Perspective is a powerful tool. Every great filmmaker knows this.
Akira Kurosawa cemented the lesson with his storytelling master class “Rashomon” — a story told four very different ways by four very unreliable narrators. And Denis Villeneuve shows he was paying attention to this lesson in the opening moments of his new adaptation of “Dune,” in theaters and streaming on HBO Max starting Oct. 21.
Villeneuve begins to deftly paint over decades of heartburn about the beloved Frank Herbert novel in the opening moments of the film, and it’s another great example of the power of perspective.
Imagine “Smokey and The Bandit” told from the point of view of the sheriff or “Do the Right Thing” from the point of view of Sal, the pizzeria owner. What if “The Wizard of Oz” was narrated from behind that curtain?
Same stories, very different films.
As time has passed, the knock against “Dune” has been that it’s a white messiah story. There have been oceans of ink spilled on both sides of that divide and it’s pretty easy to argue either point.
It’s true, after all: The heart of the story revolves around a boy from the privileged race and class of a European-like galaxy-spanning empire who is prophesied to lead the mysterious and seemingly primitive desert-dwelling Fremen to overthrow the empire in a jihad.
On the other hand, it’s also true that the book is a refutation of colonialism, the story of a boy waking up to the evils of society and ultimately deciding to do something about it. It portrays baldly what humanity is, then shows us what it could be.
Published in 1965, it’s no hyperbole to suggest that the book helped millions of young readers to think differently and open their eyes to the injustices of our own world in the 1960s, ’70s and ‘80s. And even today there are many lessons to be learned in its endlessly complex, thought-provoking and — let’s be honest — somewhat confusing pages.
The excitement around Villeneuve’s version shows us the passion for the book remains. On the way to the preview screening a few weeks ago, a young woman was reading the book on the bus with a vague smile on her face. And there’s no question millions of fans have been waiting for Villeneuve’s pandemic-delayed film for decades after the debacle of David Lynch’s well-intentioned but hard-to-watch 1984 version.
It’s the biggest film of 2021, and for most fans, it’s a joyous occasion. They’ve waited a long time to see the book realized in the same serious way that Herbert presented the space opera — a dense take on politics, religion, economics, race, class, genetics, climate, addiction, heredity and our very humanity. But from the moment the news was announced, the drumbeat of criticism could be heard in the background.
Villeneuve was aware of this when he undertook the project, which splits in two Herbert’s brick-sized first installment in the sprawling series that continues today under the guidance of his son, Brian, who lives in Washington state.
Asked about the white savior trope and modernizing the story by The Nerds of Color in an interview, Villeneuve said: “That’s a very important question. And it’s why I thought ‘Dune’ was, the way I was reading it, a critique of that [trope]. It’s not a celebration of a savior. It’s a condemnation and criticism of that idea of a savior. Of someone that will come and tell another operation how to be and what to believe … it’s a criticism. That’s the way I feel it’s relevant and can be seen contemporary. And that’s what I’ll say about that. Frankly it’s the opposite.”
Lynch stylizes his much-maligned version with his own idiosyncrasies and drew plenty of criticism then and now (even beyond the Toto soundtrack and Sting’s appearance in a mankini). It hearkens back to the serialized sci-fi movies of the 1930s and ‘40s like “Flash Gordon,” “Buck Rogers” or “Commando Cody” with Kyle MacLachlan playing Paul Atreides. The director then layers on his own special brand of camp.
The resulting film pretty much nails the white messiah vibe with whitewashed Fremen, wilting women and seemingly very little thought given to meaning or intent.
Villeneuve, with fellow screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, tackles some of the potential problems “Dune” presents in the first moments of the film with a quick fix. We open with a voice-over narration by the character Chani, a young Fremen woman played by Zendaya.
She lays out the story for us: It’s the year 10,191 and the empire revolves around a substance known as spice. It allows interstellar travel and fires the galactic economy, among other mystical qualities. There’s only one place you can get this spice — Arrakis, the desert planet known as Dune.
We learn the emperor has decided to remove Dune’s despotic royal overlords the Harkonnens and replace them with Paul’s family, royal overlords who are presumably somewhat less evil. It’s a move bound to upset the empire’s political dynamic and cost the Harkonnens their fortune. Invariably, the fallout will cost lives and affect the future of the Fremen, the first inhabitants of the planet who have been there for thousands of years.
“Why did the emperor choose this path?” Chani asks. “And who will our next oppressors be?”
And for the first time the story is not just about Paul or his family or the colonizers. It adds a new perspective, gives us something valuable to hold in mind as the story rolls out in an otherwise very faithful way.
It is a narrow opening to be sure, less than two minutes in the beginning of a movie that’s two-and-a-half hours long. But Chani and her well-hidden people occupy a more powerful place in our minds as we await their appearance some time later.
Villeneuve has some work to do in the second half of the adaptation to make those few minutes pay off. The Fremen will move front and center in Part 2, and frankly there’s lots of weird mumbo jumbo to wade through in the coming chapters.
While we wait, it will be interesting to see the reaction to this film in our fractious times. It will be criticized for sure, but there will be others who see some elegance in Villeneuve’s thoughtful solution.
It’s really just a matter of perspective.
This story has been updated to reflect that the Fremen are not native inhabitants of the planet but instead the first inhabitants.