Hear me out: I’m not on a nutty spice trip like Kyle MacLachlan in that first film three decades ago. Director Denis Villeneuve’s latest adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic arrives as one of the most anticipated movies of 2021 with awesome visuals. David Lynch, who directed the ’84 version, has called his film “a total failure.” Which is a little harsh.
Both films center on Paul Atreides (McLachlan in ’84, Timothée Chalamet in ’21), a young man from the noble House Atreides who relocates with his family to the desert planet Arrakis, where spice – a natural resource that can give humans extraordinary abilities and also makes interstellar travel possible – is mined. There’s a huge conflict between the heroes and the villainous House Harkonnen, as Paul finds himself allied with the Fremen, the indigenous people of Arrakis.
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Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a hugely ambitious work that touches on religion, gender dynamics and colonialism; Lynch’s “Dune” is crazypants and kind of a campy hoot. But here’s what makes the OG flick a spicier bit of fun:
The new “Dune” only adapts roughly the first half of the book, and ends with Paul meeting the Fremen woman Chani (Zendaya) he’s been dreaming about before arriving inArrakis. (We’re all waiting to see if a sequel actually comes to fruition.) No one would accuse the old “Dune” of being super-faithful to the source material, as it excises a lot of bigger themes in favor of the action-packed stuff and major moments, but with less of a run time (old one: two hours, 17 minutes; new one: two hours, 35 minutes), Lynch’s film does have a definite beginning, middle and end.
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Herbert’s novel is dense in terms of world building – and it was a huge influence on George Lucas’ original “Star Wars.” Villeneuve’s film creates a visually arresting landscape, though tends to gradually explain the who’s who and the goings-on. Lynch took a more direct approach: Virginia Madsen (who plays the daughter of the emperor of the Known Universe) shows up early to explain everything the audience needs to know, from the cosmic setting and various factions to why spice is a thing. (Also, the ’80s “Dune” had an actual emperor – played with conniving bluster by Jose Ferrer – whereas he’s just talked about in the new film.)
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In the new film, Stellan Skarsgård is hidden under a bunch of prosthetics as the ruthless, large-and-in-charge villain Vladimir Harkonnen. He’s more quietly intimidating, while the 1984 baron – played by the late Kenneth McMillan – is by comparison a murderous psychopath. He also has oozy, pus-filled blisters on his face his sniveling henchmen drain and, when not killing random service people, flies around in his space armor cackling madly. But neither of these guys are who you’d want to bring home to mom.
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Lynch’s supporting cast features everyone from Sean Young (as McLachlan’s Chani) and Max von Sydow to a pre-“Star Trek” Patrick Stewart. The most eye-catching acting choice, however, is a ripped-to-shreds Sting as Feyd Rautha, Baron Harkonnen’s power-hungry nephew. The character doesn’t appear in the new “Dune,” though that might be because he’s planned for a sequel – or simply because it’s impossible to follow what Sting is doing here, preening and snarling and fairly handy with a knife.
If Villeneuve gets to do another “Dune” and finish off his epic, we will probably see Chalamet ride a massive sandworm. But will it be as cool as MacLachlan driving one, set to a chorus and rock guitars? Doubtful. (Toto and Brian Eno fueled the soundtrack for Lynch’s “Dune,” so that’s another win in its column.) Outside of Jason Momoa’s heartwarming bear hug on Chalamet, there’s nothing that rousing in the new “Dune.”
Meanwhile, mostly because Lynch’s film actually gets to a major climax, there’s plenty of satisfaction to go with the more out-there aspects, including a mutated alien that looks like it floated off the set of an old “Doctor Who” episode and a little girl sounding like Batman using “the Voice” (“Dune”-speak for power similar to that of the Force in “Star Wars”).
So in short, fear is not the mind-killer. It’s whoever tells you that the original “Dune” is a bad movie.