‘Dune’ is the Mind-Killer

The Sleeper has awakened! (again): A lifelong ‘Dune’ fanboy on the new trailer for Denis Villenueve’s psychedelic space epic

The eagerly anticipated first trailer for Dune finally dropped this week. Given my lifelong history with the franchise, I have feelings.

 

It was the middle of December, 1984. I’d just turned eight years old. That year, I gathered all my closest buddies to celebrate, not at the usual skating rink to make endless eight-wheeled circles to “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys, but with something different, something truly special. The season of lights and giving had brought forth to us, and to the world, David Lynch’s adaptation of the 1965 science fiction classic Dune, and there was no chance in this or any other universe that I was going to miss it.

My father is, and always has been, an avid fan of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi opus, and he was the primary reason for my fascination and excitement about the movie. I’d spent countless hours staring at the artwork of his yellowed 1974 paperback edition depicting a mysterious, cloaked figure at the top of a desert mountain, arms raised, imploring tiny cohorts in the background to run like hell from the enormous sand worms at their heels. Or maybe he was encouraging the worms to attack; it was difficult for me to say, seeing as I knew little regarding the plot of this strange and compelling work my father treasured.

What I did know about Dune came mostly from Dad’s recounting of its plot, waxing excitedly about a war on a desert planet, witches, spaceships, knife fights, mutants, the noble Atreides and the evil Harkonnen, and those terrifying, man-eating worms the size of parking garages. I even tried to read it a few times for myself, but quickly gave up. The language and the storylines were too dense and thorny to wrap my young brain around. But the fascination loomed headily in my imagination, and when the movie finally arrived in theaters, nothing, not even a Bene-Gesserit’s weirding voice, was going to compel me to stay away.

Dad drove our troop of hyperactive second grade boys downtown to what had to have been the most run-down, rat-infested theater, The Joy, which resided in a part of New Orleans that conscientious parents generally tried to avoid with their eight year-olds at night. But I would not be denied, and Dad knew it. To be fair, it probably wasn’t much of a chore for him. I’m pretty sure he was just as excited as we were.

We sat in the balcony, in rapt attention, mesmerized by Lynch’s expansive and deeply weird space desert epic. This might be the hyperbolic machinations of memory, but I recall that not one of us got up once to pee during the film’s 136-minute runtime, even with our tiny bladders undoubtedly filled to capacity with Cherry Coke. None of us could stand to miss even a single frame. We were hopelessly transfixed.

Unlike the critics, who were overzealous in their bloodlust when it came to eviscerating Lynch’s efforts, we all loved it. Even Dad declared the adaptation to be “pretty cool.” Such began a soul-deep love for all things Arakine between me and my friends. Our schoolyard playacting morphed almost immediately from cowboys vs. indians and G.I. Joe vs. Cobra to Fremen vs. Harkonnen. If you didn’t like a kid, you’d force him to play the disgusting Baron.

 

My older brother Colin and I invented a personal combat game involving the pillow bolsters from his bed, in which we’d do our best to recreate Kyle McLachlan’s and Patrick Stewart’s “shield practice” scene from the film, shortening Stewart’s battlecry “Guard yourself for truth!” to just “Gahhhhhhh!!!” as we pummelled the living snot out of each other for hours on end. We even had the Dune toys, which, like the movie, were a commercial flop, but we loved them anyway. Who needs He-Man and Skeletor when you have Stilgar and The Beast Rabban? For me, and for my brother and my friends who joined me on that fateful birthday night, we were hooked on this story like Fremen hooking a sandworm, for life.

Dune IS pretentious

Despite our high opinion of the film, Lynch’s efforts failed at both the box office and with critics. Apparently, he packed the story so densely that the studio felt obligated to hand out early-viewer cheat sheets explaining some of the movie’s unique terminology and its dozens of characters and locations, for fear that otherwise audiences would find themselves irrevocably lost. That’s never a good sign; nobody wants to go to a sci-fi flick that requires reading material.

As a result, it’s been 36 years since a big-screen Dune adaptation . There was a mini-series version twenty years back that many Dune stans appreciated for its slavish devotion to the source material, but I found it too visually cheesy and soap opera-like for my tastes, not to mention that the actor playing the hero, Paul Atreides, came off as insufferably whiny and arrogant.

 

But not a film version, not since Lynch’s infamous misfire in ‘84. Too risky for studios to fund, I guess. Well, all that changes this year with Denis Villenueve’s ambitious new version, which plans to hit theaters in December, just in time for my 44th birthday.  I won’t get into a hyper-detailed scene-by-scene breakdown, which you can readily find on YouTube, but here are my initial thoughts on our first glimpse at the film nearly four decades in the waiting:

On multiple viewings in high definition wearing studio-grade reference headphones (in the dark, door closed, having banished my wife to the opposite side of the house with the baby), the first thing I can say is that the trailer looks fantastic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who’s familiar with Villenueve’s lauded career should assume that this one, like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 before it, would be visually stunning. And they’d seem to be right. We get brief glimpses of a seaside castle on Caladan, a sweeping vista of lush hills poking through clouds, moody beaches at sunset, and of course vast images of the wind-swept deserts of Arrakis. I had little doubt Villenueve would be able to set the stage beautifully. Question is: How was he going to populate it?

We’ve known about the casting for Dune 2020 for a time, and the list of talented actors and their corresponding roles had us fanboys excited. Even with just a trailer’s worth of glimpses, the thoughtful casting looks like it’s going to pay off in spades. I hesitate to use the word “perfect,” but seeing Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam, even through a fishnet veil, is just so right. As are the resplendently bearded Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto, a charismatic Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Dave Bautista playing the murderiously menacing Glasu Rabaan, and Javier Bardem’s Fremen warrior Stilgar. They sounded great on paper, and our initial peeks of them in character only confirm that.

I do, however, have some hesitation seeing Timothée Chalamet as the lead, Paul Atreides, aka “Usul,” aka “Muad’dib.” He’s a talented actor, no doubt, but while his waifish figure works fine as a young royal, I find it difficult to be convinced that this skinny pup could make for an imposing rebel warrior. We’re treated to a very quick, very cool shot of the “shield practice” scene, and I hate to say it, but even with movie magic it’s hard to suspend my disbelief enough to think Chalamet could stand a chance against Josh Brolin’s Gurney.

I mean, it looks like a hard sneeze might knock the kid over, and here he is in a knife fight against Thanos? Call me a little skeptical on that one. You can’t deny that he’s pretty, though, and his dark locks definitely give a young Kyle McLachlan’s do a run for its money. I’m hoping his charisma will ultimately make up for the slight physique.

On the brighter side, there are a pair of brief shots showing us Stellan Skarsgaard’s portrayal of the movie’s big bad, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, and like most of the rest of the casting, it’s spot-on. Seeing him emerge, bald-headed and terrifying, from a pool of inky liquid recalls nobody if not Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. And in a gratifying change from the lily-white 1984 cast, we now have some actors of color added to the mix in Zendaya’s Chani and Sharon Duncan-Brewster replacing Max Von Sydow as the planetary ecologist Liet-Kines. Both should give us much to look forward to, based on what we see here.

I should also mention the score, which was helmed in the 1984 version by Toto, of “Rosanna” and “Africa” fame. It was a strange musical choice back then, but I’ve always enjoyed what they did for Lynch’s film, cheesy as it may be. For Villenueve’s Dune, we get Hans Zimmer, in this trailer doing a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse,” from “Dark Side of the Moon.” Again, a wonderful choice, if a little pretentious. Speaking of which…

Is this trailer pretentious? Resoundingly, yes. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad, or that the movie will be terrible. And even if the film is pretentious (and I’ll take the Vegas odds on that one), so what? Dune is pretentious! That’s part of what many of the fans love about the book, and about David Lynch’s pretentious adaptation, with all of its whispered voice-overs. For once, I won’t mind a little pretension here. In fact, I’d be a little worried if it wasn’t slightly on the pompous side. If it weren’t, that’d mean the film was dumbing things down for us dummies, which would be a bad thing for this franchise, or at least for its fanbase.

I do have one massive beef with this trailer, however. In the narration, we hear Chalamet’s Paul say, “There’s a crusade coming.” This is a particularly alarming bit of revisionism, seeing that the original text and even Lynch’s version employ the word “jihad” when talking about the Fremen on Arrakis waging a holy war against House Harkonnen and the Galactic Emperor. I get it: Making your heroes jihadists in a post 9/11 world is bound to raise a number of hackles in the media or even alienate some potential ticket-buyers, and I’m sure that’s a political morass that Warner Bros. would prefer to avoid. But COME ON, MAN! You can’t just replace “jihad” with “crusade,” and not get called out on it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s going to notice this.

Ultimately, that one word of contentious dialogue is scarcely enough to tamp down my enthusiasm for the film, based on this trailer. From what I can see, it has pretty much everything the Dune fanboys like myself might hope for in a fresh retelling of this old space yarn. We’ll always find bits to argue with, but at the end of the spot, when we finally see the gaping, open maw of one of those magnificent sandworms, brimming with teeth as big as city busses, punctuated by a famous Hans Zimmer BRAAAAM, you know we’re on board.

I haven’t found a ton of things to look forward to in 2020, but at least I have the childhood comfort of Dune to hang my hopes on for now, at least based on this first trailer. Come December, you’ll find me in the theaters, even if I have to wear a damn HAZMAT suit, sitting a minimum six feet apart from my fellow theater-goers. But I won’t think about that quite yet. I plan to stay positive.

As Dune’s famous litany urges us: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

Scott Gold

Scott Gold is the author of The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers, a selection of which was excerpted in Best Food Writing 2008. His writing has appeared in numerous publications both in print and online, including Gourmet, Edible Brooklyn, Thrillist, Eater, Tasting Table, Time Out, and OffBeat, and he has served as a feature food writer and photographer for The New Orleans Advocate, restaurant critic and dining writer for Gambit, and resident “food pornographer” for the New Orleans arts and culture website NolaVie.com. In 2016, Gold served as the "national bacon critic" for Extra Crispy. His radio essays have also been featured on “Louisiana Eats!” with Poppy Tooker, and as a correspondent for WWNO’s “All Things New Orleans.

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