that the Padishah emperor is in trouble since he has no sons and different Houses are jockeying for the Throne. He never declares kanly against the Baron Harkonnen, as in the novel, which is consequential enough in itself. The only person who seems to be aware of this political morass is Gurney Halleck, instead of Thufir Hawatt. In the novel Leto even approves having Jessica spied on, to placate his troops; he’s a responsible leader after all. And in the novel he is a wonderful man, deep down, but his duties as a Duke – inherited from his domineering father – make him cold and ruthless, getting in the way of his resounding love and gentleness.
Gurney Halleck also voices one of the worst lines in the movie, saying the Harkonnens simply aren’t human because of their cruelty. What ever happened to show don’t tell? In the original movie you have Harkonnen servants with their eyes and ears removed to stop them spying and leaking information. It’s horrendously effective. Here you have a sound wall used to keep things private, with a pet spider in the foreground that you can hardly see. How mundane, and inconsistent. They tell the spider to leave, even though it supposedly can’t understand what they’re saying. We’re constantly told how mean and dastardly the Baron is but we never see any of it, despite the two and a half hours of the movie – compared to David Lynch’s solid two hours. In the old movie you have the Baron having warts all over his face and needing constant medical treatment, thanks to his gluttony and lurid sexual appetites; can’t have that here for political correctness, as youtuber Midnight’s Edge suspected. We also have the scene where he spits in Lady Jessica eyes, showing how ungentlemanly he is. Again, Kenneth McMillan’s characterization was perfect. The original Baron is someone who always enjoys himself, glad to be alive and wondering at his own magnificence. Not so here. This guy has to tell us he enjoys gourmet food instead of it being evident to us – his victory meal – and the guy is as uniformly grim as somebody sitting on the toilet the whole time, even when he’s winning. Blah!
Oh, and there’s more copying here too. The Baron in the 2021 movie tells the Beast Rabban to ‘squeeze’ spice out of the planet, a line taken from the 1984 movie, only it was delivered so much better there. It also leads to another key plot point, which is that the Baron is setting up Rabban for a fall – he wants Fyed Rutha to make himself out to be the savior of the people once Rabban has earned the people’s hatred. (More on this below). There’s no mention of Feyd in this movie, for some bizarre reason. (Sting, you’re sorely missed).
Another show don’t tell point is when Paul and Jessica make it to the Fremen sietch. In the original novel, and old movie, they make it to one of those camps at night by accident and after being chased by a sandworm and almost getting killed, even after getting to the safety of the hills. It’s an action-packed scene and then you get the shock value of seeing how stealthy the Fremen are, since they amass in large numbers and yet even Paul and Jessica with their Bene Gessirit training can’t detect them. Here we are instead ‘told’, by Duncan, that the Fremen fight like demons (in stealth). Paul also goes to Stilgar’s sietch on purpose with that damnable compass thingy. There’s no surprise factor anymore. Duncan in the old movie kept saying nobody knows how many Fremen there are and how the imperium has failed to take a census to estimate the true vastness of their numbers and how he suspects that a great secret has been hidden on this planet. Here the Fremen are plain to view the whole time, just so Chani can get her chance to introduce the movie and Paul and Jessica meet them in broad daylight out in the open. And why did this all happen? To have that elongated scene in the ecological hideaway and force some extra action sequences. And the daylight scene drags on forever as Stilgar ‘explains’, to his own people what he intends to do and why, contrasted to the Lynch movie where the language is esoteric and delivered in period-drama mode, making it both more efficient and effective. (The original Stilgar, played by Everett McGill, was one of the unsung heroes of the epic if you ask me). And Paul for some reason is surprised somebody put a thumper in to distract the worm, which only works as a surprise if you don’t know there are Fremen there.
The movie could just have been two hours long, like the original, and have so much in it and from the original novel and displayed more effectively by cutting out the expositionary middleman. And how is it the Sardaukar defeat the Fremen when Duncan says the only time he was close to death was when fighting the Fremen? And how can Paul defeat one so easily as well? Talk about plot armour, and plot inconsistencies, and over-plotted mania, which brings me to the political ‘plot’ behind this movie.
Soft Power Blues
As always, there’s a political subtext here, but it falls flat on its face for the logical and plot inconsistencies it itself introduces. As if there weren’t enough problems to deal with. The Fremen, almost from the beginning, are portrayed as Arabs. They have turban like cloths on their heads and around their faces. The Harkonnens are plundering their planet for spice, much like foreign imperial powers and multinational corporations plunder Third World countries for oil among other precious resources. (The galactic empire, when it made it to Arrakis, at first wanted to turn the deserts green and make it into a paradise, then they found spice and changed their minds). You have the scene where the Baron is in a pool of oil, supposedly recovering from the poison attack – another rip-off from the old movie, the motor oil scene with Kenneth McMillan. And then, wouldn’t you know it, the Baron talks about the stocks of spice they have and how they don’t want the price of spice to change too much, to keep profits up – the kind of price wars endemic of the oil industry.
You also have Liet telling a Fremen conveniently named ‘Shamir’ to make some coffee. The Sardaukar are portrayed as a bunch of fanatics, with a blood stain placed on their brows, probably a reference to ISIS, if you ask me. As for the Harkonnens, when they are beheading Atreides soldiers, you feel this is a reference to sharia-law in Saudi Arabia. You also can’t help but notice how people bow down, like Muslims in prayer, to the Baron on his home world. Then there are the Atreides themselves and the Duke’s misguided desire to go to Arrakis to bolster his House’s power, going from air and sea power to desert power as well. This makes no sense militarily since sandworms can only operate in deserts. Would the good guys be able to get a sandworm to fight on Giedi Prime, for instance? And would they be able to stuff the thing into a Guild Liner to get there to begin with? And how did he even know about the Fremen and their huge numbers and their ability to ride sandworms, before Duncan Idaho even got to the planet?
DESIRED OUTCOMES: Nothing quite like using woman (Zendaya as Chani) as a stand-in for land. Wonder what’ll happen if the feminists figure this out?
Desert power is clearly a code word for getting the Arabs on the side of the Yanks, a country that built its military ascendency on air and sea power. This is all fine and well given that the original novel was highly political, inspired in part by the Nixon presidency and Watergate – blind trust in remarkable leadership – with tons and tons of Arabic and Islamic references when it came to the Fremen and their prophecies. Shay Huloud is (شيء خلود) and there is Lisan Al-Ghayb (لسان الغيب) not to mention the transparent term Mahdi.
But this is all done in a contradictory and problematic way. The Fremen are cool Islamic-type guys who are innovative technologically and want to turn the deserts green themselves, but Islam then becomes a barbaric religion that believes in beheading and kneeling down in front of God. The Harkonnens are supposed to be richer that the emperor because they control the spice but in reality CHOAM, the monopoly that controls spice production, is owned by the emperor and the real power in the universe is the Spacing Guild. That’s what the novel says and boy do you see it in the Lynch movie, which is more than I can say for here. You never see the Spacing Guild, in point of fact, just they’re annoying ships. (I wonder if their outfits are annoying too? In the old movie they wore retrofitted body bags that looked perfect – ‘used’ body bags!)
The ploy of using Rabban’s tyranny to pitch Feyd as an alternative was a masterstroke in the original movie. I used the old Dune to teach “Arab Society” at university, and the Arabic students got the point. In Arab-Islamic history a new ruler would release the political prisoners to prove how his reign would be different than his predecessor, only for him to throw them all back into prison once they began to make trouble again. This is a pattern you can see in modern Middle Eastern politics. President Sadat actually destroyed the mass political prisons Abdel Nasser had built while Gamal Mubarak – and Qadaffi’s son – had pitched themselves as liberal alternatives to the old order and old guard. Here the Baron tells Rabban to kill off all the Fremen, which would make it impossible to make a bid for power in savior-mode and then use Arrakis as a launching pad to the imperial Throne itself.
That’s what the Baron’s ultimate master plan is. Killing off the Duke and his family was just a stepping stone in this larger path. But that’s all ruined here through amateur dramatics. In point of fact, my students understood the movie better than me. They were the ones that told me that Arrakis is for Iraq and Shaddam the Fourth is for Saddam!
This brings us to a bigger political muddle underlying all of this that I can’t quite settle in these pages. Is Paul an example of the ‘white saviour’? Even the people who liked this movie, praised it for its diversity quotas, were angry that the hero is white. The novel does have some of that white savior trope in it, to be honest, since the Fremen are only deadly and expert when fighting somebody other than the Atreides, or else they get killed quickly. However I don’t think the director, as guilty as he is of a whole lot of cinematic sins, would stoop that low here so we’ll have to wait to see what the experts say.
Now to get to some intangibles before my final blow to the director’s ego. A producer from the old movie, Golda Oppenheim, complained that story was completely lacking in humour. Alas, even with Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa, this movie ends up being as grimly serious as it can be. The music doesn’t help in that regard either. There’s no sense of elation or wonder or joy. The weakest point by far was the music, even though Hans Zimmer was at the helm; Midnight’s Edge loved the movie but still hated the music. There’s simply no match for the band Toto and Brian Eno score, and I say this with a heavy heart. Zimmer’s score for Gladiator and Inception were of legendary proportions – epic but also nuanced – but I think we have the directors Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan to thank for that. So you can guess who we have not to thank here.
The original Dune movie has a profoundly wonderful rhythmic feel to it. Its pure poetry, and it’s the music that really brings this out, bringing images to life in your heart through sound. The choreography is second only to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music is what helps you immerse yourself in the dreams that Paul has throughout the story, feeling exactly what he feels when he sees his visions coming true before his very eyes. In this movie one of the weakest points were those dream sequences. They suck big time and that is another inexcusable thing for a movie that is about a guy who is dreaming all the time, having visions of mankind’s future. And no grander significance is really attached to these dreams because we are unaware of the Butlerian Jihad against the thinking machines and so the Bene Gesserit’s understandable desire to chart a course for humanity that involves technological progress without AI’s enslaving mankind again.
I guess such thematics are too much for the audiences of today with their blasted Dune-like tablets and gizmos. What to say of the movie and director? Denis Villeneuve is a visualist and so he’s too in love with symmetry, hence the near identical lab assistants in BR: 2049, with their clean-shaven heads, as if that is police regulation or something. His instincts get the better of him here too. I was entertained and even impressed, but disappointed with a capital d. (Please imagine the ‘D’ for me).
In the end, I’m hoping that these deficiencies and disabilities won’t make it into the second movie. I’m hoping that the messy points of this first installment are there on purpose to appeal to a mass audience and get the politically correct brigade off the director’s back, giving him free reign in the second movie. I’m hoping. I didn’t like Phantom Menace but George Lucas corrected some of his mistakes in Attack of the Clones, so there’s always hope. And even the train wreck that is the new Star Wars franchise was rescued in part by The Mandalorian so who knows what lies in the near future. I’ll give this movie a six out of ten for execution and an eight out of ten for lofty intentions. Those are the limits of my generosity.
Anything more would be asking too much. A whole universe beckons, the universe of Frank Herbert. And if Mr. Villeneuve isn’t up to the task for the second one then they really should get someone else. And I can think of just the man, if he isn’t too busy fouling up the Alien franchise in the meantime!!!
 For film adaptations sucking big time please checked out Christina Maria’s preview “Why Book to Movie Adaptations (Usually) Suck – Dune 2021 Predictions”, (21 September 2021), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGQINfMrY5I&t=2s. I’d also check out Nerd Cookies and Midnight’s Edge for accurate and impartial news and views on Dune, the novel and movies.