Movie review: 'Dune' 2021 remake vs 1984 original

Fred Hawson

Posted at Nov 12 2021 12:21 PM

Review of DUNE (2021 vs. 1984): Spectacular Space Saga about Spice
November 11, 2021

A scene from the 2021 movie 'Dune.' Handout
A scene from the 2021 movie 'Dune.' Handout

"Dune" was a best-selling, award-winning 1965 science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert. The title was from its setting, the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the precious spice central to its plot. This was the first book of a saga, followed by "Dune Messiah" (1969), "Children of Dune" (1976), "God Emperor of Dune" (1981), "Heretics of Dune" (1984) and "Chapterhouse: Dune" (1985). After Herbert's death in 1986, his son Bryan Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson continued the book franchise up to the present.

"Dune" had also influenced several games, music, comic books, television series, and of course, films. The complexity of the novel did not make the transition to film easy, evidenced by a number of failed attempts. The first film version was finally completed in 1984 by co-written and directed by David Lynch. It had bad reviews from the critics and performed poorly at the box office, with Lynch even disowning the final cut of the film. This pandemic year of 2021, director Denis Villeneuve decided to release his remake to theaters only. 

Disclosure: I watched the 2021 version first before I got to watch the 1984 version. I did try to watch the 1984 version on videotape decades ago, but I did not get it, so I could not get myself to get to finish it. This time around, because the complex story was much clearer, thanks to the 2021 version, I was finally able to watch the 1984 version in toto. Of course, it was unavoidable to compare the colorful, campy 1984 version to the controlled, cerebral 2021 version while I was watching it. 

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It was the year 10191. The Emperor of the known universe had assigned Duke Leto of House Atreides of the planet Caladan to administer the important desert planet of Arrakis, in place of the House Harkonnen. Arrakis was the only source of the spice melange, which was very crucial for space travel. However lately, the native people of Arrakis, the blue-eyed Fremen, were beginning to assert their rights, so the first thing the Duke had to do was to reach out to their leader Stilgar in order to establish a peaceful bond with them. 

The central character is Paul, son of Duke Leto and his Bene Gesserit concubine, Lady Jessica. The Bene Gesserit are an exclusive sisterhood of women who developed an ability to compel anyone to obey their will with the use of their special voice. Because he was being trained by his mother in the Bene Gesserit ways, Paul had been having visions of Arrakis, the bloody conflicts they will face, and the Freman girl he will meet. When Paul was settling in in Arrakis, there was an attempt made on his life that disturbed the shaky peace.

Right off the bat, one can readily see that Denis Villeneuve had imbued his vision of "Dune" with gorgeous-looking camera work and spectacular computer-generated effects. The pace of his storytelling was deliberately slow (as he is wont to do), but the momentum did not sag. The multi-dimensional story was surprisingly easy to follow and understand, despite the inherently complicated plot with multiple planets and peoples. The acting was generally subdued across the board, in consonance with the solemn mood of the film. This is not an action film.

Timothee Chalamet (as Paul) and Oscar Isaac (as Duke Leto) both exuded a distinguished noble air with their restrained performances. Rebecca Ferguson looked too young and nervous here to be the powerful Lady Jessica. Jason Momoa looked effortlessly heroic in his fight scenes as the dashing warrior Duncan Idaho. Zendaya was enigmatic as the Fremen girl Chani in Paul's dreams. Stellan Skarsgaard and Dave Bautista were particularly less garish than how the Harkonnens were portrayed before, but not any less sinister.

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Beside the elegance of Villeneuve film, the 1984 original film by David Lynch, with its outlandish sets, props, costumes, hairstyles and make-up, all the atrociously over-the-top acting of the cast and clunky special effects. Lynch did emphasize one essential characteristic of that future world as per Herbert, which was the banning of computers and artificial intelligence. It also had a scene which showed how the "brainy" Guild Navigator "folding space" under the influence of melange, which was not shown at all in the sequel. 

Kyle McLachlan made his feature film debut as Paul, with European actors Francesca Annis and Jurgen Prochnow as his parents. Richard Jordan played Duncan Idaho who barely did anything in this version, but we see more of Patrick Stewart as the Artrides's lieutenant Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin in the current version). The revered Max Van Sydow played the Imperial Ecologist Doctor Kynes, a role which was gender- and race-reversed and expanded in the person of actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster. 

We saw so much more of the villainous Harkonnens in the 1984 version, played with caricaturish glee by Kenneth McMillan (as the Baron), Paul Smith (as the crazy Beast Rabban) and a scene-stealing Sting (as Feyd-Rautha, a character not seen in the 2021 version). McMillan's portrayal of the Baron in 1984 was far-more memorable as it was visually disgusting, with the right side of his face full of grotesque blebs and pustules, and his extremely obese body floating around the room like a balloon. 

This new film covered only the story of the first hour and a half of the 1984 original film. This means that whole 45 minutes final act will have to wait for Villeneuve's sequel (if it will come). That is the part where we see more of the Fremens, like Stilgar (Everett McGill in 1984, Javier Bardem in 2021) and Chani (Sean Young in 1984, Zendaya in 2021); as well as meet Paul's precocious younger sister Alia (Alicia Witt in 1984). 

The sequel should also get to show the giant sandworms in battle action, surely to be executed much better than it was in 1984. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”