Dune: Past, Present and Future

Depictions of Kyle MacLachlan and Timothée Chalamet each in their roles as Dune‘s protagonist, Paul Atreides. Illustration by Clara Johnk.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead. On October 22, the epic science fiction story of Dune arrived in theaters everywhere. Dune is a tale of enemy bloodlines, Atreides and Harkonnen, in a galaxy governed by both the Emperor Shaddam IV and an organization that holds control over space travel called the Spacing Guild. While the most important piece of the universe is Spice, a drug that expands the mind and allows for space travel, the story itself centers on a young Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet. Though the movie was initially scheduled to release in November of 2020, delays due to COVID-19 mean audiences everywhere have waited almost a year to witness Paul’s journey as he and his aristocratic family leave their home planet Caladan.  Where they arrive proves to be worth the wait: the planet Dune, or Arrakis, is a harsh desert teeming with colossal sandworms and the home of both the native Fremen people and Spice production.

This new release has been gearing up to be the latest blockbuster, with trailers advertising some of Hollywood’s latest rising stars, such as Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, in a science fiction world of epic scale. The film’s story comes from the 1965 Frank Herbert novel of the same name and was adapted by Denis Villenueve, a director whose past works include some of the more popular recent science fiction films such as Arrival (2016), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

However, Villenueve’s take was not the first ever on-screen adaptation of Dune‘s story. Before Chalamet and Zendaya took on the roles of Paul Atreides and Fremen woman Chani, Kyle MacLachlan and Sean Young navigated the planet Arrakis in the 1984 film directed by David Lynch. While a good portion of Lynch’s work is well-known and well-liked, with movies such as Blue Velvet and Eraserhead falling in the A to B grade range on Rotten Tomatoes, his adaptation of Herbert’s sci-fi story is somewhere closer to failing. 

It’s easiest to understand what went wrong for Lynch when we look at the complexity of the story he was adapting. “Some things just make no sense [about the 1984 Dune adaptation],” says Franklin High School’s science fiction literature teacher Bryan Dykman. “The pacing and delivery of the edited product is [terrible].” Though nearly everything revolves around protagonist Paul, the narrative also juggles a hoard of other characters and plotlines, many of which come with backstories that are intricate but essential to the plot, and require additional exposition. This is all to say, there’s a lot to handle. To give you some idea, the audiobook of the novel is a daunting twenty-four hours of listening. While Lynch does his best to cram it all into 137 minutes of run time, the movie misses the mark entirely on establishing that important background to settle the viewer into the story and characters. The film’s clunky pacing, with a mix of difficult-to-understand scenes that drag on and brief moments that need fleshing out, compounds this issue. 

Another unfortunate result of the cramped timeline is that there’s simply not enough time to see our protagonist truly struggle. It’s evident we are meant to follow Paul Atreides in his transformation from a naive boy in training to the fierce warrior and leader of the Fremen that he eventually becomes, but there’s little that helps the audience connect emotionally to his character. Most of the time, he just moves from one phase of the story to the next, making it difficult to keep up, much less really understand what is going on inside his head.

Even Lynch himself described the movie as, “squeezed,” in a 2006 interview with the Youtube channel KGSM Media Cache. In fact, the film is a sore point for the director, as he explains that not having the ability to approve final edits, a privilege commonly called final cut, meant relinquishing much of his creative control. Lynch has distanced himself from Dune since its release, stating outright in that same interview that he regretted making it.

Despite all of this, Dune is not a film to be written off entirely. After all, the story has managed to avoid falling out of relevance over the years, despite the box-office flop it experienced. While much of the film’s special effects and visuals hold up poorly in the world of technology that’s developed since the 80s, one positive aspect was the production design. In fact, some of the elements of costumes and set remain virtually unchanged, even in the most recent version. Dykman noted the stillsuits, a full-body outfit worn by the Fremen on Arrakis to conserve water, as a prime example of a unique detail that designers in other versions have remained faithful to.

Another success was in the trailblazing nature of its themes as a science fiction story. Dune opened up the genre to incorporate ideas and aspects of society that hadn’t been seen before in other works. “It’s an epic piece,” explained Dykman. “[Herbert] is bringing ecology into science fiction, which hasn’t been done much before, he’s bringing economics in with the Spice […] it’s a big deal.” 

Knowing this, the outlook for the 2021 version of Dune seems promising. The vision of Denis Villenueve, combined with the level of special effects that are achievable in modern filmmaking and the talent of the cast, may be just what Dune needs to portray Herbert’s momentous work properly on-screen. After all, love it or hate it, the story deserves recognition for the large impact it had on science fiction. Dykman said it best when he said that Dune is “a huge part of [science fiction history]. Basically all paths lead to Dune, and a lot of paths lead from it.”

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