January 11, 2019
My Body is Ready: Updates on the ‘Dune’ Remake
Adaptations don’t come much more cursed than Dune. Cult monseigneur Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Icarus-like attempt is survived by a spectacular documentary. David Lynch’s studio-meddled 1984 adaptation was, in his own words: “75% nightmare.” And lest we forget: in the year 2000 there was the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries that garnered a sequel starring James McAvoy. And lo: in November 2016, Legendary Pictures announced that it had acquired the Dune rights. A month later, French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve was attached to direct, and millions of nerds fist-pumped in unison.
To make a long (LONG!) story short: Frank Herbert‘s Dune centers on two planet-owning noble families fighting a resource war over a drug that can be used for interstellar travel and unlock superhuman abilities. Traditionally, adapting Dune for the big screen has been regarded as the cinematic equivalent of scaling Muchu Chhish. Which is to say: there have been multiple attempts, but no definitive flag planting. At the risk of putting the cart before the sandworm, it really, really feels like the Villeneuve remake is on track to change that. And I don’t know about you, but it feels good to be excited about a big dumb genre blockbuster. So join us, won’t you, for a rundown on why Dune is set to be the boldest and most bizarre sci-fi flick in recent memory.
The cast is increasingly incredible
My personal experience of receiving Dune casting updates has varied from nodding my head in approval to yelling “OF COURSE” like Raúl Juliá. The first announcement was for none other than Paul, Dune’s teen protagonist turned superhero turned problematic boy king. Timothée Chalamet, still covered in peach juice from his breakout role in Call Me By Your Name, was tapped to take up the spicy mantel made famous by Kyle MacLachlan. Chalamet is reportedly stoked as hell, and actively following in the tried and true heartthrob-turned-serious-actor tradition of “exclusively work[ing] with great directors.”
The latest Mission: Impossible entires beg two questions: 1) are Tom Cruise’s knees okay? and 2) shouldn’t Rebecca Ferguson be in every franchise? While the jury’s out on the state of Ethan Hunt’s kneecaps, our prayers have been answered with respect to increased Ferguson visibility. Ferguson will be playing Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, an initiate of the psychic female sisterhood holding out against an otherwise patriarchal galactic landscape. Heck. Yes.
In what I’m confident will prove to be the most genius casting decision of all time, Stellan Skarsgård is joining the cast of Dune as a primary villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Harkonnen is a torture-happy planetary governor who hopes to retain his power of the planet Arrakis from the incoming stewards, the House of Atreides. A veteran genre mensch and known scene-chewer, Skarsgård is going to crush this role because Harkonnen’s cruelty is playing for the cheap seats. He’s a political cartoon of a corrupt politician: a putrid, cruel man, rotten inside and out. Also, I am required by law to remind you that Baron Harkonnen floats.
And finally (for now), because Dune’s ensemble is the gift that keeps on giving (blessed be casting director Francine Maisler), it was recently announced that Villeneuve will be reuniting with FSR favorite Dave Bautista, whose role in Blade Runner 2049 was short, sweet, and simply not long enough. Bautista will be playing Glossu Rabban Harkonnen, the Baron’s older nephew who inherited all of his uncle’s sadism and none of his smarts.
The crew has clout
Have you cruised through the Dune crew credits lately? Have you seen what good hands we’re in? Zero Dark Thirty and Lion DP Greig Fraser is behind the camera. Longtime Villeneuve collaborators, editor Joe Walker and production designer Patrice Vermette, are on board. Jacqueline West (The Revenant) and Bob Morgan (Inception) are designing the costumes. Hell! Yes!
Villeneuve is the man for the job
The rug that ties this room together is Villeneuve.
In a 2016 interview with Variety, Villeneuve described the chance to adapt Dune as “a longstanding dream,” and some have speculated that his enthusiasm for the project may have incentivized the Herbert estate to sell the rights to Legendary. “The ambition,” Villeneuve has said, “is to do the Star Wars movie I never saw.”
Villeneuve has the passion. But he also has the receipts. Villeneuve is the guy right now if you want somebody to transform esoteric sci-fi material to a visual medium. The Ted Chiang short story that Arrival is based on frequently varies in voice and tense in a way some might deem un-filmable. But complex source text be damned: the potboiler about linguistics and non-linear squid aliens was nominated for eight goddamn Oscars.
Likewise, while 2049 may have fallen shy of expectations at the box office, it played to critical acclaim and has widely been received by film dorks as a worthy follow up to a supposedly untouchable cult property. If you want visually striking, psychologically grounded storytelling: you go to Villeneuve.
It butters no parsnips to compare directors with different creative visions and production circumstances. That said, historically, Villeneuve has been able to repeatedly deliver clear creative visions in big-budget contexts. Villeneuve has stated that his version of Dune will draw on the text itself rather than from the passes of Lynch and Jodorowsky. Speaking to Fandom Villeneuve remarked: “I am a total different human being. It would be very presumptuous and arrogant for me to try.”
This vehicle is one unwieldy Dune buggy and Villeneuve knows it. All signs point to the remake being divided into two parts to best serve a text that is the most infamously dense piece of fiction this side of Infinite Jest. Holy smokes! Two-part storytelling that serves the narrative and not Hollywood bank accounts! Reset the clock!
It’s going to be bizarre and bold, and that’s a good thing
I am well aware of the irony of getting hyped on the talent attached to a Dune film that doesn’t exist yet. If you are from the future and have come here to gloat: hello, I hope you’re happy.
Forgive me my soapbox, but I think there’s a good chance that Dune, should it grace our screens, is likely to be one of the boldest and most bizarre sci-fi blockbusters of modern cinema. When I think of modern sci-fi that has blown me away, I think of pictures like Children of Men, Ex Machina, and Attack the Block, films that are, for the most part, “what if” scenarios in a world I can still recognize as my own. I don’t think audiences have gotten off-world and weird with a blockbuster in a while. Most big scale sci-fi movies these days are familiar franchises that, unfortunately, must operate within the confines of their brand and the expectations of their fanbase. I love me a good Star War, but at the end of the day, I am literate with the rules that govern the look, feel, and socio-political makeup of that world.
Let’s play a game. Here’s Wikipedia’s glossary of Dune terms. How many do you know? And, if you’re a big ol’ dork, how many do you think the average audience knows? Don’t get me wrong: thanks do our dark lord the internet, our average pop culture literacy is pretty solid. People know what the Force is, they know what Replicants are. I’m less confident that they know about Zensunni. And that’s a good thing. Look, revisiting and expanding upon familiar territory is fine. But getting to discover a strange new fantastic world you have no reference for? That’s special.
Despite its vast influence on the genre, I think Dune is going to blow people’s socks off in new and exciting ways. The Duneiverse is deeply weird and beautiful. I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.
Principal photography on the Dune remake is expected to begin in early 2019. This likely sets the release date around 2021. In the present absence of propositional materials, I’d advise throwing paprika at your monitors and joining me in unbridled glee as casting announcements continue to roll out.