Spoilers ahead for The Matrix (1999) and Dune (2021)
Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, was one of the most anticipated movies of 2021. It had a staggered worldwide release before it opened in US theatres on October 22nd. It was also released on HBO Max simultaneously. It has made $367.6 million at the global box office as of November 24th. Despite the low box office numbers, Dune: Part 2 was greenlit a few days after the film’s release in the US.
I enjoyed Dune. It looked beautiful. It recreates a plausible version of humanity thousands of years into the future. Some of the casting choices were great. I loved Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Duncan Idaho and the grotesque transformation of Stellan Skarsgård into Baron Harkonnen. Whilst the movie dragged in the initial 90 minutes, we could argue that the slower pace was necessary to introduce the Duniverse and its key idiosyncrasies. I wonder if the director could have taken a few more liberties to modify the screenplay and tell a tighter story without compromising the beautiful visuals.
My main criticism lies with the protagonist — Paul Atreides. He’s a skilled warrior trained by Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho. According to the books, he has the capabilities of a mentat — humans with machine-like capabilities. He’s aware of the political manipulation and social engineering that the Bene Gesserit have been involved in. He also has the talent to use his Voice to influence others. He’s touted as the messiah who will lead the Fremen to regain control of Arrakis. He’s the perfect reluctant hero.
And that’s the problem. He comes across as hesitant for most of the film’s running time. Yes, he’s affected by the dreams. He wants to save his father. And the spice makes him more sensitive as he struggles to differentiate between reality and his visions. That’s a lot for a fifteen-year-old to bear. But, from the perspective of telling a story on screen, his decision to surrender to his destiny needed to be more dramatic. In the climax, Paul becomes Jessica’s champion and fights Janis. He doesn’t want to kill Janis, because he has seen Janis in his visions — as a friend and guide. Despite this conflict within, Paul accepts his fate and kills Janis. This was the moment when he knew that his future was on Arrakis. Paul and Jessica join the Fremen and journey further into the desert.
Paul’s one-on-one combat with Janis felt underwhelming. It didn’t show what he was truly capable of. The audience had to rely on the prophecies of the Fremen to truly deduce that he was the messiah. I felt that this aspect needed more ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.
One of cinema’s best examples that depict the hero’s journey is The Matrix. Neo is reluctant to embrace his destiny as the One. He needed to be entangled in a situation where he had no choice but to act, and he rose to the occasion. He saved Morpheus based on what the Oracle told him. He started to believe in himself as he chose to break Morpheus out of his captivity. His final transformation into the One is showcased brilliantly as he comes back to life with Trinity’s kiss. His metamorphosis into a powerful being is shown with his gradual acceptance of the reality surrounding him and his belief in himself.
There are a lot of similarities that we can draw between Neo and Paul (in addition to considering what happens to them in Matrix Revolutions and Dune Messiah respectively). Both doubt their roles in the big scheme of things. Both show great potential. Both step up to the occasion. Yet only one of them feels like the protagonist. Neo comes across as sincere. Paul, on the other hand, seems serious and rigid, weighed down by the burden of the prophecy. He’s a ‘subdude’ version of Neo! That was possibly what the director wanted to achieve if he wanted to stay true to the source material. But it could have been risky since Dune: Part 2 hadn’t been greenlit at that stage. As a stand-alone movie, the ending falls flat.
I wonder if Janis could have had more screen time in Paul’s visions. That may have set up a stronger climax. Imagine this situation — Paul has visions of Janis talking to him, guiding him on Arrakis, helping him integrate with the Fremen. When Paul and Jessica meet the Fremen in the desert, he has lost all his father figures. Duke Leto and Duncan Idaho were dead. Gurney Halleck and Thufir Hawat may be dead or captured. That would set up a tricky dilemma. Janis was a friend and guide in his visions. He was a potential father figure. And yet, Paul must fight him, and worse, kill him, if he needs to survive. He must choose between killing a friend/father figure and protecting Jessica and himself. Even if the hand-to-hand combat wasn’t action-packed, the inner conflict within Paul would have set up an emotional payoff for the audience. It would have also set up Paul’s acceptance of his fate that he needed to be ruthless to fulfill his terrible purpose.
What’s done is done. The technical spectacle of Dune warrants a watch in the cinemas. In terms of telling a tighter and more emotionally rewarding story, the movie could have done better. I hope that Dune: Part 2 brings the books alive and touches the hearts of the audience despite the bittersweet nature of the novels. It’s OK to take creative liberties to be impactful on screen without compromising the broad vision of the author. Here’s to more engaging stories in cinema!