The Dark Herald Recommends: Dune

The Dark Herald Recommends: Dune

Frank Herbert’s Dune always makes the list of greatest science fiction books of all time.  And unlike Foundation and 2001, it actually has business being there.  It was a book that was genuinely for the thinking man. Dumb people have never been into Dune.

Herbert’s inspiration was another book* The Sabres of Paradise (1960) by Lesley Blanch, it was a romanticized account of Imam Shamyl, “The Lion of Dagestan,” and his decades-long war against Tsarist expansionism.

With Islamic holy war on his mind (decades before it became fashionable with contemporary Muslims) Herbert set his new work in a world that was heavy on Islamic tropes. “Padishah” was an Islamic term for Tsar. “Kindjal” the name of the knife used by Imperial aristocrats in Dune, it’s also the name of the knife favored by Islamic tribesmen in the Caucasus region. There were several other words like sietch, chakobasa and Kanly, that came from Sabres of Paradise. As well as the ever-popular Jihad.  The Atreides banner was green and black, (remind me, what are Muslim holy warriors’ two favorite colors?).

The main enemy was the distinctly Russian sounding, “Vladimir Harkkonen.   

There were also some phrases lifted directly from Sabres of Paradise.  “Killing with the tip lacks artistry.” “Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the (hills) desert”.

Then there were Dune’s long and evocative descriptions of harsh, brutal, and unforgiving landscapes, this is also a prominent feature of Blanch’s seminal work.

Now let me be clear, Herbert wasn’t a plagiarist.  There is a big difference between inspiration and intellectual theft.  The truth is, there really aren’t that many stories in the world.  We writers mostly just find new ways of smashing the existing ones together.  I myself am working on a story based on the comedic, disaster of the Second Russian Pacific squadron in the Russo-Japanese War. 

Herbert’s masterpiece is greater than the sum of its influences.*

The same really can’t be said of the previous two screen adaptations of Dune.

Dune (2021) is a vast sweeping, motion picture in the grand tradition that demands to be seen on as big a screen as you find.  French director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) has probably shot his masterpiece because this one is going to be damn near impossible to top (I’ll get to why later).

Dune is the story of… Forget it.  

If you read this blog you know perfectly well what the plot of Dune is and Villeneuve followed it faithfully.  This is not to say he didn’t include anything new.  As you are used to me saying by now, a story succeeds or fails in the style of its telling.

Villeneuve agreed to this project only on the condition that he would be cutting the novel in two.  Although, this is pretty much just the first act, and it takes two and half hours to watch.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he was hoping to turn his duet into a trilogy, with contingency cutbacks in the plot if it doesn’t blow the doors at the box office. 

This movie is mostly about the fall of House Atreides.  The whole film is built around its inevitable doom.

Paul’s parents are largely co-equals to him in terms of screen time.  Jessica is played by Rebecca Fergusson and Duke Leto by Oscar (thank fuck Star Wars is over) Isaac. 

Fergusson’s Lady Jessica comes across as a strong but perhaps mentally unstable woman.  Whether that was her intention or not that is what it feels like and it fits the character.  A completely sane woman would not defy the entire Sisterhood and deliver a son when she had been ordered to birth only daughters for Duke Leto.  To say nothing of taking the Water of Life when she knew she was pregnant.

Isaac carries this first movie.  He surpasses himself as he brings the noble but doomed Duke Leto to life. The first shot Leto we have is when the Imperial envoy formally charges Leto with taking control of Arrakis. Leto’s character is immediately established as honorable and sympathetic by delivering a speech about his great house and it’s received by his audience with serious faces, they know he’s telling the truth about House Atreides. And he embodies it. Villeneuve included some major plot elements from the novel that Lynch (to the best of my knowledge but who knows what got cut) never used, in order to paint a picture of a great man who felt he was overshadowed by his father.  The “Old Duke” Atreides was killed in a bullfight and there are a number of references to this, which are mostly visual.  Showing, not telling.  Getting killed in a bullfight is one of the most macho ways to clock out that there is. One of the first images you see in this movie is a gigantic portrait of the “Old Duke” dressed as a Matador.  Another early image that is frequently seen is a small impressionist sculpture featuring a bullfight and the bull’s horn is barely touching the Matador’s abdomen.  And finally the stuffed and mounted head of the bull that killed the Old Duke.  The Old Duke’s overshadowing presence was a feature of the book, and it was brought masterfully to the screen by Villeneuve.  As great and respected within the Imperium as Leto is, somewhere inside he feels like a fraud.  He feels he doesn’t measure up to his towering father.   

The final use of the bull’s head was brilliant.  Leto’s house had fallen, his armies were shattered and the Baron is pictured underneath the bull’s head.  It was one of those, “you didn’t notice it but your brain did” moments.

Timothée Chalamet did fine as Paul. It wasn’t exceptional but it didn’t need to be given the material he had to work with.  His performance was more understated compared to the massive events that were going on around him but that was Villeneuve’s call. 

Understated but brilliant would describe Stellan Skarsgård turn as Vladimir Harkkonen.  Usually portrayed as a sort of deformed infant.  Skarsgård’s Baron is much more sluglike in appearance.  Old, sick, and dripping with menace. A sybarite who is at the end of a life that was so devoted to the vulgar senses that he can no longer feel much pleasure in anything.

No surprise whose performance was weakest, Dave Bautista alternately scowls like a Neanderthal and bellows like bull moose as the Beast Rabban, admittedly that is probably all that is ever needed for the role.  Rabban is not a layered character.

There was talk of Bill Skarsgård as Fyed but the Harkkonen heir and Paul’s final boss battle isn’t in this one at all.  Honestly, at two and half hours the movie was long enough as it was. And the character didn’t do much until after Leto was dead.

The surprise standout (and I’m not even joking) was Sharon Duncan-Brewster as the diverse Kynes of color.  Liet Kynes was both race and gender-swapped for this movie but she actually carried it. I was shocked by the quality of her performance.  It shouldn’t have been that good.

I suppose having brought up Kynes I should mention Chani.  Zendaya played Chani.  That’s it, she’s barely in this one.  There wasn’t enough performance to judge.

I should also mention in passing Nigerian actor Babs Olusanmokun as Jamis.  Jamis is a character in the book who is more defined by his absence than his presence. We find out about the impact of his life on the lives of others only after Paul kills him in a dual.  Villeneuve included a few scenes with Jamis prior to his death, establishing him as a reasonably sympathetic character in the mind of the audience member.

Use of huge imagery to convey the impact of a truly epic motion picture is a frequent feature of this film.  Caladan was shot in the forests and fjords of Norway, in sweeping panoramic vistas. This film also has the best use of desert cinematography since Lawrence of Arabia. Easily better than the Lynch version.  The downfall of House Atreides is a vast plain of fire.

Arrakis outside shots are done with just the right amount of too much light, giving it a feeling of harshness. Villeneuve was painting with a very big brush. There are also some callouts to previous versions, the still suits are copied from Lynch’s Dune and the Baron’s palace has a strong resemblance to Gieger’s concept art for Jodorowsky’s movie-that-never-happened.

And then there was Selusa Secondus. Allow me a moment’s digression.

Frank Herbert had some intriguing thoughts about politics and economics in the Dune series. However, his ideas about the military were utter crap.  The Emperor’s Sardukar were the descendants of criminals or criminals themselves, depending on which book you are reading.  Career criminals are defectives, in my experience, they could never stop being criminals and they invariably got kicked out. Not the best baseline bone stock to start with. Their environment and training were so brutal that six out of every thirteen Sardukar recruits died in training.  Look, a harsh environment can potentially make for hardened warriors, but a fifty percent casualty rate in basic training will result in your brand new soldiers being PTSD drenched long before they go into their first battle. Additionally, good warriors are rarely good soldiers. A lot of that is societal.  Gurkhas are warriors from a harsh environment who make great soldiers. Arabs are warriors from a harsh environment who make terrible soldiers.  And I’m not even going to touch the Fish-Speaker army.

Anyway, the background material for the Sardukar is ridiculous, so Villeneuve didn’t use it.  He recreated imagery from Triumph of the Will, but it was part of Sardukar’s religious ceremony with quite a bit of human sacrifice being thrown in (which I don’t remember being in the books). But the part that was really good was their language, which is spoken in throat-singing. It was a nice touch that made them seem not entirely human even though humans can obviously do that.

The music score may well be Hans Zimmer’s best work.  In keeping with, uh, some of Frank Herbert’s inspirations* the score is deliberately hallucinatory in nature.  While various instruments from third-world countries are used in the score, he fed them into his pet synth-wave mixer until they were unidentifiable. The rest of his score is driven by female vocalists. These segments are used whenever any member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood or Chani is on screen.  

This also allows Zimmer to trawl for another Oscar by going on and on at length about how women are magical, and nobody ever noticed one until 2021.  It will probably work.

As I said before, this is the movie that Dune fans have been waiting decades for and sadly, I’m not certain that it won’t be left as an orphan of a trilogy that never happened.  There was no sequel even in pre-production when Covid hit.  Warner was rightfully concerned about how big of an audience this movie was going to bring in.  Truthfully, they were right to worry, this is a film for thinking men and there just aren’t that many of them.  Dune’s audience is never going bigger than Star Trek’s core audience.

This is not an action movie.  There are some fight scenes that meet the current standards but they would never have been the reason people wanted to see this movie.

Dune had an opening weekend of $40 million in the US.  It’s been released in foreign markets for a while so the global cumulative is $220 million.  It will probably top $300 million, which is nowhere near enough to earn out.  

But that might be viewed as just good enough during the “current movie-going climate.”

Denis Villeneuve has said that he was promised there would be a sequel if it did well enough on HBOmax.  But who knows how much is good enough?  The Snyder Cut was their biggest title ever on streaming and there are absolutely no plans for a sequel to that. And who made him that promise? Because there has been so much turnover in Warner executives over the past five years that they installed revolving doors on every top-floor office.

My prediction is that there will be a sequel, but it won’t be anywhere on the scale of this movie.  Which will be a crying shame.

In any case:

The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm.

*We’ll just skip over Frank’s… Uh… “chemically fortified” inspirations, shall we?

UPDATE: The Drinker’s take.

2ND UPDATE: Legendary Films has formally announced there will be a sequel to Dune. Tentative release date of 2023 but who know for sure?

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Comments (20)

  • Blume Reply

    Skipping the review for now. All I wanted to know was if the movie was good and Oscar was good in it. He looks great in the trailer and that’s what I want to see out of a Dune part 1 a great Leto and a great Baron.

    October 25, 2021 at 1:59 pm
  • Skyler the Weird Reply

    Spoilers

    I thought the film was good. It followed the book somewhat closely. No Feyd, no House Corrino, and no guild navigators but I can live with that. No problem with Diversity Kynes. The woke may have an issue with the White Savior killing the POC. I enjoyed it and will see it again

    Though I liked it it doesn’t have the same hook in me that the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars original Trilogies have. Not sure the normies and mundanes will see it.

    October 25, 2021 at 4:16 pm
    • Skyler the Weird Reply

      Speaking of images pulled from other sources, I rewatched on HBO last night and there was a scene where the Saudaukar float down behind the Atreides at the top of the steps and come down the stairs wrecking havoc like the Czars soldiers killing the Communist protesters in Eisenstein’s POTEMPKIN. A very good homage to the director.

      October 26, 2021 at 11:04 am
  • WiseSol Reply

    Some questions (which don’t have definite answers):

    Dune (the novel) has been on my to-do list for a long time (and is likely to remain there for a while). Should I see the movie now, or put it off until I eventually read the book? (Waiting obviously means I would lose the big-screen experience.)

    On the subject of the book (and unrelated to the movie), should I read the original as soon as possible, and leave the sequels for the indefinite future, or would it be better to wait until I can read the first x books together?

    Another question I had was whether it was worth seeing this movie on its own as opposed to waiting and seeing it together with (or much closer to) its sequel (which would be more like a part 2). This review seems to heavily favor the first option.

    October 25, 2021 at 7:58 pm
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      I’d say watch the movie before reading the book. The book will give you a lot more background details and it’s good in its own right. As for waiting, that’s up to you but there may never be a sequel. Its prospects are iffy.

      October 25, 2021 at 8:25 pm
      • The Dark Herald Reply

        Interestingly, this may (just may) be the film that does for Herbert what Peter Jackson did for Tolkein
        Dune is currently #1 in the Kindle Store.

        October 25, 2021 at 8:36 pm
        • WiseSol Reply

          🙂 Funnily enough, I’ve put off watching the LOTR trilogy until I finally, at long last, read the books. (Which also allows me to wait until I can get the extended editions at a reasonable price.)

          Thanks for your answer; I’ll likely go see Dune next week (currently playing in a movie theater near me).

          Anyone want to weigh in on my reading question? (Read the first book and put off the others till later, or wait until I have time to read the first x books together?)

          October 26, 2021 at 8:56 am
  • furor kek tonicus Reply

    Dumb people have never been into Dune.
    .
    saw a youtube review the other day by some clown named Oliver Harper who admitted that he hadn’t managed to finish the book over several months in spite of the fact that he wasn’t reading it for enjoyment but with the knowledge that he would need the background in order to judge the accuracy of the movie. he also claims to be a skiffy fan.
    *facedesk*
    .
    .
    .
    With Islamic holy war on his mind (decades before it became fashionable with contemporary Muslims)
    .
    have to disagree. Jihad has always been popular with Muslims, Islamists/PLO were a big part of the 1970s hijacking epidemic. i remember asking my parents why we didn’t just assassinate Arafat in the mid-70s and they tried to feed me some pablum about how if we murder their leaders they’ll murder our presidents.
    .
    the historical examples are practically innumerable with Gordon of Khartoum vs the Mahdi and Babur the Tiger being two exemplars.
    .
    .
    .
    A completely sane woman would not defy the entire Sisterhood and deliver a son when she had been ordered to birth only daughters for Duke Leto.
    .
    can a woman in love be “sane”? God knows, men lose their minds often enough.
    .
    .
    .
    you have 3 asterisks but only the one footnote. i presume you forgot to take out the Blanch asterisk when you plopped the book information right into the essay but the 2nd asterisk might could use follow up exposition:
    “Herbert’s masterpiece is greater than the sum of its influences.*”
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    overall, this essay seems a bit tighter editorially than your average, especially given your recent recreational infection and the greater than normal word count.
    only after Paul kills him in a dual.
    the comedic, disaster of the Second Russian Pacific squadron
    The first shot Leto we have

    October 26, 2021 at 3:35 am
    • WiseSol Reply

      [Getting off topic; our host should feel free to erase.]

      May I suggest a middle path regarding Jihad?

      On one hand, the terrorism of the 1970s was more widespread than just the Middle East, and even there, the PLO types were not particularly devout Muslims. Indeed, some of the worst of the Palestinian Arab terrorists were Christian.

      On the other hand, terrorism (and especially the hijackings you mentioned) was most practiced (and popularized) by Middle East Arabs.

      Perhaps one could claim that this iteration of terrorism was not so much in the vein of consciously religiously motivated Jihad, but rather the outgrowth of a general Arab culture which had been suffused with the concept of Jihad. (And which of course was responsible for its creation; chicken and egg.)

      There are those who would date the resurgence of Jihad to the assassination of Sadat (which was only loosely connected, if at all, to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty) in 1981.

      October 26, 2021 at 9:14 am
      • The Dark Herald Reply

        There is an interesting parallel to Dune here.
        https://i.imgur.com/R1lf5Ox.jpg
        .
        That is a picture from Cairo Women’s University class of 1978. There is not a headscarf let alone a hidjab to be seen. It looks like my sister’s class picture.
        .
        When I was passing through Egypt in the late 1990s most of the women were scarved and a lot of men had a huge bruise on the center of their foreheads. The bruise came from beating their heads on the floor of the mosque during prayer. I knew there was going to be trouble.
        .
        Islamic fundamentalism really took off after the Wahbists had started exporting radicalism in the 1980s in the Saudi Islamic Study Centers.
        .
        It was oil that paid for it.

        October 26, 2021 at 10:59 am
        • furor kek tonicus Reply

          i’m well aware that there was a lull in Muslim intensity during the 20th century, i’ve read Mark Steyn’s accounts of the Iran and Egypt of the 60s and 70s.
          .
          but a few decades of a relatively lackadaisical attitude towards Allah/Muhammed is the obvious aberration when compared to well more than a 1000 years of homicidal devotion.

          October 27, 2021 at 6:05 am
      • Codex Reply

        Looking up “Christian Palestinian terrorists” sent me down the rabbit hole.

        Here’s a sample:
        http://www.debbieschlussel.com/24199/who-is-behind-son-of-hamas-why-did-pajamas-media-publish-anti-israel-author/

        Full disclosure: My parents knew the “Son if Hamas”.

        November 4, 2021 at 6:18 am
  • Bies Podkrakowski Reply

    There is a scene in the book, where Hawat – I think? – explains to the baron that the whole “recruiting criminals” is a fraud. Criminals send by noble houses might be used to create population from which the army is recruited but it was a long time ago. Warrior religion and harsh environment have since weeded out any defectives leaving only faithful imperial fanatics form which imperial legions are created. The recruit and superbly train your criminals is a tradition sustained, so the noble houses don’t ask questions from where Sardaukars really came from, so they don’t try to replicate the process at home.

    The Fish Speakers thing is stupid and only makes sense if all woman army was Herbert’s fetish or if Leto wasn’t going for an army but for a police force. God-Emperor already ruled humanity and controlled space travel. Maybe he all needed was an internal security force that was fanatically loyal to him and which was going to oppress population and make people hate him (after all his Golden Path was about making humans distrust authority forever after his reign).

    October 26, 2021 at 8:52 am
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      Brian Herbert forgot about that part. In one of his pastiches of his father’s works, he had a scene with prisoners on Selusa Secondus being forced to get in formation and march.
      .
      As for the Fish Speaker army. Given how fond of “chemically fortified inspiration” Frank Herbert had become, he may well have thought he was having deep, spiritual conversations with his wife’s vagina.

      October 26, 2021 at 11:23 am
      • WiseSol Reply

        “He may well have thought he was having deep, spiritual conversations with his wife’s vagina”

        Who of us hasn’t, in our younger days? 🙂

        October 26, 2021 at 11:50 am
    • Seeker Reply

      It’s a bit of both actually:
      – The Fish Speakers are used because women are more conforming and less inclined to rebellion (that is the primary explanation given in the text). The God Emperor, desiring to create an absolute conformist society to punish humanity, uses them as his police force. As a matter of fact, the last of the Sardukar die with a clone of Duncan Idaho in an attempt to assassinate the emperor.
      – The Fish Speakers also have a sexual cult-like obsession with the God Emperor, considering themselves his brides. Given that they withhold themselves from men until later in their lives, that leads to the below.
      – Regarding the fetish thing, also yes. Duncan Idaho is repulsed to discover that there is rampant lesbianism amongst the Fish Speakers. He brings it up to another noble who gets agitated about it and basically ends up implying that celibate religious/social figures in history are basically gay.

      October 27, 2021 at 3:24 am
  • Bies Podkrakowski Reply

    We are so lucky then that there are no such things like non-Frank Herbert sequels/prequels to Dune.
    I wonder what what Imperium was doing with all those superfluous criminals delivered to Salusa Secundus. Maybe they were used in sardaukar’s training the way Soviet Spetsnaz was rumored to train with prisoners?

    October 26, 2021 at 2:11 pm
  • furor kek tonicus Reply

    saw it last night.
    .
    the Good:
    it gets most of the major story beats.
    as Cataline says, the visuals are very good.
    the music is pretty good, although Batman has the better vibrato bassline.
    Oscar and Rebecca and Stellan are all pretty good.
    Liet splashing water and not blood when she gets knifed through her stillsuit was an interesting bit of verisimilitude.
    .
    the Bad:
    i would say that the biggest problem, especially for normiefags, is that the emotional tone of the film is extremely flat. before the film even starts, granddad gets gored to death by a bull and this is a motif which continues throughout the film; Atreides and their retainers getting whacked piecemeal throughout the movie until the orgy of the Harkonnen return. it’s like a 3 hour dirge. sure, Paul and Jessica survive for the sequel … but all they’ve really accomplished is the death of a single Fremen and the vague possibility that the Fremen might take them in.
    .
    Momoa wasn’t awful, but his character ( as with almost all of the other side characters ) has so little screen time and his interactions with the main characters ( other than Paul ) are so limited that he doesn’t really serve as much other than a knife magnet. i was never even amused by anything that happened in the movie, much less by any of Duncan’s comments to Paul. which is part of what i’m talking about with ’emotional flatness’. Duncan is the only attempt at any sort of levity or bonhomie, and all of his fell flat. or maybe i should say that Paul never really seems to respond to any of them.
    .
    there’s no “love story” for the whammens. i mean, yes, obviously Paul and Chani are destined … even if you hadn’t read the books. but there’s zero chemistry thus far. and yes, Jessica and Leto obviously care for each other and support each other, but i never picked up any heat between those two either.
    .
    the Wut?
    why would Leto, an accomplished aircraft pilot AND the experienced ruler of a planet via Water Power and Air Power need a magic negro to tell him that he’ll get a better view if he gains altitude? duh?
    .
    obviously the spice miner not having an extraction vehicle permanently affixed is an artifact from the book, but that’s still dumb.
    .
    there’s no explanation in-movie of the hunter-killer having poor sight. i think normies are going to be REALLY confused by that bit, where the drone triggers on the movement of the maid entering the room but fails to see Paul standing right in front of it. and it’s also a somewhat meta-amusing artifact from the book, given that a man writing in the 60s would have found it perfectly reasonable to assert that such a tiny piece of technology would NOT have a good video feed. whereas today it’s absurd when we’ve got HD button cameras we can put just about anywhere.
    .
    .
    Contradicting Cataline:
    i wouldn’t say that Jessica is bonkers. high strung, yes. but she’s walking a razor, standing against her own Sisterhood ( she didn’t just birth a son, she’s trained that boy in Bene Gesserit secrets, either of which the Reverend Mother could have killed her for ), and with both the Emperor ( military+political power ) and the richest House in the galaxy seeking the destruction of her lover and her son. did she do this for love of Leto? did she do it from hubris and vanity, that SHE was going to birth the messiah? *shrugs* doesn’t really matter by the time the movie starts. as a practical matter, every power in the galaxy stands arrayed against her.
    .
    frankly, i wouldn’t expect 90% of women to not have a breakdown on occasion in such a situation. hell, women cry when they’re happy.

    October 27, 2021 at 7:03 am
  • furor kek tonicus Reply

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weapons_master
    the rules of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers required:[3]
    Someone certified for the weapon in use be present at all times
    Firearms must be checked before and after each take
    Firearms must be cleaned daily
    Firearms must be stored securely by the props master when not in use
    Loaded guns must never be pointed at anyone
    Protective clothing must be worn by everyone nearby when blanks are fired
    If firearms are to be fired directly at the camera, a plexiglass shield must be erected
    Only the person certified for the weapon or someone under their direct supervision may hand a weapon to an actor
    .
    .
    According to Mike Papac, an experienced weapons master, a firearm should not be handed to an actor until film is rolling and should be taken from the actor as soon as the director calls “cut” and there should “never, ever, ever [be] any live ammo on the set. Never. Under no circumstances”.[3] According to armorer Larry Zanoff, after the director calls “cut”, “nobody moves until I gather up every gun and yell ‘The weapons are cold.'”

    October 28, 2021 at 4:17 am
  • furor kek tonicus Reply

    oopsie.

    October 28, 2021 at 4:17 am

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