As a longtime fan of all things Dune, there’s no living director I’d trust more to take over the “property” than Denis Villeneuve. But why remake Dune at all? Oh, I know, the original film—directed (in several cuts) by “Alan Smithee,” also known as David Lynch—is a disaster, so they say. Even Lynch says it. (Maybe the nicest thing he’s ever said about the movie is, “I started selling out on Dune.”) Critics hated, and largely still hate, it; the film’s marketing was a mess (Universal promoted it like a family-friendly Star Wars clone); and the studio felt it necessary to hand glossaries to early audiences to define terms like Kwisatz Haderach, gom jabber, and sardaukar.
But when I first saw David Lynch’s Dune, I did not know any of this. I hardly knew Lynch or his filmography and had yet to read Frank Herbert’s books. I was a young science fiction fan who saw in the movie exactly what Lynch said he intended: “I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world.” I did not know to be upset about his deviations from the books in the grotesque imagining of the Third Stage Guild Navigator or the decision to cover Baron Harkonnen in bloody, oozing pustules. The film’s impenetrability seemed like a feature, not a bug. This was a world, totally alien and yet uncannily familiar.
In hindsight, I can see its many flaws, though not its total failure, but I still find it mesmerizing (and what a cast!). Villeneuve, I think, was in a very difficult position in updating such a divisive work of cinema. Should he appeal to fans of the books who hate Lynch’s film, or to fans of the classic film who love its imagery, or to the kinds of theatergoers Universal Studios feared would need a glossary to make it through the movie? Add to this the pressures of filmmaking during a pandemic, and you can imagine he might be feeling a little stressed.
But Villeneuve seems perfectly relaxed in a recent interview above for the Shanghai International Film Festival, and the trailer for the new film has so far passed muster with everyone who’s seen it, generating excitement among all of the above groups of potential viewers. As you can see in the video at the top, which matches shots from the preview with the same scenes from the 1984 film, the new Dune both does its own thing and references Lynch’s disputed classic in interesting ways.
No director should try to please everyone, but few adaptations come laden with more baggage than Dune. Maybe it’s a good idea to play it safe, anchoring the film to its troubled past while bringing it in line with the current size and scope of Hollywood blockbusters? Not if you ask the director of the Dune that never was. Alejandro Jodorowsky intended to bring audiences the most epic Dune of all time, and was relieved to find that Lynch’s adaptation was “a shitty picture.” By contrast, he pronounces the Villeneuve trailer “very well done” but also compromised by its “industrial” need to appeal to a mass audience. “The form is identical to what is done everywhere,” he says, “The lighting, the acting, everything is predictable.”
Maybe this is inevitable with a story that filmgoers already know. Maybe Villeneuve’s movie has surprises even Jodorowsky won’t see coming. And maybe it’s impossible—and always has been—to make the Dune that the cult Chilean master wanted (though breaking it into two parts, as Villeneuve has done, is surely a wise choice). Herbert’s vision was vast; every Dune is a compromise—“Nobody can do it. It’s a legend,” says Jodorowsky. But every great director who tries leaves behind indelible images that burrow into the mind like shai-hulud.