The Case for Dune

C.F. Gould, Contributing Writer

I read Frank Herbert’s “Dune” for the first time during the lockdown. It is my mother’s favorite book, and it was her well-worn paperback copy that I read and re-read. I lost myself in this world of intrigue, mysticism and harsh natural landscapes that Herbert created in the pages of this novel. I saw Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation for the first time at the Campus Theatre last semester. I remember the room going dark, a black screen and an alien voice shaking the walls, with the translated subtitle reading “Dreams are messages from the deep”. A chill coursed through my body. For the next two and a half hours, Villeneuve took me back to Arrakis, the planet Dune, to bear witness to Paul Atreides’ transformative journey on the sands of that world. I was surprised and disappointed to learn that this monumental film did not win a major Academy Award this year. 

Villeneuve’s “Dune” is a monolithic masterpiece in science-fiction filmmaking. It captured for me the experience of reading the book for the first time. If you are a book nerd like myself, you know what a rare occurrence it is when a movie does that. This film was so perfect and so moving that I cried three separate times while watching it. Villeneuve has proved his directorial chops time and again with films like “Blade Runner: 2049” and “Arrival. He is a science-fiction visionary, able to create whole other worlds that surround you and enclose you with light, sound and motion that arrests you and transports you. 

Dunewas met with generally good critical and audience reviews and grossed something around $400.7 million in global ticket sales. It is a visual masterpiece. The sound design is unlike anything to grace the screen before. Hans Zimmer’s score is unlike anything that he or anyone has ever produced. On top of all of this, it is one of the most visionary and true-to-form science fiction adaptations in decades. 

As was to be expected, “Dune” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Of these 10, the film carried home six Oscars for cinematography, editing, score, visual effects, production design, and sound. These are all technical categories, and this should come as no surprise as science-fiction films typically do very well in these categories. But let us be frank for a second – the technical categories are not the ones that people pay the most attention to. The really valued awards are Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, etc.. These are the awards given to those filmmakers who show true excellence in their craft. This is not to downplay technical categories, but those awards do not celebrate the power of storytelling in a film. 

Science-fiction films have almost never won in these categories that reward films for excellent storytelling. In fact, getting even nominated is a relatively new phenomenon. Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Waterdid bring home Best Picture in 2018, but this film has more in common with the Fantasy and Horror genres than with science-fiction. It is a high bar for science-fiction in general, not only in films, to prove itself as an elevated and valuable form of storytelling in the modern world. People think of science-fiction still as ray guns and aliens and as being a cheap, pulpy type of storytelling. This is a misconception about science-fiction, and certainly of stories like “Dune.” Science fiction is a genre that puts a mirror up to mankind and our relationship to science and technology. It calls us to examine and re-examine our reciprocal relationship of change with science and technology, and, more importantly, our relationship with the larger spheres of our reality that surround us. Now more than ever, we need literature that asks us to re-examine these parts of our modern society and their often harmful effects on us materially and spiritually. H.G. Wells knew this, Octavia Butler knew this and Frank Herbert certainly knew this. This type of storytelling is of inestimable value, and it is time that the Academy recognizes this. 

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