Now, I don’t want to make too much out of a tossed-off one-liner like that. As far as elevator pitches go, “Star Wars, but for the olds” is fine. A bit amorphous, maybe, but otherwise unobjectionable. And Villeneuve has earned a tremendous amount of goodwill over the past few years, work that has earned him the benefit of the doubt. “Blade Runner 2049” took what could have been an unwieldy trainwreck and turned it into something great. “Arrival” turned an unadaptable short story into something genius. “Sicario” took an idea that could have been pulpy trash and elevated it into something franchise-able. Outside of Christopher Nolan, no director working today deserves as much latitude as Villeneuve.
And yet! I want to push back on this just a bit, in part because “Dune” is very much a novel for children. Or, at least, it’s a book for teenagers, for adolescents with a healthy sense of self and a deep frustration with the world’s inability to understand their brilliance. Paul Atreides, the book’s protagonist, is the heir to a royal family. He is not only a master of combat but also a master of empathy and emotion. He can make people do what he wants simply by speaking in a certain pitch; failing that, he can bend them to his will via the sword. After being betrayed by a loved one, he becomes the master of an entirely new realm, learning to ride giant worms and marry great beauties and see through time and rule a heretofore-unruly people.
As in any great story, there are important trappings — the spice, the swords, the shields, the Sardaukar — but “Dune” is, at heart, a fairly rote story of adolescent wish fulfillment: a tale of a smart child who has always believed himself to be the best and is one day proven to be so. It is, like “Ender’s Game” and “Ready Player One,” a book that appeals to overly intellectualized outcasts, a story that tickles their ideas of self-worth and self-aggrandizement while assuring them that unseen forces are arrayed against them, working to thwart their dreams and ambitions.
To try to grow something more adult out of this parched, arid earth is foolish. Not because “Dune” is bad, per se: It’s a perfectly pulpy bit of teenage rebellion, entertaining enough on its own. But because couching this as something “for adults” wastes a valuable opportunity: to make a new Star Wars for kids.
“Star Wars for adults” has been done: That’s a solid shorthand for the prequels, a series of films that combined space wizardry and trade disputes to mixed effect. While the prequels have their charms — there never would have been “The Case for the Empire” without George Lucas’s mythological meddling, and we’d all be much poorer as a result — the results were muddled, at best. The temptation to retread this ground will be strong in “Dune,” a book that is deeply concerned with (you guessed it) trade routes and space wizardry.
A “Star Wars for kids” doesn’t mean something sloppy or stupid, something dumbed down for preteen dullards. I mean something entertaining and exciting — you can keep the sandworms and the sword fights! — but also smart and satisfying, a movie that appeals to kids without offending the sensibilities of adults. Something that kids will flock to again and again because it doesn’t talk down to them, something that adults will want to see with their teenagers because it doesn’t bore them.
There’s also something to be said for growing up and leaving our toys to the next generation; I wince a bit every time I see an adult squeeing over “A Wrinkle in Time,” as if they’re the intended audience. Adolescents need smart entertainment too, and they deserve high-quality filmmaking from someone with an eye for visuals and a brain for complex storytelling. They deserve someone of Villeneuve’s caliber to provide an option outside of the Marvel film factory or the Pixar product line, someone who can poke at ideas without moving beyond their intellectual capacity entirely.
We adults have so much — surely we can spare the children “Dune”?