Glenn Kenny is the editor of A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers and Artists On 25 Years of ‘Star Wars’ (Holt, 2002) and the author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of An Actor (Phaidon/Cahiers du Cinema, 2014).
Back in the day, the two big counterculture sci-fi novels were the libertarian-division Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, which made the word “grok” a thing for many years (not so much anymore; hardly even pops up in crossword puzzles today) and Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune, a futuristic geopolitical allegory that was anti-corporate, pro-eco-radicalism, and Islamophilic. Why mega-producers and mega-corporations have been pursuing the ideal film adaptation of this piece of intellectual property for so many decades is a question beyond the purview of this review, but it’s an interesting one.
As a pretentious teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t read much sci-fi, even countercultural sci-fi, so Dune missed me. When David Lynch’s 1984 film of the novel, backed by then mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis, came out I didn’t read it either. As a pretentious twentysomething film buff, not yet professional grade, the only thing that mattered to me was that it was a Lynch picture. But for some reason—due diligence, or curiosity about how my life might have been different had I gone with Herbert and Heinlein rather than Nabokov and Genet back in the day—I read Herbert’s book recently. Yeah, the prose is clunky and the dialogue often clunkier, but I liked much of it, particularly the way it threaded its social commentary with enough scenes of action and cliff-hanging suspense to fill an old-time serial.
The new film adaptation of the book, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script he wrote with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, visualizes those scenes magnificently. As many of you are aware, “Dune” is set in the very distant future, in which humanity has evolved in many scientific respects and mutated in a lot of spiritual ones. Wherever Earth was, the people in this scenario aren’t on it, and the imperial family of Atreides is, in a power play we don’t become entirely conversant with for a while, tasked with ruling the desert planet of Arrakis. Which yields something called “the spice”—that’s crude oil for you eco-allegorists in the audience—and presents multivalent perils for off-worlders (that’s Westerners for you geo-political allegorists in the audience).