A family outing. Dune
I did not go to see Dune for the laughs, which is why I was startled to find that the movie ends with one of the funniest cinematic jokes I’ve ever seen.
After two and a half hours of slow, sweeping shots and poetic dialogue about power and prophecy, it becomes apparent that the entire experience has been foundation-pouring for a sequel. (Or two sequels, if director Denis Villeneuve has his way.) The last thirty minutes are a real slog as the audience waits for the inevitable “to be continued” to appear on screen.
Sure enough, as the music swells, a character played by Zendaya — who has served as a mostly silent figure signaling mystical visions and pronouncements, turns to the camera and says, “this is only the beginning.”
I bark-laughed. No shit, Zendaya. It was a moment nearly as hilariously wall-breaking as the final shot of the doomed ’80s sitcom I Married Dora, when the entire cast interrupts the story to announce, “We’ve been canceled. Adios!” Fade to black.
But I wasn’t mad. All right, Dune, you got me. I’m hooked. Can’t wait for part 2.
This latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s loooooooong novel series is indeed a treat. It’s a thing of great visual beauty, from the lengthy landscapes to the camera’s loving, intimate attention to the characters’ bodies. They made this movie so you could gaze upon it, and I can understand the director’s dismay that many will watch its debut on streaming services instead of in theaters. An important note: You will see Oscar Isaac tastefully nude. About time.
The plot is your typical magical-boy adventure: Bad guys rule a planet; the good guys take it over; the bad guys don’t like that; the young champion resists the call to heroism; but he is the chosen one, so eventually he must assume his rightful place of rule. It’s Harry Potter in the desert with a shallower depth of field.
Thematically, it is impossible not to consider the story’s parallels to oil wars in the Middle East, with factions of white people battling over a desert planet as the indigenous people sigh, “Who will our next oppressors be?” At one point, a villain rises from a vat of black oil, slime cascading down his body as he burbles, “I have one requirement … income.” Subtext is for cowards!
The dialogue is a weighted blanket: Impractically heavy, but comfortable. Everyone speaks with great seriousness at all times. How does anyone in this universe do something simple, like ordering breakfast? “A man’s hunger cannot be satisfied by scrambled eggs alone, nay, the brittle break of toast must resound across every kitchenette in the land”?
There are, thankfully, no Marvelesque quips in the style of “that’s gonna leave a mark” or “seriously???” or “pretty sure that’s? Not a thing,” aside from a brief dumb jibe by Jason Momoa that you’ve already been warned about in the trailer.
If weed is your thing, consider this film an invitation to indulge.
Though I enjoyed the experience (minus the final half hour, during which you can safely excuse yourself to the restroom), I found that it suffers from the same mistake as so many action adventures: The most interesting story is not that of the men, with whom we spend most of our time, but the women.
The story of Dune — both in the original novels and in its adaptations for the screen — is one of male obedience. The boys are all uniformly docile and compliant, each obeying without question their tedious assignments. The women, on the other hand, are thrillingly rebellious, at least when the movie deigns to pay them any attention.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster, playing a desert ecologist, conceals mysterious loyalties, as does Golda Rosheuvel as a housekeeper who brings a weapon to a job interview and conveys covert communications during a tense stand-off. Both characters are a complex delight. Virtually every woman in the film makes more interesting choices than any of the men — and yes, this is how it is in the book. But just because the male characters are so domesticated doesn’t mean the adaptation needed to be as well.
The magical boy’s mother, played with astounding nerve by Rebecca Ferguson, is the true hero of the film: A witch who defies the shadowy order of nuns who secretly run the galaxy and gives birth to what she believes will be the messiah. Imagine if the new New Testament began with Mary receiving explicit instructions to have a daughter, then deciding, “you know what, fuck you all, I’m gonna make a Jesus.” How she dared make this choice is a question much more interesting than whether the handsome hero will assume the role of liberator.
It’s Ferguson’s character, who is terrified by the consequences of her decisions and compels herself to stand by them, who brings the story’s iconic line, “fear is the mind-killer,” to life. She’s the one I’ll be thinking of between now and the sequel. As you might have heard, this is only the beginning.