By: Zachary Notkin  | 

Dune: An Overdue Allegory for Our Imperfect World

The novel Dune, written by Frank Herbert in 1965, is a science fiction cult classic that served as inspiration for franchises like Star Wars, Game of Thrones and Flash Gordon. Despite the success of its imitators, Dune’s own journey to the big screen has been legendarily fraught with difficulty. 

The first attempt at a movie adaptation by filmmaker Alejandro Joderowski failed because it was too ambitious for any studio to support. Director David Lynch's 1984 version was panned by critics and audiences because it was terrible. Then, in 2016, Filmmaker Dennis Villeneuve and Warner Brothers Studios announced that they had decided to adapt the book into two movies, the first one slated for release in the fall of 2020. Dedicated fans waited through more than a year of pandemic-related delays until finally, on Sept. 3 of 2021, the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, with a U.S. theatrical release planned for Oct. 22. I, a longtime Dune fan, saw the film at the New York International Film Festival on Oct. 9. 

Before I proceed with the review, I feel that I must explain what exactly the novel, and indeed the movie, are about. Dune takes place thousands of years in the future, when humanity has spread so much throughout the galaxy that all memory of Earth has been forgotten, and the government has reverted to a feudal system. The story centers around the noble Atreides family, primarily the son and heir, Paul, who has been assigned by the Emperor to take control of the planet Dune, which is the only source of spice, the most important substance in the universe. While doing so, they must contend with the land’s previous rulers, the Harkonens, and its native inhabitants, the Fremen, as well as other mysterious forces.

Without getting into spoilers, the book explores themes of destiny, religion and messianism while serving as an allegory for imperialism and exploitation of natural resources. Particularly, it can be viewed as a metaphor for the dependence Western countries have for oil located in undeveloped areas. The movie glosses over the more philosophical aspects of the book in favor of streamlining the story, perhaps because the medium film doesn't lend itself well to long discussions where nothing happens. While I, as a longtime fan, may have objected to this, Villeneuve's love and deep understanding of the source material shines through as he boils the story down to its essence. He particularly focuses on young Paul's complicated struggle with his destiny. Something not often realized on the first read of the novel is that author Frank Herbert is actually subverting tropes associated with the genre by showing throughout the book the harmful effects the concept of destiny has both on society and individuals. The film, especially in its many dream sequences, mainly focuses on the conventional aspects of the hero's journey, but hints towards the future negative consequences, presumably for further exploration in the sequel. 

The film’s story is both intelligent and gritty while seeming realistic enough to draw the viewer into its fantastical setting. This is helped by the excellent acting, particularly from Timothée Chalamet, who seems to breathe as his character, the Paul Atreides. The same goes for Rebecca Ferguson, who plays his mother like a master violinist plays the violin. The main villain, played by Stellan Skarsgård, is a combination of cunning and violent that viewers won’t soon forget.

The film’s score, written by Hans Zimmer, is a masterpiece, using Wagner-esque motifs to reflect what is happening on screen. The cinematography was striking and inspired, while the special effects put the recent Star Wars movies to shame. I would be surprised if “Dune” did not win multiple Oscars, and rumor has it that Warner Bros. feels the same way. The one reservation I have is that the film's many dream sequences and complicated story may seem convoluted to casual audiences.

I feel like I should tell the reader that seeing this film was the first time I was inside a movie theater in a long time, certainly since before the pandemic began. The entire entertainment industry has shifted massively since then. While several films have been released in the interim, none were particularly successful at the box office. It seems that even Disney, which could once reliably make a billion dollars in movie tickets for every Star Wars and Marvel movie they pumped out, has shifted its focus to online streaming through Disney Plus. In light of this, “Dune” is being released on HBO Max at the same time as in theaters, something nobody would have expected when the movie was in production, as the movie’s grandiosity simply cannot be conveyed on the small screen. Studios are definitely looking at “Dune's” results to help determine the future of entertainment. If any movie deserves to bring audiences back to theaters, it is this one.

Photo Caption: Dune (2021)

Photo Credit: IMDb