‘Dune’ 2021: A more mature ‘Star Wars’ with an edge
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in 'Dune.' | Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The original title of this article was going to be ‘Dune’ 2021: ‘Star Wars’ who? but I felt that might’ve been too harsh for those who believe the sun of the hero’s journey rises and sets on Luke Skywalker. Instead, I will proclaim that the new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s trailblazing 1965 science-fiction novel is a masterful blend of engrossing narrative and socially relevant themes. It is a beautiful cinematic journey to behold, as viewers will bear witness to a hero’s journey with bite that manages to avoid the overdone pitfalls of that narrative.

Dune: Part One tells the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), as he and his family, the noble House Atreides, are thrust into a war for the dangerous desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune). The natives of this planet, the Fremen people, have battled for years against the invaders, the House Harkonnen. The House of Harkonnen has oppressed the Fremen in order to mine the planet for a special spice that is known to extend human life, provide superhuman levels of thought, and make faster-than-light travel practical. The Harkonnen are given this authority by the Emperor until he chooses to give this power over to House Atreides. This sets off a chain of tragic events that leaves Paul struggling to find his way under a new world order.

Now, for those not familiar with science-fiction stories, much of that plot overview may sound like high-fantasy jargon. Yet, the sci-fi genre has often been used as a means of reflecting real world issues through fantastical allegories, and Dune is no different. Themes such as self-determination, capitalist greed, and environmentalism are all woven into this fantasy story, making for an often tense and powerful viewing experience.

Once you get the basic details down of who is who and what is what, this is a movie that can appeal to both those who like high-fantasy and those who aren’t particularly drawn to it. That is because this isn’t a film which relies so heavily on the spectacle of CGI and out-of-this-world beings to distract from a thin plot and cardboard cutout characters. The force behind this story is to be found in the characters, their relationships, and the choices they make.

The basic outline of a hero’s journey is one that involves a main character who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed. Often in mainstream media, the hero is a male who is sent on a journey that sees him lose his “childlike innocence” in order to embody all the stereotypical attributes of strong masculinity. There, of course, have been variations of this template in recent times, but this archetype seems the most prevalent. While Dune on the surface could be mistaken for doing much of the same, it does not. This is what helps it stand out.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul is allowed to give an emotional through line of vulnerability and sensitivity in his performance that is not portrayed as a weakness of his character, but a growing strength. The actor has a subtle yet commanding presence onscreen that serves as more than just a self-insert for young boys and men who may want to be swashbuckling adventurers. He has quirks about him, and a perspective that draws you in. Unlike in other stories like these, where everyone but the main character seems to have more flavor to them, Chalamet holds his own in bringing Paul not only to life but to the forefront. That’s not to say that the supporting cast isn’t just as compelling.

No character is wasted in the movie. Even smaller roles, where a character may only appear for one scene, feel like they hold weight. The women characters are not only love interests or mothers to be sacrificed for the hero’s emotional growth. Further, this is not a film that acts as if the very far off future is filled with only white people doing important things, with the singular sporadic “magical Negro” token character thrown in for diversity points.

Themes of environmentalism and capitalist greed feature. The desert planet of Arrakis itself feels like its own character. It holds not only a looming presence in the plot but in the film as a whole. Director Denis Villeneuve does a wonderful job of displaying the power of the desert and its effects on the characters. This is important, as Herbert’s original novel had a strong ecological theme. Villeneuve shows us, just as Herbert put to prose, the complex relationship between organisms and their environment. What unintentional effects can people have on a planet? That was already a question being asked in the 1960s and even more so today as we deal with a world ravaged by climate change exacerbated by harmful human activity.

Stellan Skarsgård, as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, will be the thing of future nightmares as he seems to represent unchecked power and greed. Baron is an appropriate (and probably not accidental) title for Vladimir, as he looks like the visual realization of a death metal robber baron, relishing in his personal fortunes amassed through cruel business practices.

There will be obvious comparisons drawn between Dune and another sci-fi epic with similar beats—Star Wars. After all, Star Wars is often regarded as the most well-known science fiction film franchise, and it also happens to deal with the hero’s journey. I began this article with the comparison because I’m sure Star Wars will be many viewers’ point of reference when going into Dune. But it needs to be pointed out that the Dune novel is one that many sci-fi films, including Star Wars, have been said to owe inspiration.

Dune the book came first. Paul existed before Luke, and, to be blunt, Dune the film is allowed to have a mature edge that the Disney-owned Star Wars films avoid. I didn’t feel like I was subliminally being sold toys (like lightsabers or mini Rebel cruisers) while watching Dune. Children under 12 may end up restless during the two hour and 45-minute run-time of the movie, but this isn’t really for them. This is a tale for adults to take in and ponder.

Although Dune: Part One lays a lot of groundwork to set up for a clearly intended multi-movie franchise, viewers will get a good amount of action and happenings to keep them going until the next installment is released. The moments of levity are few, but the film manages to not feel overly bleak. There’s hope. Not exactly a “new hope” (shameless Star Wars reference), but a positive feeling that the source material is being done justice.

Dune is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBOMax.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.