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Coming to the big screen: Sci-fi epic Dune – no wait, wait, wait, this one might be good

He who controls the film rights controls the universe

By Kieren McCarthy, 2 Feb 2017

The legendary sci-fi novel Dune is going to be turned into a movie again – and, thanks to director Denis Villeneuve, it may not suck.

As the largest-selling sci-fi book of all time, Dune, written by Frank Herbert, is revered for its epic scale as much as for its insights into the human psyche.

Despite its seemingly cinematic nature – two superpower nations fighting over a planet for incredible resources and sparking a mystical revolution – the book's multi-threaded themes and reliance on human psychology to drive the plot has led many to argue it is unfilmable.

That claim was seemingly proved in 1984 when highly imaginative director David Lynch took it on and, despite a remarkable cast, managed to create a movie that continually and confusingly moves between high camp and psychedelic pseudo-science without ever really making sense. It is now, of course, a cult classic.

But if anyone can take on Dune and shape it into something as beautiful on the screen as it is on the page, it is likely to be Villeneuve, whose recent film Arrival about alien landings displayed an uncanny ability to capture the complexities of human beings while mixing it with time travel, otherworldliness, and even an alternative humanity in the form of the aliens that came to Earth to deliver an uncertain message.

Largely as a result of Arrival, long-suffering Dune fans are excited that this time, something may result from the deal.

Long time coming

There is a long, torrid history behind efforts to turn the book into a film. Even to the extent that there is an entire – and excellent – documentary about one of those failed attempts: Jodorowsky's Dune.

Aside from a well-received three-part mini-series aired on the Sci-Fi Channel back in 2000, Dune has proven to be as unforgiving as the climate on the fictional desert planet Arrakis on which much of the book is set.

The book was first published in 1965 and in 1971 a film company acquired the rights. It couldn't get it moving so in 1974, it sold the rights to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who developed it with a script, storyboards and even signed up actors before also giving up.

It then moved to Hollywood and hot new director Ridley Scott was signed up to direct. But again, the project dragged, and Scott left to make sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

From there it eventually made its way to David Lynch who spent $40m creating the baffling film version that people still enjoy to this day, although probably not for the right reasons. (As some have pointed out recently, Lynch may have foreseen the Trump Administration and the emergence of Steve Bannon (Baron Harkonnen) as a serious political force.)

The film was a disaster. Critically panned, but most damagingly for Hollywood, loss-making. Lynch has repeatedly disowned the film and even had his name replaced in the film's credits.

Prescient? As downright weird as Lynch's version is, it had some characters that are strangely recognizable. On the left Baron Harkonnen; on the right, top presidential advisor Steve Bannon.

All change

But then, of course, there was the billion-dollar-making of the Lords of the Rings trilogy and Hollywood went into a frenzy over the rights to other fantasy and sci-fi classics.

In 2008, Paramount had got hold of the rights to Dune and announced Peter Berg (Hancock, Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon) would direct a new version. It all looked promising, with Herbert's son – the author of some Dune sequels – also on board. But after a year, Berg announced he was off.

In 2010, after yet another script, Pierre Morel came on board to direct what would be a big-budget $175m film. But he left too and Paramount finally threw in the towel in 2011.

Until three months ago, when Legendary Entertainment said it had acquired the rights and was in negotiations with Denis Villeneuve to direct it. Fans started getting excited, especially since Villeneuve had already signed up to a widely anticipated sequel of Blade Runner that is due in cinemas in October of this year.

While many of the other directors attached to the film over the years have been known for their epic-sized films and big characters, Villeneuve has an intensity and deft ability to create real-yet-mystical atmospheres on screen that appears exceptionally well-suited to a story like Dune.

And on Wednesday, Villeneuve was confirmed.

Of course, there is still some way to go to shake off the curse of Dune. Villeneuve is on a high given the success of Arrival, but if his Blade Runner 2049 doesn't do well – and it has the potential to lose an enormous amount of money given the size of the budget – then the project could very quickly fall apart.

Plus of course there is the script – the foundation of any movie. It's hard to know how many versions and drafts there have been, but it would be a brave scriptwriter to take on the book that has famously defeated so many before it.

Regardless, many are willing the film on. And with movie studios these days putting serious money behind sci-fi and fantasy movies – thanks in large part due to extraordinary leaps in special effects in recent years – it is a real possibility for the first time in 30 years.

And that's not forgetting the story and the resonance cinema goers are likely to feel for it. In Dune, a powerful yet honorable family, the Atreides, is cruelly set up and then defeated by power-crazed individuals who take over the epicenter of power.

But one of the family, Paul, escapes and heads into the planet's wastelands, where he slowly builds up the trust of the local population and then, against all the odds, launches a counter-revolution that seizes control of power and forces the Emperor to stand down from his throne.

Given the event of the past two weeks, by next year that narrative may play pretty well with audiences. ®

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