Manohla Dargis, the co-chief film critic for The New York Times, tells us about the research and writing choices she made as she worked.
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My name is Denis Villeneuve and I’m the director of Dune. “Don’t stand with your back to the door!” This scene needed to serve four purposes. First, to establish the nature of the relationship between Paul Atreides and Gurney Halleck. Two, to give more insight about the context in which the Atreides will move to a new planet named Arrakis. Three, to induce the idea that Paul Atreides has been training for combat, but has never really experienced real violence. And four, to introduce the concept of the Holtzman Shields, and how they change the essence of combat. An Holtzman Shield is a technology that protects individuals or vehicles from any fast objects. Therefore, bullets or rockets are obsolete. So it means that man to man combat came back to sword fighting. The choreography between Timothée Chalamet, who plays Paul, and Josh Brolin, who plays Gurney Halleck, illustrate that each opponent is trying to distract his adversary by doing very fast moves in order to create an opportunity to insert slowly a blade inside the opponent’s shield. “Guess I’m not in the mood today.” “Mood?” “Mm.” “What’s mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises, no matter the mood. Now fight!” That choreography was designed by Roger Yuan. He developed the Atreides fighting style borrowing from a martial art technique developed in the ‘50s. This technique was called balintawak eskrima. It’s a style that involves blocking the opponent’s attack with both a weapon and the free hand. “I have you.” “Aye. But look down, my Lord. You’d have joined me in death. I see you found the mood.” Cinematographer Greig Fraser and I shot the fight like we will shoot a dance performance. The goal was to embrace the complexity of the movements with objective camera angles. We tried to make sure that the audience will understand the nature of this new way of fighting. “You don’t really understand the grave nature of what’s happening to us.” But more importantly, I wanted to feel that Josh Brolin’s character was caring about Paul like if he was his own son. “Can you imagine the wealth? In your eyes— I need to see it in your eyes. You never met Harkonnens before. I have. They’re not human. They’re brutal! You have to be ready.”
For the latest edition of Annotated by the Author, our Mentor Texts series in which we invite New York Times journalists to annotate their work, we asked Manohla Dargis, The Times’s co-chief film critic, to tell us about her review of the much-anticipated film “Dune.”
We chose this review because many young people have seen, or at least heard of, “Dune” — it is, after all, based on one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time. But the review is also an excellent example of critical analysis. In her annotations, Ms. Dargis explains how she wrote an opening that would hook readers; poured herself into research to understand the context of the film; and balanced telling readers about the story with sharing her sharp-witted opinions about the acting, the sets, and the differences between the book and Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation.
If you are planning to enter our Student Review Contest this fall, we hope you will learn a thing or two from this critic, a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Below, the paragraphs from Ms. Dargis’s original review are in bold, reproduced exactly as she wrote it, links, images and all. Her comments follow each bold section.
You can read more of Ms. Dargis’s work here.
In a galaxy far, far away, a young man in a sea of sand faces a foreboding destiny. The threat of war hangs in the air. At the brink of a crisis, he navigates a feudalistic world with an evil emperor, noble houses and subjugated peoples, a tale right out of mythology and right at home in George Lucas’s brainpan. But this is “Dune,” baby, Frank Herbert’s science-fiction opus, which is making another run at global box-office domination even as it heads toward controversy about what it and its messianic protagonist signify.
Manohla Dargis: I am a big believer in ledes, or opening lines, that grab your attention and make you want to keep reading. In this case, because this is a relatively long Times movie review with a lot of moving parts, I wanted the lede to be fast and punchy. I also knew that at some point in the review, I wanted to mention George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” because “Star Wars” is so obviously indebted to “Dune.” But I didn’t want the review to be about Lucas. So quoting one of the most famous film openings in history — “In a galaxy far, far away …” — neatly served my different needs.
The movie is a herculean endeavor from the director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”), a starry, sumptuous take on the novel’s first half. Published in 1965, Herbert’s book is a beautiful behemoth (my copy runs almost 900 pages) crowded with rulers and rebels, witches and warriors. Herbert had a lot to say — about religion, ecology, the fate of humanity — and drew from an astonishment of sources, from Greek mythology to Indigenous cultures. Inspired by government efforts to keep sand dunes at bay, he dreamed up a desert planet where water was the new petroleum. The result is a future-shock epic that reads like a cautionary tale for our environmentally ravaged world.
Here, I just wanted to describe this monumental book, the most famous science fiction novel in history, as quickly and as broadly as I could. When I have the time, I read the source material, whether it’s a book, article or play, for the movies I’m reviewing, particularly when the source is of cultural significance.
Villeneuve likes to work on a large scale, but has a miniaturist’s attention to fine-grained detail, which fits for a story as equally sweeping and intricate as “Dune.” Like the novel, the movie is set thousands of years in the future and centers on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the scion of a noble family. With his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul is about to depart for his new home on a desert planet called Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune. The Duke, on orders from the Emperor, is to take charge of the planet, which is home to monstrous sandworms, enigmatic Bedouin-like inhabitants and an addictive, highly valuable resource called spice.
I always want to give readers a sense of the story (boy meets girl, blah, blah, blah) without providing a detailed blow-by-blow synopsis. That’s why Wikipedia and movie sites like IMDB exist. But I’m also aware that if I withhold too much information about a particular story (especially one as complicated as “Dune”), I may lose readers. So, I try to sprinkle in just enough about the story to give readers something to hold onto. It’s always a balancing act.
Much ensues. There are complicated intrigues along with sword fights, heroic deaths and many inserts of a mystery woman (Zendaya) throwing come-hither glances at the camera, a Malickian vision in flowing robes and liquid slow motion. She’s one piece of the multifaceted puzzle of Paul’s destiny, as is a mystical sisterhood (led by Charlotte Rampling in severe mistress mode) of psychic power brokers who share a collective consciousness. They’re playing the long game while the story’s most flamboyant villain, the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), schemes and slays, floating above terrified minions and enemies like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon devised by Clive Barker.
The idea of a Clive Barker-designed Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon image popped into my head while I was watching “Dune” a second time. I had to share.
The movie leans on a lot of exposition, partly to help guide viewers through the story’s denser thickets, but Villeneuve also uses his visuals to advance and clarify the narrative. The designs and textures of the movie’s various worlds and their inhabitants are arresting, filigreed and meaningful, with characters and their environments in sync. At times, though, Villeneuve lingers too long over his creations, as if he wanted you to check out his cool new line of dragonfly-style choppers and bleeding corpses. (This isn’t a funny movie but there are mordantly humorous flourishes, notably with the Baron, whose bald head and oily bath indicate that Villeneuve is a fan of “Apocalypse Now.”)
Years ago I interviewed Quentin Tarantino, who talked about how he handled the Jack Rabbit Slim scene in “Pulp Fiction” at the retro restaurant where John Travolta and Uma Thurman eat and dance. Tarantino said that “when you have a set that great, you’re almost intimidated by it,” but that scene “ain’t about the restaurant.” So he had Travolta sail through it: Show the set off and then forget it. I think about Tarantino’s comment a lot when I’m watching movies with very elaborate sets. Are the filmmakers showing them off or using them to serve the movies? I think that Denis Villeneuve, the director, was a little too fond of his sets in “Dune.”
That impulse to linger is understandable given the monumentality of Villeneuve’s world building (and its price tag). But the movie’s spectacular scale combined with Herbert’s complex mythmaking also creates a not entirely productive tension between stasis and movement. Not long after he lands on Dune, Paul is ushered into the new world of its tribal people, the Fremen, a transitional passage leading from dark rooms to bright desert, from heavy machinery and vaulted spaces with friezes to gauzy robes and the meringue peaks of the dunes. Paul is on a journey filled with heavy deeds and thoughts, but en route he can seem caught in all this beauty, like a fly in fast-hardening sap.
There are moments in “Dune” and in Villeneuve’s other movies when his truer talent is for production design rather than as a director of moving pictures.
Chalamet looks young enough for the role (Paul is 15 when the novel opens) and can certainly strike a Byronic pose, complete with black coat and anguished hair. The actor has his moments in “Dune,” including in an early scene with Rampling’s Reverend Mother, who puts Paul through a painful test; Chalamet excels at imparting a sense of confused woundedness, psychic and physical. But he doesn’t move with the coiled grace of the warrior that Paul is meant to be, which undermines both his training sessions with the family “warmaster” (Josh Brolin) and in his later role as a messianic figure, one who is considerably less complicated and conflicted onscreen than he is on the page.
As I was thinking about Timothée Chalamet’s acting, I realized that he has effectively become the new Leonardo DiCaprio, a.k.a. Hollywood’s latest bankable white male heartthrob. That means that, like the young DiCaprio, Chalamet is now famous enough to be cast in a big movie whether he makes sense in it or not. I didn’t have the space or inclination to drag DiCaprio into this graph — but that’s what I was thinking.
Written by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, the screenplay has taken predictable liberties. The movie retains the overall arc of the book despite having jettisoned characters and swaths of plot. There have been felicitous changes, as with the character Dr. Liet Kynes, an ecologist who’s a man in the book but is now a woman. Played by a formidably striking Sharon Duncan-Brewster, the character doesn’t receive nearly enough screen time, particularly given Kynes’s weighty patrimony and narrative function. But Duncan-Brewster — like so many of the other well-cast supporting performers — makes enough of an impression that she helps fill in the script’s ellipses.
Dr. Liet Kynes is a great character; in the book, he is also a man. I love that the movie makes the character a woman, even if one who’s been whittled down in importance. But Sharon Duncan-Brewster is one of those actors who, through their talent and presence, can make even a smallish role seem big. She’s terrific. And, of course, her casting adds some gender and racial diversity. I would love to see an entire movie or series centered on her as Liet Kynes.
Throughout “Dune,” you can feel Villeneuve caught and sometimes struggling between his fidelity to the source material and the demands of big-ticket mainstream moviemaking and selling. It’s easy to imagine that he owns several copies of the novel, each copiously dog-eared and heavily outlined. (The movie is relatively free of holiday-ready merch opportunities, outside of a cute desert mouse with saucer-sized ears.) At the same time, Villeneuve is making a movie in a Marvel-dominated industry that foregrounds obviousness and blunt action sequences over ambiguity and introspection. There’s talk and stillness here, true, but also plenty of fights, explosions and hardware.
The fact that Villeneuve directed a sober, serious and beautiful movie from a sober, serious and smart book at this point in American mainstream movie history is impressive enough to mention and celebrate. Whatever you think of Marvel, its crushing domination is terrible for the movie industry simply because it has led to less and less narrative and genre diversity in bigger movies. It’s bleak.
The trickiest challenge is presented by the movie’s commercial imperatives and, by extension, the entire historical thrust of Hollywood with its demand for heroes and happy endings. This presents a problem that Villeneuve can’t or won’t solve. Paul is burdened by prophetic visions he doesn’t yet fully understand, and while he’s an appealing figure in the novel, he is also menacing. Herbert was interested in problematizing the figure of the classic champion, including the superhero, and he weaves his critique into the very fabric of his multilayered tale. “No more terrible disaster could befall your people,” a character warns, “than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”
Frank Herbert, the author of the original novel, complicates Paul’s role in interesting ways that are fundamentally anathema to Hollywood’s frustrating, often maddeningly simplistic love for unambiguous heroes. Villeneuve’s conception of the character isn’t as complex as Herbert’s, and his Paul is more classically heroic or at least seems like the usual hero-in-the-making. But the movie only adapts the first half of the first book, so maybe — if Villeneuve directs a sequel — he will go against Hollywood’s heroic grain. Here’s hoping.
There’s little overt menace to this Paul, who mostly registers as a sincere, sensitive, if callow hero-in-the-making. Mostly, the danger he telegraphs exists on a representational level and the dubiously romanticized image presented by a pale, white noble who’s hailed as a messiah by the planet’s darker-complexioned native population. Whether Paul is white in the novel is, I think, open to debate. Herbert’s focus is on the human race, which, as the writer Jordan S. Carroll notes in a fascinating essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, hasn’t prevented white supremacists from embracing the book. “Fascists love ‘Dune,’” Carroll writes, though he sees this love as a self-serving misreading.
The idea that fascists love “Dune” blew my mind enough that I felt it was worth sharing, particularly given Herbert’s complex portrayal of Paul as its hero in the book. I thought Jordan S. Carroll, the author of the essay I cited in this paragraph, made a persuasive argument that fascists have self-servingly misread the book. It’s super creepy.
One of Herbert’s talents was his ability to blend his promiscuous borrowings — from Navajo, Aztec, Turkish, Persian and myriad other sources — into a smoothly unified future world that, as befits science fiction, is at once familiar and strange. The shadow of Lawrence of Arabia and colonialist fantasies does loom large, particularly because the Fremen and their language are drawn from Arabic origins. Still, the book gives you room to cast Paul in your head in whatever image you choose. But movies tend to visually lock in meaning, and, like David Lynch’s much-maligned 1984 adaptation with Kyle MacLachlan as Paul, this “Dune” is also about a white man leading a fateful charge.
I love doing research but sometimes overdo it. For this review, I read Herbert’s book, revisited (again) David Lynch’s much-reviled 1984 adaptation and watched Villeneuve’s version twice. I also did a lot of supplementary reading, just because I wanted more background information, all of which helped me decide what I needed to — wanted to — write. (Research is also a pleasant way to procrastinate.) That said, I was in the middle of reading an academic paper on Herbert’s use of Arabic in the novel when I realized I had gone a bit too far down the research rabbit hole. That was when I finally started writing the review.
That doesn’t make Villeneuve’s “Dune” a white-savior story or not exactly or maybe just not yet. The movie ends before everything wraps up too neatly or uncomfortably, which injects it with some welcome uncertainty. Herbert wrote five sequels, and Duneworld continued to expand after his death; if the movie hits the box-office sweet spot, the story can presumably continue, which would be a gift for a franchise-hungry industry. Whether it will become the kind of gift that keeps on giving is up to the audience. Villeneuve has made a serious, stately opus, and while he doesn’t have a pop bone in his body, he knows how to put on a show as he fans a timely argument about who gets to play the hero now.
I hate the aggressive prohibition regarding “spoilers” — I mean, if you don’t want to know anything about the movie you’re going to watch, don’t read the reviews beforehand. I don’t. At the same time, because I want readers to discover the movie’s surprises and pleasures, I do try to be careful with what I share.
All that said, I really wanted to go into greater detail in this last paragraph. Specifically, I wanted to discuss the implications of having a white actor play a savior figure for an emphatically multicultural, multiracial world. The book gives you room to “cast” the story in your mind, but that’s not true of the movie, of course, which casts the characters for you. Frankly, I kept thinking about how much more interesting it would have been if Villeneuve had cast a person of color as the hero-savior.
Rated PG-13 for war violence. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes. In theaters and on HBO Max.