Dune 2021: Incomparable By Choice

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Having seen the 2021 Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve, I’m not going to compare it to other takes or other films. Let’s talk about it on its own first.

Dune 2021 quickly introduces us to the world of the far future through the viewpoint of an initially nameless inhabitant of the titular planet (Chani, played by Zendaya). Through her angry eyes, we learn of Dune’s exploitation as its sands hold the drug known as Spice. Under the oppressive hand of the noble-in-title-only family of the Harkonnens, the natives watch their world exploited. When the Harkonnens suddenly leave, the natives assume they will have only a change of oppressors.

Suddenly, our view switches to the planet of Caladan, home of house Artredes, appointed to rule Dune by sudden and suspicious Imperial Decree. Our viewpoint is now that of Paul (Timothée Chalamet), an understandably moody young noble. Paul is caught up in political machinations, his need for an identity, and his mother’s involvement in a mysterious, mystical sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit. Despite wealth and power (possibly precognitive power) Paul is a pawn in many other games.

Chalamet’s Paul was where I truly began to appreciate the human-centric approach to Dune. We’ve all known Pauls, talented and well-meaning people enmeshed in obligations and demands that threatened to strangle their own identities. Less poetically, Paul is that slightly moody and awkward teenager whose moodiness is entirely understandable.

The film slowly and gradually moves onto the larger plots of intrigues and backstabbing, of visions and manufactured messiahs. For those somehow unfamiliar with the story, it would spoil the tale. For those familiar with the story, it is useless to summarize them. I would rather spend space describing how the film is done.

Theatrical is the word I finally used to describe the Dune of 2021. As grand as the world and the effects may be, the film stays focused on the characters. It is a tale of intimacy among sweeping planetscapes and galactic machinations. There is grandeur and impressive effects a-plenty, but these are backdrops to the characters because it is their story.

The moments I remember the most are the personal ones over special effects. Paul yelling in frustration over what people have tried to make him. The enduring bravery of Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) as he faces danger. The stoic yet fracturing expressions of Jessica Artredes (Rebecca Ferguson) as she navigates political and emotional minefields. Even battles with nameless troops have an impact because of well-chosen effects and shots that make the deaths and pain seem real.

The cast is universally excellent and embraces their roles appropriately but also with dignity. It would take little effort for me to praise each actor, but I prefer you experience the film for itself. I easily imagined this cast could have been filmed in front of paintings and still done a fine job.

Now, with a review comparing Dune 2021 to nothing else, let me now compare it to things.

First, I refuse to compare it to Lynch’s Dune or the Syfy television series. Each was made under different conditions, at different times, with different goals.  Dune is a challenging property to make anyway, and I feel all have their virtues and visions. This film is a vision as well.

It is also a vision that breaks every Holywood rule of the last few decades to deliver that vision. It hasn’t been cut or refined to fit assumptions and marketing calculations. There is no “save the cat” here to fit convenient audience expectations. No one holds your hand as a guide on the byzantine backstory; one has to pay attention. Finally, it’s two and a half hours long, and it’s only part one.

I’d put Dune 2021 up there with such things as Kwaidan and Silent Running. To see it is to experience a vision of what was wanted, a consistent, personal take on the story. It may not be an easy experience, but like Paul, you get farther when you seek a vision and follow it through pain and fire to something greater.

Did I enjoy Dune 2021? No, I experienced it, and that is a need all too rarely satisfied.

Steven Savage

Pop Goes The Culture

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

There’s something about current pop culture that doesn’t really “pop,” doesn’t seem to engage us unless it’s heavily marketed and promoted. I wonder what can help us find stimulating, challenging work these days.

In fact, what do we want from pop culture beyond entertainment and common ground.

Serdar wrote about what he wanted out of pop culture . He described how really interesting pop culture work isn’t top-down, but feels that it somehow escaped into the so-called mainstream

“I kept coming back to that word, “escaped”. I like it when it feels like some piece of popular culture has gotten away with something. I liked that Blade Runner 2049 was essentially a $200M art film, because we should make more $200M art films, dammit. I liked that David Lynch’s Dune, for all that was wrong with it, also had a lot that was daring and unrepentantly weird.”

This is something I want as well. When I look back on my pop culture interests, I find these things that feel escaped, at that subvert things genuinely really appeal to me. It’s pop culture on fire, that honest lightning that strikes us easily as it’s “pop” and accessible, but also something that twists, advances, or subverts expectation. Good pop culture travels along our common cultural wires, but delivers an unexpected and enlightening shock.

Most of my pop culture tastes tend to this role. My Hero Academia mixtaped American Superheroes and classic Shonen ideas, threw in a liberal dash of body horror, and created a haunted funhouse of action. Farscape was the Adams Family to the Father Knows Best of too much washed out science fiction, subverting tropes while delivering drama with a smirk. One of my most-beloved video games was Dungeonmans, a comedic Roguelike game that deconstructed the tropes of its genre, while delivering an actual good game.

Also those “wow” factors produce social bonding. That sudden, fulminating bond of an escaped wild idea can’t be duplicated.

But a lot of pop culture is pop only in popular, with giant conglomerates churning out cautious product. It’s meant to be popular,its meant to be widespread, but it doesn’t have that jolt, that scruff, that edge that some other projects do. It’s safe on every level, but that also mean’s it’s not challenging. When something big subverts expectations – say Shazam’s embrace of the family idea or Bird’s of Prey’s over the top delivery – we notice.

At some point, I think things are just going to keep grinding away and be less interesting. We’re watching DC capitalize on Snyder Cut mania for . . . well, I don’t know what reasons. In this Pandemic, are we really missing movie theaters and the usual output? Right now our cultural changes are making us massively rethink our media and media choices.

Serdar and I have discussed several times that any big media company who wants to do more needs a skunkworks. You need to try a lot of different things and see which clicks. Hand people low-to-mid budgets and see what you can run with that allows really great and interesting ideas to “escape” from the confines of creators heads – and the current media machines.

But barring that, we creators, we indies, have to be the skunkworks. We’ve got to try wild things. Weve also got to market ourselves and each others. I’m not sure we can count on anyone but us.

(Note: Despite it’s many, many flaws, by I will defend David Lynch’s Dune as being unspeakably, daringly weird and bizarre. People gave him Star Wars money and he made a David Lynch movie.)

Steven Savage

Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune

I’m taking a break here by moving to a review of a most unusual film about an unusual film that never was. Perhaps the archetypical Nevermade movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make Dune in the 70’s.  This is “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”

SHORT REVIEW: Must-watch film for media historians, writers, and filmmakers. Be warned of some odd and offensive language, however.


  • A fascinating exploration of the unmade 1976 Dune.
  • Provides insights on how the unmade movie seeded other ideas and brought people together.


  • Some parts may be offensive, including a creative/rape metaphor that I found pretty horrible.
  • It’s one-sided, focusing mostly on Jodorowsky.

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