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Of Spice and Sandworms: A “Dune” Podcast

In this special edition podcast, Nestor Kok and Myle Yan Tay break down the 2021 remake of “Dune” in painstaking depth.

By Entertainment, Featured, Podcast

Illustration by Jade Sheng.

Audio


Transcript

NESTOR:

Hello and welcome to F Newsmagazine’s very special edition of the Entertainment Section. We are doing a standalone podcast on the release of the new “Dune” movie. It is October 26, 2021. “Dune: Part Two” has just been greenlit by Warner Brothers Studios, and “Dune: Part One” is in cinemas now! I am Nestor Kok, the Entertainment Editor at F Newsmagazine.

 

YAN:

And I’m Myle Yan Tay. I’m with the column, “Moving Pictures.”

 

NESTOR:

Right, so we’re here to talk about “Dune.” We’ll mostly be focusing on the movie but also how it ties in, of course, with its source material, and sort of, you know, whether it was good, whether it wasn’t good and what we liked, what we maybe didn’t. I don’t think there was much that we disliked but you know, there’s plenty to discuss.

Okay, so for all of you listeners who perhaps don’t really know that much about “Dune” still or maybe haven’t seen the movie just yet… The original novel, “Dune,” was written in 1965 by Frank Herbert. It is the first novel in a series of six that was later picked up and expanded on by his son, Brian Herbert. “Dune” centers on Paul Atreides, the 15-year-old son of Duke Leto Atreides of Caladan, and his concubine, Lady Jessica who is part of a religious movement called the Bene Gesserit, which we will be discussing. House Atreides has just been granted the desert planet Arrakis as a fief — a decision that could prove hugely profitable, as Arrakis is home to the spice melange, a mind-expanding drug that facilitates space travel and the training of human computers known as Mentats. However, House Atreides has also made enemies of House Harkonnen, the previous controllers of Arrakis, and a family of sadistic power hungry individuals headed by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. When trouble erupts on Arrakis, Paul is forced to face his destiny, shaped by forces at work for decades before his birth and change the fate of the Imperium forever.

That’s a pretty good summary of both the book and the movie. The movie sort of only really covers, I think, the first half of the book. So I guess we could probably start off by talking about the source material itself. So Yan, how old were you when you first read “Dune?” What stuck with you from the books? And how well do you think that was adapted?

 

YAN:

So I’m a “Dune” poser. Because I only, you know, so my dad tried to make me watch the Lynch version when I was very young. And I really didn’t understand anything that was going on other than the bubble suits. And he’s always loved to do … and he’s a big, big “Dune” guy, but I just couldn’t figure out the entry point for it. And then last year, I was kind of just in a bit of a slump. And I was checking out audio books because I was trying to go on walks every day to just try and like, you know, get myself moving.

 

NESTOR:

Was this during COVID?

 

YAN:
It was, definitely like, COVID-related, adjacent. And so I was looking at the Singapore library collection of audio books. And lo and behold, there was “Dune.” And I would have to finish it in 28 days. And I think the novel was something like… the length was like, 52 hours of listening. And I was like, well, if I’m gonna finish this, it’s gonna be like work. I’m gonna have to put in shifts every day to listen to it. And I was like, okay, I can listen to two hours a day or something like that. And I was listening to it at a slightly faster speed. And then I didn’t need the 28 days, I was done in like, a week because I would just start listening. And then I just listen to it for like, six hours, right? And just keep walking, and then come back, and be like, Okay, actually, I need a shower. But I kind of want to keep listening. So can I just play it on speaker? If I didn’t do that? I didn’t do that. So my major exposure to “Dune” was like last year. And as Nestor mentioned, this book is extremely old. Okay, not extremely old, 1965.

 

NESTOR:

It’s pretty old.

 

YAN:

So it’s been around for a long time. And a lot of people who love “Dune” and are excited for this movie, have, you know, decades of waiting. I have a year?

 

NESTOR:

Yeah. Well, I mean, my experience is maybe only, I think, slightly different. Like you said, I think the 50-60 year olds who read “Dune” when they were 14, and you know, like they’ve been waiting for this movie for like years, you know, and seeing as David Lynch’s “Dune” was also like universally critically panned. I mean, it’s got a bit of a cult following, but ultimately, you know, like, critical reception has been bad. And I feel like I don’t have anything on the years that those people have waited for an adaptation that they might like.

I read the book when I was 14. Which was, which is going to be 10 years ago. And oh my god, I’m gonna get so sappy and cringy. But I bought the book from this bookstore chain that is sort of no longer really a thing in my home country, in Malaysia. It’s vastly been shut down across the country, except for maybe a couple of outlets. But, you know, back then it was really big. And I would go to this big bookstore and I was like, “Oh, look, a sci fi novel.”

My copy of “Dune” is the ugliest copy in existence. It’s yellow, and purple, which tells you how ugly it is. And “Dune” is written on the front, in a font that looks like, you know, those stereotypical Country and Western bars, like, the cowboy font. It’s written like that. I don’t know why it’s typeset like that, but it is. And that was the edition that they were selling because mass market paperbacks with the cool sci fi covers, they’d been out of print for maybe a decade, and no one was rereading “Dune,” back then, or at least they were getting copies handed down. I bought this ugly copy. And I remember just going home and reading it and being like, wow.

You know, I remember the night that I settled down into bed and began reading it, because I don’t think I went to bed at a healthy time that night for a 14-year-old. And you know, I also just remember starting to read it and being like, this kid in the book is not that much older than me. And it stuck with me, because it’s partly about coming into your own. It’s a coming-of-age story, at its heart. And I think that was maybe the biggest thing that stuck with me — coming of age under an insurmountable load of pressure.

 

YAN:

Yeah, no, I think what you just said … I think that’s precisely why it spoke to me so much as well, why I just listened for six hours on end. Because I was like, listening to this thing and thinking about Paul, this character who was like, “What do I do next?” And at the same time in my life, I was like, “What do I do next?” And of course, I wasn’t thinking, “Should I ride the sandworm?” I was thinking, “Okay, what is the next stage of my life going to be,” all brought into abrupt focus by the pandemic.

 

NESTOR:

100%. So how well do you think that the movie was adapted?

 

YAN:

We’re going to talk about this a bit later; about the things that were cut, because there are quite surgical cuts. But I think in terms of its tone, its visuals, I think it’s an incredibly faithful adaptation of a work. I think whenever I’m experiencing an adaptation of a book, or a video game, or anything in a movie form, as long as the medium is shifting, the question I’m asking myself is, “Is this adaptation justifying itself?” Was the shift to this medium worthwhile? Was it doing something that the previous story was not doing? And I think this film did definitely warrant its existence, just because it’s an incredibly aesthetically beautiful film. And it’s able to capture the sense of Arrakis that is in such great detail in the book in words, but instead, wth shots and cuts. I think there’s also we can talk about this a bit more later, but there’s a lot of great editing in the movie.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yeah.

 

YAN:

The book is fairly linear. It doesn’t really jump to different things. But the film is playing with a lot of like, “Oh, here’s a little item, and we’re gonna look at that item again later but when something incredibly important has happened instead.” So I think that it really was using all the tools it could have to justify itself. Well, what do you think?

 

NESTOR:

No, I think it was amazing. I think it was the movie I’ve been waiting for, for 10 years. Especially after reading the book, and thinking, wow, David Lynch directed “Dune” and then thinking, Well, I like David Lynch, but not like this. Going from that to this, which is, like you said, a faithful adaptation. Villeneuve gets his characters right in a way that Lynch doesn’t. And I think just not only was there a sense of Arrakis, there’s a sense of character that is just fully faithful to the way that Frank Herbert wrote them essentially on the page.

So it’s probably time that we actually talk about the movie in relation to the book. Maybe we could start with talking about our favorite performances from the movie in terms of maybe characters, how well they were adapted, how they translated, who stood out to you.

 

YAN:

I really love Oscar Isaac in most things.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yeah.

 

YAN:

I think when he’s given the chance to do a lot with very little, he always does a great job. The reason I say a lot with very little is because Duke Leto, who Oscar Isaac plays, doesn’t have that much screen time. He doesn’t have that many lines, right?

 

NESTOR:

Yeah.

 

YAN:

He’s fairly removed from the entirety of the movie, but whenever he’s on screen, Oscar Isaac is really giving us everything and we get this vision of a man who desperately wants to do good.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yeah, yeah.

 

YAN:

And I think that’s something that really plays well.

 

NESTOR:

Yeah, that translated very well for me. I think I remember having a conversation with my friend in Singapore who had seen “Dune” like three weeks before we got to [in the USA]. And she was telling me about Duke Leto and her impressions of him as someone who hadn’t read the book. And we were making the comparison to Sean Bean in “Game of Thrones;” Sean Bean’s Ned Stark. And, you know, she was saying, he’s like Ned Stark in the sense that he dies early. But unlike Ned Stark, it feels like he was desperate to do good, and he played his cards wrong. As opposed to Ned Stark, when it sort of comes out of the blue and you’re like, “This is horrifying. Why? Why did this happen? This is just bad. I hate this.” I mean, it feels unjust when they both die. But at the same time, there’s this sense of inevitability that came with Leto.

 

YAN:

Yeah, and I think that speaks to a lot of things that go on in “Dune” because a lot of it is about inevitability; about the inability to change the future that is coming for you. Which is why these performances are very interesting, because there is the sense that Oscar Isaac brings that to his Leto; that his Leto knows he is going to be done at some point. And then Timothée — so I’m segueing this for you, but Timothée is also bringing that in; the sense of almost knowing what’s going to happen in the next scene.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, so the thing that I mainly wanted to say, well, about Timothée Chalamet, is that his Paul is so much more accurate to the novel’s Paul. Kyle MacLachlan plays Paul in this very sort of self-assured way. I can tell you that Kyle MacLachlan certainly does not look in his teens, when he plays Paul. But you know, even combined with that, the fact that he looks a lot older, he plays Paul as this very self-assured prince who sort of is like, “I have a destiny, I will go and meet it,” at all times. Whereas with Timothée Chalamet, you see him evolve from this unsure little boy to someone who is, towards the end, just being like “I have to, as they say in “Dune,” trust the process. I still don’t know what is going to happen. But everything happens for a reason.”

You see him go from almost unwilling, like during the scene after the test of humanity with the Gom Jabbar, and when he’s standing in the rain, and he’s overheard Jessica talking to the Reverend Mother. You see this fear and sadness in his face, as it really begins to dawn upon him that he is not his own man, because there are so many forces at stake that are shaping who he is. There’s his Bene Gesserit mother; there’s Leto, who earlier on in the movie also says that he will be called on to lead House Atreides when Leto is gone, be it sooner or later. And you see him sort of struggling to bear the brunt of these responsibilities. Whereas with Kyle MacLachlan, you never see that. It’s Caladan, to Arrakis, to knife-fighting a very oiled-up Sting, to the end of the movie. And in a way I think this is one of the best things about Villeneuve’s “Dune,” which is that it cuts the book to allow that really methodical world-building and character-building that takes place in the book, that you don’t get in the very protracted Lynch “Dune.”

Who else maybe stuck out to you?

 

YAN:

Yeah, you already brought up another performance I really enjoyed, which is Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica. Because I think there’s something deeply tragic about that trio about Leto, Paul, and the Lady Jessica. And they’re all bringing that to their performances, in that all of them see things happening outside of their control. Things are spiraling away from them, and there’s not much they can do to latch on to it. And I think there’s a lot of moments that Rebecca Ferguson really brings that — the way she’ll look at Timothée’s Paul, when he’s not looking and realize, “Oh,” and you can see in just the face, she is thinking, “Oh, this is no longer my boy anymore. This is someone else.”

 

NESTOR:

That’s especially prevalent in the second half of the movie, especially when they’re on Arrakis. And the first thing that jumps to mind is when they are changing into their stillsuits, and the Lady Jessica looks at Paul. You see in her face that she’s like, “My son has become a man.” And by “become a man,” I mean, he’s reached that cusp that you get to in your adolescence where you go through whatever big trial or tribulation it is that your own unique life has. And he passed it. He passed over and through it. And you can see she now sees that he’s grown in this short period of time. She’s like, “My son!

 

YAN:

And in that scene, where in the book, Paul inhales spice and sees the entire future laid out before him?

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yes.

 

YAN:

That’s done so well, in the movie. People often say about books, “Oh, that’s unfilmable.” And when I was listening to the book, because I did the audiobook, I was like, “This feels unfilmable because it is trying to communicate so much.” It is literally trying to communicate the next 50 years of Paul’s life in a five-minute time span. But it is really well anchored by both of their performances. So even though we get these montages that flash forward to the future and all that, we still come back to the two of them — mother and son. And even after he uses the Voice on her, they shout and they fight, but there’s still a connection between them that is, again, inherently tragic, because there’s an embrace there, but it’s also like, this hug isn’t going to fix what we have wrought.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, exactly. And I think the way that he says, you know, he starts crying and he says, “You Bene Gesserit made me a freak!” That’s an attack on her as both a mother and a member of her religious order.

I feel like we delayed this explanation a bit. So for people unfamiliar, the Bene Gesserit are a religious order in the world of “Dune.” They were actually based on Frank Herbert’s mother and aunts who were extremely Catholic, which is, I presume, why “Gesserit” sounds like Jesuit. But the Bene Gesserit are not like your average Christians, in the sense that they essentially lead what is a weirdly eugenics-adjacent breeding program, where they combine powerful bloodlines in the Noble Houses in the hopes that they will one day bring about what is known as the Kwisatz Haderach, which is essentially a mind that is so powerful it can breach space and time. And this ties in with what Yan said about Paul having visions. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Paul has these prescient visions of the future where things happen to him as he sees them, or things come to him in allegories about what he should do in the future. And this is essentially because, as a result of various different things, Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach. He wasn’t supposed to be, but due to his mother essentially defying certain orders that she was given, and due to a bunch of other things that play out, he is The One.

 

YAN:

Yeah, while we were talking about the Bene Gesserit and going back to performances at the same time, I think something that captures both that unique dynamic that faction holds in the world, but also was a great scene, is a scene where Oscar Isaac as Leto says to the Lady Jessica, “If something happens to me, will you take care of Paul?” And Rebecca Ferguson responds immediately, “Yes, yes, of course.” And the face is sort of like, “Why are you asking me that? Yeah, right. Like, of course, I will.” But then, Leto clarifies. And he says, “I’m not asking his mother, I’m asking the Bene Gesserit.”

 

NESTOR:

You can see the look on her face in that scene. I remember seeing that and just going, “I am so sorry I ever doubted Rebecca Ferguson as the right choice for Lady Jessica. She is the right choice. She is Lady Jessica.”

 

YAN:

Because thinking that, in that moment, it’s just all in the face; the weight of the universe sitting on this woman who is tied between her loyalty to her son, and her entire understanding of the universe determined by the Bene Gesserit. Just great stuff.

Thinking about performances in science fiction, because this is a conversation that started up again because of “Dune.” Because James McAvoy played a young Leto, I think, in a Syfy series.

[NOTE: This is in reference to the miniseries, “Children of Dune,” released in 2003.]

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yes. The TV series.

 

YAN:

Yeah. One of the things [James McAvoy] was saying was that something he learned after that was that with any science fiction, you just have to bring it to a person. You have to make it human. And I think that’s what everybody in this movie is doing. Everybody’s making this incredibly high-concept stuff work at a very human emotional level. And as much as the casting is wonderful for this movie, every person is just doing it all with as much screen time as they’re getting. One of these great performances is by Javier Bardem, who was just in it … the second he shows up, he has us in the palm of his hands for, like, that three minute scene.

 

NESTOR:

There are memes floating around on the Internet, more about Zendaya, but also about Javier Bardem. They essentially go along the lines of, “Zendaya and Javier Bardem really got that check for like, five minutes of screen time.” And you know, it makes sense, because you only see them for a little while. And I think, you know, this is maybe the movie’s worst kept secret. It’s what everyone’s talking about on the internet. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel like stunt casting. You know that they’re going to play a bigger role in the sequel, which has just been greenlit. But at the same time, even if it hadn’t been greenlit, I think there is the sense that things are building into something more. And much like a TV series that gets cancelled, you know, if say, you watch a finale of a season that won’t get a continuation, and there’s a cliffhanger, you know and you understand that there was something and it just wasn’t allowed by the gods of Hollywood and capitalism.

 

YAN:

Yeah, I think what you’re saying about Javier and Zendaya is absolutely correct. Every time awards season comes around, I see the same thought — that Best Supporting Actor or Actress or Performer goes not to the person who appears the most, but to the person whose performance, once they appear in the film, they alter the trajectory of it forever because of that performance. And I think Javier Bardem’s appearance really does suggest that there is a different world out there than the one that Paul and Leto and all know. He really inflects it.

And then this is when we get to the sort of iffy thing that there’s a conversation right now. As good as the casting is for the movie, many aspects of “Dune” are based on the tenets of Islam. It’s on a desert planet, which Frank Herbert openly said was based on aspects of the Middle East. There’s many different things in “Dune” that are pulling from that part of the world, yet none of the performers in this film are coming from the Middle East. And I think that is a significant shortcoming of the movie. It doesn’t affect the quality of it, in watching it. But in context, it is something to think about, especially since Dune has a lot of Middle Eastern fans, precisely because Frank Herbert approached the region with veneration. It wasn’t with an intent to exoticize or otherize. He did it with a lot of research and understanding and trying to get it right, I guess? So it’s just a shame that the movie that the casting didn’t take that further step and think, “Actually, what part of the world is Arrakis based off of?”

 

NESTOR:

I don’t think I have an opinion on whether the casting is good or bad, in that sense. I do think it is disappointing that there was no one who was Middle Eastern, or even sort of adjacent to the Arabic languages and the offshoots of that that they use. I mean, I’m not saying that a Malaysian person would be good to cast in it just because, but certain things, you can translate from Malay. Lisan al-Gaib, which is a name for Paul — another way to say, essentially, “Kwisatz Haderach” — can be translated directly from Malay, which is something that I thought was really cool when I was reading it as a kid. And the Crysknife is also deeply rooted in Malay folklore and the Islamic traditions of where I come from. And it definitely feels strange and a little emptier because they didn’t cast anyone from that region or even anyone who has a tiny bit of, I’d say, inheritance in that culture.

But at the same time, in a climate where so many people are still up in arms about, I don’t know, changing the gender of a character, or casting someone who is a person of color when they could simply just get a white person. When certain people are arguing back and forth between that, I feel like having Zendaya play Chani and Javier Bardem play Stilgar feels alright, because at least they’re not getting two other white people. To me, I feel like that’s a win. But it’s not going all the way. And I think that is where the disappointment lies. But I feel hesitant to write the movie off entirely because it doesn’t include anyone Middle Eastern, which is still, I have to say, a shame.

 

YAN:

Yeah, I think it’s not a conversation about whether “Dune” is now no longer worth watching. But it is just something to think about in terms of how we experience our movies, and what types of things are still being forgotten by the people making them.

 

NESTOR:

I actually think it’s surprising that they didn’t get anyone from the Middle East, especially considering that they went to  Jordan to film on location. It actually reminds me of the criticism that Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” got. It is set in Africa, and there is not a single black person in it. Yeah, which is … which says something, you know. It reminds me of that same level of criticism. It’s maybe even a level or two worse.

 

Yan

Yeah, because it’s in the DNA of “Dune.”

 

NESTOR:

Yes, it is in the DNA.

 

YAN:

So it does seem like something to actively neglect, and not sort of just walk over. But let’s see what happens with “Dune: Part Two.” Let’s see when more of the Fremen, who are a Bedouin desert people; when more of those characters are casted, whether they learned the lesson? I don’t know.

 

NESTOR:

They certainly have the opportunity to fix this. So let’s hope that Denis is listening.

And let’s hope that Denis is listening, because we’re about to talk about whether this installment was satisfying. I think we can agree that the movie is good, great, fantastic, monumental. But was it satisfying in its ending? And looking forward, especially now that “Part Two” has been greenlit, how do we feel about what was covered? and what wasn’t? And, looking forward, what do we think will be covered? And what will be left in the dust?

 

YAN:

That’s a lot to think about there. I keep coming back to it, because I love it. I love the movie, I loved watching it; I’m probably gonna go watch it again. So the thing I keep trying to think about is, “Oh, if I erased all knowledge of “Dune” from my brain, would I still have had a good time?” Because the movie is not structured in a conventional way. It doesn’t really reach, I would say, a satisfying conclusion in the way we conventionally think our narratives should conclude. Some people have said this, and I think it is a criticism, but it also is just a matter of fact that the movie ends where it begins.

 

NESTOR:

Oh yeah. Chani’s last line is  “This is only the beginning.” Yeah, it’s like, “Well, this is the end of the film!”

 

YAN:

Yeah. So I don’t know. CauseI think there’s a lot of wonderful things to like, soak your eyes in it. And there’s a lot of great story moments and beats in it. I’m satisfied. But I can totally imagine a person who knows nothing watching it, and being like, “Wait, what?”

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yeah. So I watched “Dune” with two people who do not know anything about “Dune.” As in they went in completely and utterly blind. I think the only thing that they knew was that Timothée Chalamet was playing Paul Atreides. Even then, the name meant nothing to them. They were like, “Paul Atreides, okay.” And they went in, not knowing anything. And they came out of the movie, just fully astounded. Both of them really want to read the book. And I think they were talking about how it was very obvious that there was a lot of world-building that would have been done in very dense textual exposition, and yet, the movie filmed it in ways that were extremely easy to understand. You get the little titles — it’s “Caladan, homeworld of House Atreides,” you’re never left wondering where you are; you’re never left wondering who these people are. Like, for example, when we go to Salusa Secundus, which is the planet that houses the Emperor’s extremely deadly military known as Sardaukar, we get a title for it; we get someone telling us who the Sardaukar are. And then we see them in action, and that establishes just how deadly they are, and also their role as easily bought and sold. So long as the Emperor says that they can, they do what they do and kill who they kill. But in terms of things that people who hadn’t read the books wouldn’t know, there are a few things that were cut, but you would never know that they weren’t there if you hadn’t read them.

 

YAN:

Yeah, no, I think this desire by the people you watched it with to want to read it immediately speaks to the things that the film is doing as an adaptation, where it’s clear that it’s doing things that a movie can do. And then there’s also the sense that, “Oh, I really wonder how the book did this.” It is being portrayed so visually, that you’re kind of like, “Oh, I wonder what the text was like,” especially once you find out that the book itself is a tome; it’s huge. And on that same note, I think that’s why this film is going to be such an interesting cultural touchstone, because it could be one of those things where you love it or you hate it.

 

NESTOR:

There are definitely some people who hate it.

 

YAN:

Yeah, because it makes so many strong choices. “Strong” is not an indicator of good or bad. I’m just saying it makes strong choices that really demand you either go, “Okay, I’m into it”, or “I’m not into it”. And I think that’s the biggest thing I want from my movies. I don’t want my movies to make weak choices that everyone’s gonna feel so-so about.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, no, I understand that. The thing that springs to mind is that I recently saw some criticism about “Dune,” not actually as a movie in the sense of script-writing stuff. But it was a criticism of how it looked, in the sense that it was just brutalist. It was brutalism in space. You go to Arrakis and the architecture is brutalist. You look at the spaceships, it’s brutalist. This person did not like brutalism, and therefore, they did not like looking at the movie. You know, I think it’s a valid criticism. And I understand why they wouldn’t have enjoyed it maybe as much as I did, because I do enjoy brutalism. And maybe, you know, for people who don’t have a view on brutalism, they would probably be like, “Okay, the spaceship looks like that.” And I think this ties into what you said about making strong choices. The film doesn’t just lean into its aesthetic choices. It just jumps in totally. And I appreciate that, essentially, commitment to the bit.

 

YAN:

Yeah. Like, it’s either gonna work or it’s not, but yeah, they’re not gonna half-ass it.

 

NESTOR:

I don’t expect it to work for everyone as well. And I’m glad that it’s worked for so many people.

In terms of what was left out, I’d like to bring up something that happens in the books that doesn’t happen in the movie, which is a big cut. And yet to me, it feels warranted. So I’m talking about a sequence of events in the book, where the Lady Jessica is suspected by the Mentat of House Atreides to be a traitor. This traitor is revealed in the book and the movie to be Dr. Wellington Yueh, the Suk School doctor of House Atreides. The movie is faithful to the book in that way. But you don’t get that buildup of conflict with a completely different character in the movie. And I’m wondering how you feel about that. I mean, personally, I think it was the right decision. I don’t think we needed any more tension with Jessica as it is, the whole time I was watching the movie I was thinking, “This poor woman.” And in a way, cutting that not only helped decrease the runtime by about half an hour probably, but also just helped push aside a plotline that ultimately didn’t really lead to anything.

 

YAN:

Yeah, no, I am in total agreement with you in that it really was an extremely, extremely easy-to-cut bit of the plot. What I really loved about that subplot is the politicking involved. Because the Lady Jessica is being framed as a spy by someone from the House of Harkonnen; Leto doesn’t want to let Lady Jessica know that she’s being framed, then he has Duncan Idaho spy on her. So there’s a lot of this is a big web of connections. But what I’m going to do is if I’m really missing that plotline, I’m just gonna go read it again. I didn’t need this film to take that half an hour of time to go through it, because it really is an extremely complicated thing that, like you said, doesn’t really play into Paul’s journey directly, which is what the film is most concerned with. It does a lot of world-building, which this film does also, just in a different way.

 

NESTOR:

What I will say I am disappointed was cut was — so I found out this morning, to my utter disappointment, that there is a scene on the cutting room floor somewhere, in which Gurney Halleck — who was played by Josh Brolin, he’s a character who is essentially the militia trainer of House Atreides and he trained Paul specifically with knives, which is the Atreides weapon of choice. In the books, Gurney Halleck is essentially the stereotypical D&D Bard class. He is both an incredibly skilled fighter, and a very good musician. He plays a musical instrument known as the baliset. Apparently, there is a scene that was filmed, in which Josh Brolin plays the baliset, and sings an original song composed by Hans Zimmer, that has lyrics to it. A Hans Zimmer song with lyrics to it, and we didn’t get to see that.

 

YAN:

This is a podcast, so you could not register the look of disappointment on my face as Nestor said that. Because the entire time I was waiting, I was like, “Oh, I can’t wait for Josh Brolin to sing something.” Because that is one of the things that makes Gurney Halleck. One of the many testaments to “Dune” is that a lot of the characters are three dimensional. You have Gurney Halleck, who hates Harkonnens and is a fierce force on the battlefield.

 

NESTOR:
And he’s a rock star.

 

YAN:

And also sometimes he’ll be really mad, and someone will be like, “Gurney, play us a song.” And Gurney will be like, “Okay, I’ll play your song,” and then he’ll do it, and that I definitely miss that.

 

NESTOR:

According to Denis Villeneuve himself, apparently that was the most painful edit he had to make.

 

YAN:

Understandably.

 

NESTOR:

Maybe we can hope for an inclusion of that scene on the inevitable Blu-Ray release.

 

YAN:

Oh. The only thing that I wish wasn’t cut, and this is literally the only thing that I wish wasn’t cut—

 

NESTOR:

Besides Gurney Halleck and his baliset—

 

YAN:

You’re 100% correct. I would like a whole movie of that, please. The one thing from the main plot that I did miss is what a Mentat is.

 

So Nestor mentioned that briefly before. [Mentats are] like the strategist, or calculator. Basically, a person who’s trained their whole life to be able to make advanced calculations in their head, basically turning their head into a living computer.

 

NESTOR:

Yeah, that’s essentially what they are. A little factoid here is that the reason that they exist is because computers and artificial intelligence have been outlawed in the world of “Dune.” And in order to compensate, you have to put these humans through extremely rigorous mental training. And you also have to ingest a very large amount of spice.

 

So what about the role of the Mentat was not enough for you?

 

YAN:

Well, I think the word Mentat maybe comes up once, if at all, in the movie.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yeah, you’re right.

 

YAN:

And it is actually a pivotal part of that early journey of Paul, because Paul is being trained to be multiple things. He’s being trained to be a future Lord, he’s being trained to be a warrior. He’s being trained by his mother as a Bene Gesserit. And he’s also being trained to become a Mentat. And it’s those last two that intersect in a really interesting way in the book that I really missed.

 

NESTOR:

How is that intersect important to your… not necessarily your understanding or enjoyment, but maybe to your consumption of the movie?

 

YAN:

I think we plan to talk about gender and sex in “Dune,” both in the book and so this is a great segue into that. Because like I said earlier, Paul, to me, is very much this agender thing. And because in the book, the Bene Gesserit are specifically all women.

 

NESTOR:

Yes, they are.

 

YAN:

And the Mentats, the ones that we know of, in the book are all men.

 

Nestor

Yeah, I don’t know, actually, if the role of a Mentat is gender-specific, but yeah, all the existing Mentats that we know of, or at least in the, I want to say, main trilogy, just because I’ve only read until “Children of Dune” — all of them are men.

 

YAN:

Yeah. And maybe I’m approaching it from too modern a lens. But the Mentat is logical, is rational; is these things that we stereotypically associated with male patterns of thinking. And why I missed that is because Paul is then in that intersection. He’s both a Mentat, and he’s also a Bene Gesserit. And he ends up existing between these two gendered spheres at the same time.

 

NESTOR:

He’s being trained in a way to transcend gender. In the book, he’s told that if he becomes a Mentat and the Duke of the House Atreides, he would be an unstoppable force. And then you also get his mother secretly training him in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, which include something very similar to the Force from “Star Wars,” in which you can use what is known as the Voice to compel someone to do your bidding. And the Bene Gesserit are an all-female order.

It’s said once in the movie, but it’s said multiple times in the book, that Paul should have been a daughter. This opens a complete other door for me, as someone who is looking for crumbs of transgender representation in everything, and being like, “Oh, yes, Paul could be trans-masculine”. But I maybe won’t say more about my queer reading of “Dune.” Although it does still play with gender in the sense that there is a very clear binary in the world of “Dune” and Paul is being taught in every single way to push past that boundary to become great and to achieve greatness. And maybe that’s a lesson for all of us.

What else about gender is interesting to you in “Dune?”

 

YAN:

I think the thing that I really appreciated about the film is the relationships between the men, because I mean, it is still “Dune,” and it is still 1960s sci-fi, so most of the characters are men.

 

NESTOR:

Yes, unfortunately.

 

YAN:

But those relationships are given a bit more tenderness than I’m used to seeing in sci-fi. There’s a really lovely bit where Leto says to Paul — and this is Timothée and Oscar Isaac on the cliffside — and Leto says, “Oh, I need you to be ready to be Duke one day.” And Timothée’s Paul says, “What if I don’t want to be?” And Oscar Isaac puts his hand on his face and goes, “Well, it’s okay. You’d be the only thing I need you to be, which is my son.” And now it was like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t think the interaction would go that way.” It was just played with a real softness and delicacy that I don’t think is present in a lot of media of the same type of genre.

 

NESTOR:

Yeah, I think we’re going to talk about parallels and differences with the other big space opera in the world in a minute, “Star Wars.” But I think this is a good point of comparison, especially when you talk about the lack of tenderness in male relationships in sci-fi.

You know, you see a lot of machismo in the male relationships in “Star Wars.” There’s Luke and Han, who are bros, you know, and competitors at first for Leia’s affections. And then when that gets retconned, they just become buddies and bros and they sort of josh each other around and they’re very stereotypically masculine and almost fratboy-like in their interactions with each other. And then, in the sequel trilogy, you have the fiasco that was Finn and Poe — Poe also played by Oscar Isaac with a surprising amount of tenderness and homoeroticism. There, you have this relationship between two men, which is very obviously being played up as romantic for one and a half movies. And then the other one and a half movies is dedicated to unravelling that, which is disappointing, especially seeing as the sequel trilogy is not from the 1960s. It’s from the 2010s.

But also I think, even looking back at the “Star Wars” original trilogy, there’s not much of that tenderness to be found. And so I agree with you in that sense, and I think you see this tenderness carry across even in sportier relationships. You see Paul and Duncan Idaho — played by Jason Momoa — you see them embrace, you see them talk like relatives, almost like found family. In the same way with Gurney Halleck, there’s this joking affection where Paul constantly calls him an old man, and there’s this sort of tough-love approach to him brought up by Gurney. When, in a scene with Paul’s like, “I’ve had a tough day” and Gurney is like, “I don’t care. You have to train because I want you to survive. We are about to go to war, essentially, because House Harkonnen won’t let us get away with taking Arrakis.” And you can see that it comes out of a place of concern, rather than, “It’s my job to train Paul.”

 

YAN:

I think that with Gurney Halleck it’s like, well, that is how we understand how men are supposed to interact with each other. You know, it is tough love. But then the movie also does have soft love. Which is, then, the fact that it inhabits both those spaces … I’m like, “Oh, wonderful.” And you brought up found families and that what really clicked in my head; that a lot of “Dune” is about found fathers. Because Paul has like, five different father figures. He has Duke Leto. He has Duncan Idaho, he has Gurney Halleck. And in the book, I guess he has Thufir Hawat, but not so much in this. But then finally we get to the final father figure, which is Stilgar.

 

NESTOR

Yes.

 

YAN:

Right. And then at that moment when Stilgar agrees to take him in is also … even though initially, there’s death and there’s mortality, there’s harder things about it, and eventually he’s like, “Yeah, you’re coming along.”

 

NESTOR:

“You’re one of us now,” he says.

 

YAN:

With a welcoming nature to it. That gruff exterior has been shed.

 

NESTOR:

Yeah. I mean, even with some of these tougher performances as well, like you were saying earlier, it’s all in the face. I don’t think there’s ever a fully machismo-imbued performance, because you have these men showing vulnerability at almost all times, which I find incredible. Yeah, for a sci-fi movie, you know, especially … it’s a male-dominated genre, for sure. So to see this take even a tiny step forward, I think it’s nice.

So to bring this back around to something that we were talking about earlier, “Dune” is often compared to “Star Wars” in terms of scale, ambition; size — if you compare, say, the books of “Dune” to the “Star Wars” movies, just because there’s an inordinate amount of “Star Wars” spin-offs off there. But, if we’re talking about canonical entries, we might have two franchises that rival each other based on size. And this is where comparisons generally come from. I have also seen some comparisons online, now the new movie has come out, to “The Lord of the Rings” — it’s going to be a three-part film series, it’s going to be two books for “Dune,” and then it’s going to be “Dune Messiah” to close it all off. So people have been saying, “Oh, another epic trilogy for this generation, Gen Z; the COVID generation, almost.” My question is, what do you think of these comparisons? Do you think that Villeneuve’s “Dune” will turn this franchise into the next “Star Wars?” Or the next “Lord of the Rings?” And is it even a fair comparison?

 

YAN:

Yeah, I think in terms of whether it’s a fair comparison, I think the connections with “Lord of the Rings” … they’re both gonna be three movies. And, you know, similarly to how “The Fellowship of the Ring” ends, we end “Dune: Part One” where everything has started, right? Like, the Fellowship has now formed. But beyond that, there’s very little in common with “Lord of the Rings.” And that is really, really hard to know, whether it will become that next mega-level franchise. Because “Dune” operates in a different way than a lot of these things. It isn’t as immediately accessible as a Marvel movie.

 

NESTOR:

Oh, yes. I think the difference maybe between “Dune” and Marvel — which is the reason that no one has made a “Dune” cinematic universe joke yet — is just because there’s not these different people coming together. It’s one big narrative, not split up. But I agree with you on the accessibility thing. I definitely feel like I think if you were 12, and going to see “Dune,” having not read the books, and not knowing anything, you might have just a bit of a tough time. But that’s not to belittle any 12-year-olds out there. I mean, I read it when I was 14, but still, you know, I do agree. I think there is a slightly denser entry point for “Dune.” But do you not think the movie makes it easier to digest? Look back at the two people I started with who were like, “I saw this movie, and now I want to read the book. Yeah, I saw this movie, and there was nothing I did not understand.”

 

YAN:

No, and I think that’s a great point to bring up because that ties directly to the “Star Wars” question. Because for me, the major difference between “Dune” and “Star Wars” is that you can imagine living in the universe of “Dune.” You look at the “Star Wars” worlds, and you kind of get an idea of what it would be like, but when you experience the world of “Dune,” you’re very clear, like, “Oh, this is how I would drink. This is how I would eat.” There’s this very clear attention to detail in both the book and the movie into what it means to live in that environment. And that’s why I think “Dune” is such a rich story — because it’s almost anthropological. It feels like Frank Herbert started from this place of, “It’s a desert. How would people live in a desert? Why would people live in a desert? Why would they stay in the desert?” And every single one of those questions are answered in a way that, not to discredit “Star Wars,” but “Star Wars” just isn’t interested in that at all.

 

NESTOR:

“Star Wars” has got a multitude of throw away planets. I mean, “Dune” has a ton of planets and especially if you read the books, there is, I think, more of that “Star Wars” effect. But with “Dune,” there is only one real planet that we look at. And there are the homeworlds of House Atreides and House Harkonnen. But they feel like Pallet Town in “Pokémon.” You start there. But the arena in which everything plays out is actually much more contained. Or, you know, in “Pokémon” it would be the routes that you go through. And the towns are just things that you pass through and you’re like, “Alright,” and then you get more Pokémon on the journey to each town and that’s where the real action in Pokémon frankly takes place. And that’s what “Dune” feels like. The real action takes place in a world contained enough that there’s so much detail in it, as you said.

 

YAN:

And I think, back to this point of accessibility and an entry point, I think part of the reason why I also am hesitant to be like, “”Dune” is so easy, “Dune” is going to be the next global mega franchise,” is because there is this layering of like, “Okay, actually what is good and what is evil?” Which is present in most mega franchises, that easily digestible hero and villain. Harry Potter, Voldemort. Batman, The Joker. But in “Dune,” right … Okay, sure, you have the Baron Harkonnen, sure, you have Paul. But with the factions between — are the Bene Gesserit good? Are the Fremen good? Are the Mentats good? Are the Sardukar good? Like, what is good? And what is evil? Which is the most basic question if we want to tell a very simple engaging story, but “Dune” isn’t concerned with that. And that’s why I think it’s gonna be harder for people to latch on to that in particular.

 

NESTOR:

No, I agree. I think you just made something click in my head, which is that even the Sardaukar work on behalf of the Padishah Emperor. Is he good or bad? You know, we can’t even answer that question. No, we find out in both the book and the movie that he’s sent House Atreides to Arrakis to essentially allow them to “die in the dark.” I think this is a line from both the book and the movie. And the Baron Harkonnen says, “When is a gift not a gift?” There’s so many layers of deceit going on. But you can’t say that anyone is good or bad. The reason the Emperor is doing this to House Atreides is because they’re rising too fast. He’s afraid. And that’s what you do when you’re afraid. You know, there’s this nuance in a sense that isn’t just, “He’s a Jedi, and he’s a Sith.”

 

YAN:

Exactly. And everybody’s acting out of their own self-interest, which maps a lot better onto our world; how countries and how even people interact with each other. But the question is, are people going to flock to the cinemas to want to experience that on the big screen? That’s my hesitance.

 

NESTOR:

I feel like “Star Wars” is so accessible to kids. Like, I first watched a “Star Wars” film when I was four, and I still remember going to the cinema and just having my mind blown. But I think audiences our age, anyone slightly younger — I feel like, teens — I feel like it’s accessible enough in the sense that it’s a big screen. There are big spaceships. And the movie looks so good that it’s impossible to tell your friends, “I don’t want to see Dune just because what’s stopping you?” It looks good. Everyone has said it’s good. People are saying that the book it’s based on is good. The cast is good. I mean, talk to anyone who knows anything about movies, and they’ll tell you, “I don’t know what “Dune” is. But that cast? Oh, boy.” So I mean, I’m maybe more hopeful than you on that front.

 

YAN:

I would love for “Dune” to become the next billion-dollar franchise. But coupled with that is my wariness of what happens when things become that huge, in the way that they end up getting pared down into the simplest version of themselves. And that’s me being a gatekeeper. And I’m not gonna stand by that; I would love for it to become a billion-dollar franchise, but I just am wary of what happens after that.

 

NESTOR:

I think maybe to give you a little bit of hope in that department, Denis Villeneuve only did this as a love letter to his favorite book, and given that, he will by no means have the directing reins wrested from him at any point. I feel like it’s safe to say that at least this trilogy is looking very good. Yeah, yeah. And in terms of spin-offs, that’s kind of already been happening. We’ve got a “Dune” graphic novel, we’ve got two Dune spin-off comics, which honestly look pretty good. One of them actually really expands on the Sardaukar; it focuses on a main character who is a member of the Sardukar. And the second one is a comic called “Leto: House Atreides,” which, as you may imagine, is about Duke Leto when he was younger, and the way he grew up, and what turned him into the man that he is today. These two comics are going well, the fans are eating them up.

And of course, you’ve got Brian Herbert continuing his father’s series. Well, there is debate, you know, within the book fandom itself, that Brian Herbert is not as good an author as Frank. Perhaps we will never conclusively get an answer. But it’s not like “Star Wars” in the sense that it’s going to be handed to just about anyone who can write a spin-off. You know, to some extent, the Herbert family will have large amounts of creative control over what happens. And the two comics that have been allowed to happen have been received really well. I’m hoping that your worst fears, and to some extent, my worst fears, don’t come true. I just feel like it’s more likely than you think.

 

YAN:

I’m scared of “Solo: A Dune Story.” That’s my fear.

 

NESTOR:

Okay, I think if we ever got to the point where we got a movie, that was a “Dune” spin-off, that was the calibre of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” we would have to put the franchise to bed. But well, there’s plenty of good things to look forward to. Of course, there’s “Dune: Part Two,” which we have been shilling like crazy. If you haven’t seen “Dune: Part One” in cinemas, please do; you may understand a lot more of what we’ve just talked about. But in the meantime, thank you for listening. Sadly, we have to bring this podcast to a close. I have been Nestor Kok, Entertainment Editor for F Newsmagazine.

 

YAN:

And I’m still Myle Yan Tay with the “Moving Pictures” column at F News.

 

NESTOR:

Please do stop us if you see us on campus and let us know what you think of “Dune.” Thank you for listening, and trust the process.

 

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