3.5 out of 5 stars
Look, there’s no question why Dune is a legendary pillar of science fiction: it’s an epic, acerbic, socio-political-religious examination of everything from corrupt government to environmental stewardship.
The nearly uninhabitable, highly contested desert planet of Arakkis has a single natural resource: spice melange. This drug has magical and medicinal properties (I imagined it looking and tasting like cinnamon and working like LSD), and is wildly addictive. That’s not so weird, right? We’ve got drugs. But on Arakkis, spice melange is the byproduct of enormous, angry, subterranean sandworms. Okay. Good thing we don’t have those.
In a political maneuver, control of Arakkis is taken from the Harkonnen family and given to the Atreides family. A power struggle ensues. But among the many characters with mystical powers, the Atreides have two aces: Jessica, of the Bene Gesserit school of what seems to be meditation, manipulation, and extreme female intuition; and her son Paul, known as the Muad’Dib, who’s basically sci-fi Jesus. Together they try to win over the planets natives and lead them to revolution.
But Dune is also very dry. (Arakkis puns for days.) There’s a cold distance between the characters, and even between people and their own true selves. They’re almost talking to themselves in the third person, without changing pronouns. Nearly everyone has an intense preternatural self-awareness, too cerebral to be relatable. That’s not a criticism; instead, I think it’s the point: Dune felt mysterious and elevated to me, as the reader, the way the Muad’Dib and the Bene Gesserit are over others in the book. It’s high science fiction, written with scientific dispassion. This serves the mythology of the book: a Messiah-like legend that precedes (so we’re told) an inevitable jihad. But it creates a story being read for content, not feeling; like a long and dense parable.
Dune was movie-fied in 1984, and new film is on the way for November 20, 2020. It’s directed and co-written by Denis Villeneuve, who did such sumptuous things with the sterile sci-fi detachment of Blade Runner 2049. The casting is spot-on: the internet’s boyfriend Timothy Chalamet (Paul) will take his rightful place as a religious icon, Rebecca Ferguson’s (Jessica) can wield her sultry disdain, Oscar Isaac will brood sweatily, and Jason Momoa gets to be heroic without having to be the comic relief. Whereas everything in Dune the book felt inevitable and inexorable, I expect the movie will give me that missing ingredient: desire.