Blood in the Sand:
Rival space empires battle for control over a powerful substance that is only found on one planet in the known universe. A prophecy about that planet’s leadership, however, may change everything.
Review and Analysis:
I’ll start with this:
RVCBard asked a question a while ago concerning this post I wrote (which actually ties into this review). I’ll also say that she has a knack for asking the right questions, because they make me think about the answers. And, again, instead of a “direct” answer to the question, I thought it would be best to demonstrate it.
Since this is a movie that is being adapted from an entire novel series that, until this point, had never been seen on any screen, it stands to reason that the series is ripe for a great and epic adventure. Unfortunately, during the 1980s, while science fiction and space fantasy enjoyed a renaissance (thanks to Star Trek, Star Wars, and Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica), most stories were about “compression.”
That is, squeezing the “most important stories” into a single 2-hour motion picture event. On top of this, you would have to introduce characters AND setting very quickly – as well as any items that you would need for the remainder of the movie.
Basically, you should never, under any circumstances, make your movie into a cram school.
The Opening Act:
The establishing of the movie itself starts with lots of narration. It is supposed to act in the same way as the opening crawl of Star Wars, only this time, we are supposed to be seduced by the voice of Virginia Madsen, who is woefully under-utilized in this film.
Who is the Bad Guy?
In stories as large as Dune, there are usually layers of Antagonists and Contagonists, all working separately OR in concert with one another on some level to stop the story’s heroes – which change constantly.
But something like this works against the film.
First, you have the Harkonnens, who are supposed to be EVIL rivals to House Atreides. And, why are they bad guys?
Well, Baron Vladamir Harkonnen looks like this:
And “The Beast” Raban looks like this:
While Duke Leto Atreides looks like this:
And his son Paul Atreides looks like this:
In movie parlance around the world, the pretty people will be the good guys. While “ugly” people can sometimes be a supporting hero, they will never be heroic.
However, we quickly learn that the Harkonnens are just lackeys for Emperor Shaddam
Hussein IV, who wants to eliminate the Atreides House for his own reasons. THEN we find out that a group called the Spacing Guild is the one that controls Shaddam Hussein IV, although the source of their own power is never revealed in the course of the movie, other than the fact that the big octo-worms act as Hyperspace Limo Drivers.
Go one step farther and we find the Bene Gesserit, who are dolled up to look like Space Nuns in the movie – but practiced a selective breeding program to create a “Super-Being” and the female child that was to come about from Lady Jessica’s pregnancy to Leto Atreides was supposed to be the beginning of their Endgame: Ascendancy to Power. And then, that daughter was to marry a Harkonnen male (you really only have 2 choices here), which would “unite” the 2 Houses…and the Bene Gesserit would have their hands manipulating both of them.
Then, there are the Fremen, who have been fighting to get EVERYONE off of their planet, especially since the “Great Houses” have been mining the Star Spice Melanje for their own benefits – and never seemed to ask the Fremen if it was OK to do so. They, too, have a Prophecy – one where
Anakin Skywalker Neo Eragon Robocop The Chosen One shows up and Leads Them to True Freedom.
Back to the Empire:
The backstory of the Padishah Emperor’s plot to destroy House Atreides sounds like it might be evil. The only real markers of this evil is that Shaddam plans to allow Baron Harkonnen the use of his Sardaukar Terror Troops.
Oh, and that Shaddam is an Emperor, because only Evil Groups call themselves Empires.
Then, Who Are the “Good Guys”?
The movie never makes this clear. Dune never deliniates who exactly we need to root for…and why we should root for them. It can’t be House Atreides; they only intend to control Spice production. It may be possible that the books go into whether the Atreides House would be more altruistic in their extraction methods, or their treatment of the Fremen, or even who gets the Spice, but the movie never gets into this – even as it spends over an hour establishing how the movie’s designated antagonists want the various members of the Atreides Royal Family dead (mostly over petty squabbles where jealousy is involved). Instead, Dune goes the same route that Star Trek: Insurrection goes as far as using beauty standards to determine their relative “goodness.”
Secondly, the other markers of the “Goodness” of the Atreides family are all about Leto himself.
Since the Harkonnen House is supposed to be the designated Evil Group, this leaves us only with the Fremen. We learn less about the Fremen than we do about the Atreides House because everything we learn about the Fremen is connected to the Chosen One Prophecy. We never learn what they desired most concerning Spice production. And since Paul
Atreides MauD’dib becomes the voice of the Fremen, the movie chooses not to assert the Fremen’s ideals, other than those of their “ji’had,” on their own.
But yet, the Fremen are the only ones who could really be called “The Good Guys.” Paul uses the Fremen to exact revenge on the Harkonnens who lured his Atreides family into a trap and killed his father (as well as destroying that Kingdom). This was all so the Harkonnens could reclaim control over who produced the Space Cocaine for the Galaxy. Had the Atreides House somehow managed to fend off the Harkonnens, the Fremen would have eventually turned their ire towards the Atreides, and Stilgar (the Fremen leader) would have led his people against Leto, Paul, and Jessica, prophecies notwithstanding.
Another Non-Native Chosen One:
However, there is a twist; unlike most of the Chosen Ones you often hear about, this one was already Royalty. What was supposed to make him downtrodden as opposed to his peers was the fact that he was born to a Royal Concubine, AND that he was born a boy, instead of as a girl, which was to act as attempt to give yet another group a method by which they would gain political power in the Universe.
You see the same types of themes play out in movies like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Star Trek: Insurrection, and the Star Wars saga. In Dune, however, it is one of the few times where the Royalty had been acknowledged beforehand, as opposed to being tacked on as a reward.
The Examination of Theme:
In its own way, maybe Dune was trying to say something about Drugs. The effects of the Spice Melanje sound like things that most people experience taking LSD or Marijuana or the like. Or maybe the message was about Environmentalism. Or Oligarchic Control over a substance found in a single place.
But, because this movie is attempting to run a cram school, the end result is a confusing mess that boils down to this:
Multiple factions fighting over…Space Cocaine.
The Pretty Royals of the House Atreides. The Grotesque Beasts of the House Harkonnen. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam
Hussein. The Hyperspace Limo Drivers. The Eugenics-Obsessed Nuns. And the never sunburned natives.
All want control of the Space Cocaine.
Yep, you’ve seen this (scene) before:
But, then again, this is a universal concept – the Hero trains under a great Mentor…who usually either dies or ends up captured by the Enemy.
Gender Tropes Confirmed (and/or Side-Stepped):
Like most movies featuring some kind of action, one can usually count on 2 things about women in these movies:
First, that you will not find women who enter in the service of “Evil” for the sake of actually advancing the goals of the Bad Guys – when there are Evil Women at All. In most cases, women in the service of the Bad Guys are simply labeled “Man-Haters”; the reason why they are working for the Bad Guys is because a Man (or some Men) didn’t pay attention to them when [the woman in question] was looking for love. Or, the woman in question was “cheated” out of an award won by some man – or the woman whom the man was in love with. Rarer still, the woman was sexually assaulted by a nameless man, and now she holds a grudge against ALL men. Note that these scenarios may sound familiar.
However, it is more likely that there are NO female characters who have entered into the service of the Bad Guys at all. Dune continues this slide. Where you see women working in combat roles in House Atreides AND with the Fremen as equals, you see no women as members of House Harkonnen OR serving in political or military roles within the Emperor’s Staff. You also do not see any female-gendered members of the Spacing Guild.
Second, women in the films are often given a “sexy” uniform, which is supposed to indicate her availability to the (White) Male (Hetero) audience. In decorative situations, like a royal gathering, dressing to accentuate (Female) beauty is considered permitted, as the name of game is usually opulence. The problem, however, will arise when it comes to actually military and combat garb. It is highly illogical to have female-gendered soldiers dressed in gear that exposes vulnerabilities that can be exploited in a combat situation. However, as Ami points out here, the problem is that realism is pushed aside for narrow sexual fantasy for a very small percentage of the consuming population.
I say all of this just to point out that for many of Dune‘s flaws, this is one of the few things that it gets right. The female Atreides soldiers are dressed in the same uniforms as their male counterparts. The same is true for the women who fight with the Fremen. There are no stylistic differences.
Meanwhile, the roles for women don’t really change. In Dune, the women are all about childbirth, sex, eugenics, and serving as emotional anchors to men.
Alia, who was sent to kill Baron Harkonnen. Funny enough, because of the
Romulan Ale Water of Life, Alia was born with a high mitochlorian count all of the powers of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (something along the lines of a Jedi Master) – and only had her powers grow beyond that.
But, this is her crowning moment in the film.
And a Bonus:
Princess Irulan, the daughter of the Padishah Emperor spends the entire movie standing around and being silent, except for one word at the beginning of the film. As a tradeoff, she is the movie’s narrator.
Movies like Dune show the futility of “Concept” lawsuits filed by Corporations against their rivals using broadly worded Patents in an attempt to create a de facto monopoly over the competition. In this case, Dune uses its own version of an Electronic Book (mostly to infodump the setting and the Harkonnen’s evil intentions) as a predecessor to real life advances like the Tablet PC and E-Readers.
The Final “Battle” and the Final Denouement:
Perhaps the biggest reason why the movie doesn’t make much sense is here in the Final Act after the big battle. Paul MuaD’dib has gathered his prisoners, which include members of the Spacing Guild, Shaddam
Hussein and his staff, a Harkonnen named Feyd Routha, and Sardaukar troops.
Then, Paul has a knife fight with Feyd.
And then the movie ends with this:
And a last line that was supposed be religiously profound on some level. Except that the line does not make any sense, either as a standalone line OR within the context of the movie.
Here’s the problem: When you have a final battle in the film, you need to build the characters who will be participating in that battle. The sacrifice to heroism for the Protagonist hero, and the depraved evil for the Antagonist that mirrors the heroism of the Protagonist – we have to see these in words and in action. As such, we are supposed to learn why we should care about why the villain needs to be vanquished. Also, we are supposed to be able to speculate what the stakes are should the Hero lose.
Given what we see of Paul, Feyd, since he is the final obstacle, needed to be equally evil. Instead, we get this:
The only hint that Feyd and Paul are rivals in some way comes when Feyd menaces Leto and he thinks, “I wish this was Paul.”
Secondly, what would change Paul’s death?
The Fremen have defeated the Emperor’s Sardaukar Army, which means that Shaddam has no effective means of organizing resistance. The fact that the Harkonnens needed several Sardaukar legions during the sneak attack reveal that that the Harkonnens at full strength would not be able to take on the Fremen. The other Houses of the Lansraad seem to be in a similar situation.
Thus, except as a quick and dirty way to try to show that Maud’Dib’s powers had grown significantly, that battle was pointless.
And then, he makes it rain.
The movie almost makes it clear that there will not be a Second Imperial Counter-Attack waiting in the wings.
Let’s remember this:
You cannot bring “Peace and Love” when all you’ve done is kill AND kill for revenge. Sending your little sister on an assassination mission (even if she is one of the most powerful
Jedi Masters Reverend Mothers of the Order) would throw a whole monkeywrench into the entire idea.
Hostility to People of Color:
The troubles that People of Color experience being fans of Science Fiction and fantasy do not just center around being fans of a genre that refuse to acknowledge their existence. It also extends to media continuously marginalizing people of color, non-hetero people (particularly bisexual, asexual, and trans persons), and people with disabilities. Even in cases where the authors and creators actually took the time to include such persons in heroic or important roles, (White) fandom, having been so conditioned to look at themselves as being singularly worthy of heroism (to the exclusion of others), will edit or whitewash people of color away to maintain that fantasy.
Again, I mention all of this because Dune, like nearly every science fiction and swords-and-sorcery fantasy during this age, made their hostility plain. The only identifiable people of color are in that shot above. The 2 darker-skinned men have no lines, and Jose Ferrer is played as an inept leader (of the bad guys) being controlled by the Hyperspace Limo Drivers.
And that says nothing about the No Women of Color in Dune. That’s all that needs to be said about it. It’s such a broken
record data rod.
And What About the Space Cocaine?
The effects of the Spice Melanje are purposefully made as nebulous as possible. The Star Spice, however, is supposed to be extremely important because it has very powerful effects.
For example, take enough of it, and you become this:
A Hyperspace Limo driver.
You also get other effects from taking the Space Cocaine. However, you need to consult the score cards, otherwise known as the book series, to find out exactly WHY everyone else is fighting over the Space Cocaine.
Nuns of the Eugenic Order Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers gained their powers through taking the Space Cocaine. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Hussein is more than 200 years old because he has been taking the Space Cocaine. Other factions within the Dune books display similar powers and abilities because they take the Space Cocaine.
It’s a Family Affair:
Baron Harkonnen is actually the Lady Jessica’s father. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim is Jessica’s mother. This, of course, makes the Baron and the Reverend Mother Paul and Alia’s Grandparents.
Also since both Rabban and Feyd are nephews of the Baron, this made the both of them cousins to Paul and Alia.
And I wished it stopped there with the family connections.
The family connections in Star Wars aren’t even close to the trainwreck that Dune puts to paper, and not for a lack of trying.
And the Evil Movie Army:
The Sardaukar join the ranks of the mid-range movie armies in that they get absolutely no character development. They have no lines. You do not see them out of their uniforms. You do not see them without weapons, except at the end as prisoners of the Fremen.
Unless you read the books, or looked up their entries on Dune-based wikis, you’d never know that the Sardaukar are, like most movie armies, trained under the fiercest of conditions and do not have many people who actually survive the training. When you look at the fact that the Emperor had 50 Legions of Sardaukar, think about how many “recruits” never survived the training regimen…and I don’t think that this is an army that you could quit and go home from.
But, with no actual “voice” in the movie except to stand around and look menacing, or killing other non-important characters, the Sardaukar are simply another Faceless Enemy.
Dune is the end result of reading a book series and not being able to take away what the moral theme of the story is. Because it is such a large universe, the ability to compartmentalize it becomes paramount. But because there are so many concepts to introduce, it becomes even more problematic to decide what gets left on the table. Dune, as it is, left much on the table, but tried to parachute in characters that held importance and significance in the book series as brief cameos. Needless to say, it did not succeed on that front.
Secondly, this movie fails to establish a consistent moral compass. Because there is very little word and action to differentiate between the Atreides from the Harkonnens and the Empire of the Known Universe and the Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit Order, it soon becomes an exercise in losing the audience at the end. You would be hard-pressed to find a movie that had as many factions holding such equal importance in a single movie – and succeeding. A series like Dune would have worked much better as a TV show OR as a series of movie events like Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica (before ABC commissioned it as a TV series). When you only have 2 hours (3 tops) to tell a story like this, you need to be able to abridge it – or figure out what the the moral compass and theme of the story is and pick a slice of it to tell.
Also, you have to establish the “Line of Morality” within the context of your film. Without a clear definition, your lack of clear identification will work against you, especially if most of your audience would have a hard time siding with your protagonists because their methods bear little difference to the antagonist villains of the story. Dune does not, and the movie sinks because of it.
Much like the movie, I’m leaving alot of the criticism of the film on the table. In its own way, it’s probably fitting.
Watch Dune if you want to see what happens when you leave a story as incomplete as this one, but spend a budget so large that it could bankrupt a studio if you aren’t careful.