He is the one on which the expectations rest: Paul Atreides is the hero of “Dune”, the new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel series directed by the Canadian Villeneuve. Paul is the son of Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Lady Jessica, heir to the House of Atreids, who, on the orders of the Emperor, are to take control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only place in the universe where the mind-expanding substance Spice occurs naturally.
Spice is essential for interstellar space travel, but mining it is risky due to the monstrous sandworms that contaminate the desert. For the indigenous population of Arrakis, the Fremen, spice is a sacred substance, the metaphorical function in the narrative lies somewhere between opium and petroleum. The Fremen are driven by belief in a Messiah whose arrival is about to be imminent.
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Without knowing what task awaits him, Paul conscientiously prepares for the unknown planet. The cinema audience also gets a clear introduction to the world of “Dune”, one of the most anticipated films of the year, the cast of which delights all generations: in the lead role Timothee Chalamet, favorite boyfriend of the entire Internet, as his father Oscar Isaac, as his mother Rebecca Ferguson, alongside Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling and Jason Momoa, on the side of the Fremen Javier Bardem and teen star Zendaya, as the villains Stellan Skarsgard and Dave Bautista.
It is not the first science fiction material that is overloaded with expectations that Villeneuve has made into a film. After his success with the future epic “Arrival” (2016), he brought a controversial sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic to the screen in 2017 with “Blade Runner 2046”, monumental, cumbersome and gloomy. Herbert’s “Dune” novels, one of the great reference works of the genre, are an even more demanding model: since the 1960s, they have fascinated not only generations of readers, but also filmmakers.
First David Lean was in discussion for a film adaptation after his desert success “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). An exciting request, especially since the historical “Lawrence of Arabia”, the British spy and writer TE Lawrence, was one of Herbert’s main inspirations for the figure of Paul Atreides. However, the project did not materialize, the producer died unexpectedly. Next, the Argentinian surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky was interested in the material. The Swiss HR Giger, later famous for the design of the alien in the film of the same name, created the production design, while the French comic artist Moebius drew the storyboard.
David Lynch: “Dune” instead of “Star Wars”
Mick Jagger, Udo Kier and Salvador Dali had agreed to perform, the latter for a fantasy-minute fee of 100,000 dollars, and a soundtrack by Pink Floyd was planned. However, no sponsors were found for the venture, the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune” from 2013 depicts the heroic failure. Ridley Scott also tried an adaptation in between, but then didn’t feel up to the mammoth project.
It was not until 1984 that the first film was made in the cinema, directed by David Lynch. Shortly before, Lynch had turned down George Lucas’ offer to direct the third “Star Wars” film with “The Return of the Jedi”, as he writes in his book “Lynch on Lynch”. A short time later, producer Dino De Laurentiis offered him “Dune” in the hope of repeating Lucas’ commercial success in a similar, if more mature, space setting as in “Star Wars”.
Drugs, dunes and duels
As already planned by Jodorowsky, the drug aspect also plays a major role in Lynch’s adaptation, many images appear to be intoxicated. However, his “Dune” was a gigantic flop with both critics and audiences, an overloaded space joke, the content of which was far from the novels, as fans complained back then. In fact, the film, which was released in Austria under the title “Der Wüstenplanet”, is only suitable as an original pop-cultural contemporary document with the very young Kyle McLachlan, Sting, Jürgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart and Max von Sydow.
In Villeneuve’s remake, which despite being 155 minutes long only comprises the first half of the first novel, the focus is elsewhere: like the original, the new “Dune” is essentially about exploitation and tactical economic policy, about tribal and dynastic feuds and well-meaning colonialism . But is there such a thing at all? Isn’t the concept of friendly foreign rule a contradiction in terms?
Chosen against will
After 80 years of merciless exploitation by the Harkonnen, the house of the Atreiden, which is run by Paul’s father Duke Leto, is supposed to establish a gracious rule on Arrakis, in harmony with the indigenous Fremen. But contrary to what the official orders of the emperor might expect, everything goes wrong after the ritual reception of the new ruling family, although Paul’s ancestry and his abilities are obviously of particular importance to the Fremen.
This is exactly where the crux of the story lies, the cheering for an underdog protagonist, who by virtue of his mother’s birth and training is destined to be the chosen one, even the messiah, and who does not question that, but laconically takes the intended place.
Villeneuve takes a lot of time and space to tell little epic happenings, and he does it neither boring nor lengthy, the aerial battles of the dragonfly helicopters are just as terrific to watch as the physical battles of the defensive women and men against each other. It is less about promoting action than about establishing a world, its rules and political, economic and religious entanglements.
Promising overture for great desert adventures
There are, for example, the Bene Gesserit, that powerful women’s order to which Paul’s mother Jessica belongs, and whose secrets she initiated him into, even though he is not a woman. There is the question of the exploitation of a natural environment, which, embodied by the sandworms, is beginning to actively defend itself. And there are also the internal disputes in the rival House of Harkonnen between the arch-evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Skarsgard) and his nephew Glossu Rabban (Bautista), the cause of some of the darkest and funniest moments in the film.
Above all, however, this world is a spectacular visual construct, dramatically elegant and fast-paced and with astonishingly realistic conflicts, in short: a promising overture that gives hope for further desert planet adventures.