Movies

Dune Is an Epic Love Letter to Classic Science Fiction

This is Denis Villeneuve's movie, but it's fully Frank Herbert's Dune. 

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For Hollywood, it is a golden age of intellectual property, which is to say it is a golden age of adaptation. Seemingly every beloved genre story from the last century has been optioned and auctioned, put into development, and often produced with lavish budgets and production in hopes that this old favorite will become the next Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, or, if one is really dreaming big—and who in Hollywood isn't?—Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hollywood's hit-makers have dug deep into the post-war canon of beloved adolescent fantasies: If someone in America was ever obsessed with a story as a 12-year-old, it's probably being made into a movie or TV show right now. 

If there is something missing from this bounty of adaptable IP, it's classic science fiction. Although there have been scattered attempts to adapt the Golden Age masters—Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke—and their many literary successors in the half century since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, few of these efforts have made much impact. (Remember Will Smith's I, Robot? That's what I thought.) 

This has been a disappointment to me, personally. For as much as I love Batman and Han Solo and black-and-white zombie comics and am genuinely thrilled to finally see Iron Man cross paths with Spider-Man on the big screen, I grew up reading classic and contemporary science fiction—which meant I grew up imagining worlds and stories that have largely been absent from the movies. 

Part of the problem is that these sci-fi stories tend to be challenging to adapt: They operate at a level of scale and socio-scientific complexity that is difficult to fit into the demands of a mainstream feature-film format, or even a prestige TV series. Classic sci-fi is thinky, intricate, idiosyncratic, and sprawling in a way that so far has largely resisted successful big-screen treatment. The best of it is almost too big for the big screen. 

Case in point: Frank Herbert's Dune. The 1965 novel was a trippy, anti-colonialist, Middle Eastern-philic, 188,000-word saga of economics, politics, and pre-contemprary environmentalism, in which extended sequences revolved around board-room like discussions of supply chain logistics, industrial production, and obscure imperial rivalries between corporation-like families with long fictional histories. Also, there were psychics, witches, skyscraper-sized sandworms with Sarlaac-like orifices, and spice melange, a natural resource that powered interstellar space travel, extended life, and expanded your mind. It was Lawrence of Arabia, but in a psychokinetic future-verse of giant mouth-monsters where oil was also LSD. How in the hell do you put all that on screen? 

In the 1970s, director Alejandro Jodorowsky, a noted purveyor of hippie-friendly cinematic psychedelia, worked up an adaptation that never got made. Later in the decade, some of Herbert's ideas found their way into George Lucas's Star Wars films, but in a more conventional, pulpy package. (The wonky trade disputes would have to wait for his prequels.)

In the 1980s, David Lynch, the weirdo dreamwizard behind Eraserhead, brought the book to the screen in an occasionally interesting, largely incoherent, frequently cheap-looking film that mostly served to reinforce how difficult the project was. 

Now, 35 years later, Dune is back on the big screen courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve's big-budget adaptation, which, after a nearly year-long delay, is finally in theaters. 

And so it is with a combination of joy and relief that I want to tell you: Villeneuve's Dune is the real deal. It is a love letter to a science fiction classic, and, in a way, to all the classics of science fiction. It is a no-compromises future-fantasy epic that operates at a scale I've never quite seen before. I've already bought tickets to see it again. 

Villeneuve has brought big ideas and colossal imagery to sci-fi cinema before, with both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, but his Dune is something vaster still. More than anything, Villeneuve captures the heart-stopping vastness of Herbert's vision, the grand magnificence of it all, from the carrier ships to the ornithopters to the toothy mondo-sandworms. Like everyone in Hollywood, Villeneuve dreamed big, but not in the sense of how many spinoffs and prequels he could generate. There's a sheer enormity of presence captured on screen that's simply incredible to behold. 

Working with screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, Villeneuve does make some alterations to the story, condensing expository sequences and streamlining subplots. But the movie's narrative is fundamentally faithful to the book; even the dialogue is often drawn directly from its pages. This is Villeneuve's movie, but it's fully Herbert's Dune. 

Contrast that with the other major sci-fi adaptation currently rolling out to viewers, Foundation, on Apple TV+, based on Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic. Like Dune, it's a complex tale of imperial intrigue, planetary culture-clash, and conflict between science, religion, and the state, and like Dune, it often looks stunning, albeit notably smaller in scope. 

But unlike Villeneuve's Dune, Foundation seems unable or unwilling to translate its source material directly. It doesn't even really try to put Asimov's book on screen.

Instead, it transforms Asimov's talky, thinky tales of political maneuvering and clever logical victories into a more conventional action epic that borrows a few names and narrative elements but owes little else to the source material. The 10-episode first season still has several episodes to go, so perhaps it will right itself eventually. But I'm not holding out hope. It plays like an adaptation of a classic Golden Age science fiction story that is embarrassed by all the elements that made it a Golden Age classic and so has decided to turn it into something else. 

Villeneuve's Dune, on the other hand, has no such shame about its source material. On the contrary, it comes across expressly designed to show new and seasoned viewers what's great about Herbert's novel rather than try and force it to be something it isn't. 

If the new Dune has a major shortcoming, it's that it only covers the first 60 percent or so of the book's story, leaving an unsatisfying non-conclusion. A sequel may be in the works, but its production will depend on this movie's performance—a dicey proposition any time, but especially during a pandemic that has severely depressed box office returns. 

I hope we get another chapter. Dune deserves to be finished. But even if this is all we ever get, I'll gladly take it. Denis Villeneuve's Dune is half a masterpiece in a long-neglected genre, and half a science fiction masterpiece is far better than nothing at all.