Without change, something sleeps inside us…Transmutations of DUNE

Curator's Note

It is quite unreasonable to consider David Lynch’s vision of Dune (or Jodorowsky’s for that matter) a “failure.” Nor is it conducive to compare Denis Villeneuve's 2021 attempt at this esoteric saga as being superior to the 1984 film. Rather, it is crucial to examine each through the lens of the respective zeitgeist they represent and observe how the aesthetic and thematic tendencies comment on our collective socio political culture; retrospectively and currently.

It is also relevant to always take into consideration production/budget limitations and studio interference in the filmmaker’s primary vision. For the sake of this discussion, I will assume the reader is familiar with the issues Lynch had with the final release being butchered in the editing room.  I will also assume that Villeneuve had pressure to add “Hollywood” elements into Herbert’s world of Dune that were not congruent and seem glaringly misplaced.

Sensibilities are almost unrecognizable looking back at late 20th century culture and now in a post 9/11 and post pandemic world.  Science Fiction scholar, Vivian Sobchack, describes postmodern spaces of this era as “excess scenography so rich, intricate and complex that it tends to diffuse the film’s temporal force and occasionally its narrative coherence.”  Many criticized the film for the complexities of its story (especially coming out in the wake of the third Star Wars installment), but in the case of Lynch’s work, the “setting is the film”.  The weirdness of Baron Harkonnen’s boils on his face being popped, the cat in a box to keep Thufir alive after being captured by the Harkonnens all signify the experimental and expressive art associated with the 1980s and David Lynch. Dune also exemplifies Fredric Jameson’s “crisis of historicity” the creatures that must fold space and time are large, sluggish and “hermetically sealed in what appears to be an old museum display case” the film as a whole “illuminates a conservatism and nostalgia more gravely affected by the spatial paradigm that dominates postmodern culture.”

Finally, the general choices of bold colors, score and theatrical performances are the glaring differences from the newest rendition. It is in this author’s opinion that in the years following the 1980s, fear (force fed to us through social media and other outlets) and the burgeoning of technology has led us to a subtler and more introverted existence.

Many times Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) quotes “Fear is the mind killer” in 2021, however, her posture and emotional breakdowns differ greatly from the stoic and seductive Lady Jessica of 1984. Surely, today many themes that were always taboo have been completely stripped from even making an appearance in any art. For instance, the strange incestual penchant for young boys the Baron has, the sexuality between Paul and Chani, the seductive voice Lady Jessica uses to free her and Paul from the Harkonnens and most blatantly, the positive use of mind altering drugs (Spice)…all seem to be sanitized from the 2021 version. It seems “safe” so as not to possibly offend the mainstream where cancel culture is strife.   Fear has dominated our collective psyches since the dawn of this century. 9/11, and now post COVID, is infused into how we exist and maneuver in the spaces of the new paradigm. In the images of the accompanying slide show, I wanted to include the masks and “images of COVID” in this film. The helmet designs of the Guild, the Harkonnens when harvesting on Arrakis, the Hazmat suits after the Baron has been poisoned and even the design of the Bene Gesserit head pieces (especially when it is raining on Caladan) all indicate a protective barrier of their individual persona from the rest of the world. Indeed, the greatest images of “COVID” is Chalamet’s makeshift scarf mask when crash landing the ornithopter. If we are to return to Sobchak’s analysis of the spaces and how they represent the crisis of historicity in 1984, then we can analyze the 2021 film as one reflecting the repression of spaces and personal expression. Is that perhaps why the Voice Over at the genesis of the film describes the “oppression” of the Fremen people more than describing the mind opening evolutionary qualities of the Spice?  In conclusion, maybe Dune has run its course of various permutations and it would be most remarkable to see a filmmaker tackle The Butlerian Jihad regarding the oppression of mankind under “thinking machines” …as that may be the near future zeitgeist to consider.


Sobchack, Vivian.  Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004) pp 277-278

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