The new trailer for Dune is here, and it is a bloated bottomless sandworm of schlock.
Timothée Chalamet as boy-band-ready superseer Paul Atreides mutters voice-over profundities with a catch in his throat as the camera caresses his narrowed eyes, his flexing brows, his extreme pout close-up. Something burns dramatically in the distance, CUT, Oscar Isaac beards intensely, CUT, obligatory Triumph of the Will–massed army iconographic reference, CUT, serious people saluting each other with knives as Hans Zimmer’s preposterously pompous arrangement of the already preposterously pompous Pink Floyd tune “Eclipse” plays hugely in the background. And of course, right there at the end the gaping open maw of the sandworm, as awesomely enormous as a franchise marketing budget, prepared to devour ALL.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s movie appears to be Hollywood self-important silliness on a truly stupendous scale—a tottering gullet of tragic nonsense belching great gouts of epic hype. Which is to say, it’s a decent approximation of the spirit of Frank Herbert’s famous 1965 novel Dune, on which the movie is based.
If you’ve somehow missed all things Dune over the last 55 years, the Atreides are a royal family in the far future assigned by the Empire to rule over the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is the source of the spice which allows people to see the future, enabling ship pilots to navigate through space. Enemies of the Atreides scheme to overthrow them, but Paul escapes and joins with the desert Freemen, mighty warriors modeled vaguely (and unfortunately) on Arab cultures. With their help, Paul seizes his destiny.
Also, there are giant sandworms.
Dune has a reputation as a work of deep thought and titanic insight. Classic sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein called it, “Powerful, convincing, and most ingenious.” On its 50th anniversary the Guardian gushed that it was “perhaps the greatest novel in the science-fiction canon” which “should endure as a politically relevant fantasy.” Herbert himself lards his text with pithy epigraphs that seem designed to provoke eager and earnest quotation. “Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.” “The mind commands the body and it obeys. The mind orders itself and meets resistance.” And of course, the book’s most famous line, “Fear is the mind killer.”
But brush aside the sandy surface of ersatz Eastern philosophy and you’re left looking at a great undulating invertebrate of pulp. The civilized child coming into his own as ruler of indigenous people goes back to Tarzan, Heart of Darkness, and before: it’s one of the hoariest storylines in colonial literature. Paul is a chosen one like many a chosen one before him, except that (as with all things Dune) he is more chosen than all of them. He’s the son of a duke, the product of a complicated secret breeding experiment, a Mentat with a computer brain, a psychic who can see the future, a warrior who can defeat the best fighters in the universe in hand to hand combat, the leader of the revolution and the appropriator of the cultures of desert peoples. And he does all this while angsting with a great and holy angst. Even his mom is dazzled. “Hearing her son, Jessica marveled at the awareness in him, the penetrating insight of his intelligence.” Paul: he is cool.
As with Paul, so with his world. Every trope is stuffed to its grizzled war nostrils with tropeyness; mythic world-building blasts out of the prose like great monsters surfacing from the deep. Secret societies of space witches plot eugenic domination; the villainous gladiator switches which knife has the ceremonial poison. Dueling groups of super soldiers raised in two different nightmare environments clash with savage superiority. Plus there are giant worms that produce psychedelic spice which turns your eyes blue. There are giant worms that produce psychedelic spice that turns your eyes blue!
Dune is often credited with inspiring Star Wars, and there’s no doubt Lucas got a lot of his desert-planet-at-the-center-of-a-space-opera energy from Herbert. But where Lucas took old serials and spliced them together with kid-friendly cuteness, Herbert would rather pluck out his eye than indulge in a knowing wink. Dune is a towering prog concept album, its woozy environmental messaging blurring into its woozy colonial nostalgia as ambient background for the guitar crescendo heralding the arrival of…well, you know.
David Lynch’s 1984 film captured some of the novel’s trippy cross-eyed mysticism. But his stylized imagery and cold surface artifice was not a great fit for Herbert’s booming wizardry of excess.
Villeneuve appears to be taking a much more conventional Hollywood approach. That seems better suited to what is, at bottom, a fairly conventional, if overstuffed, book. This is, after all, the story of how the Greatest Boy In The Universe embraces his Tragic Destiny, complete with fated significant other and worm-riding. Dune is big. Dune is dumb. So is the new trailer. It seems like a good fit.