Feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, about the son of a noble family entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy.
Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time, yet various attempts to bring it to the screen before have either failed or faltered. Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to bring his vision to life (although it did lead to a fascinating documentary), whilst David Lynch’s version is a spectacular mess that nonetheless garnered a cult following. Enter Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director who has proven his chops in the genre with the thoughtful ‘Arrival’ and ‘Blade Runner’ sequel ‘Blade Runner 2049’. He’s the perfect man for the task of doing justice to ‘Dune’, and on the evidence of this first part, he’s done a spectacular job. The only question remains whether the film will make enough money to allow him to conclude his story.
For those unfamiliar with the story of ‘Dune’, it takes place in a distant future where society appears to have both progressed to intergalactic travel, yet regressed back to a feudal system with planets ruled over by formidable, noble houses, all reportable to an emperor. It’s a story of shifting loyalties and shadowy powers, with ancient religious orders and native people operating around the fringes of these noble houses that have centralised all the power. Like most of the best science fiction and fantasy storytelling, it hints at a much vaster world out there and a deep past that has led civilisation to this point in time. Villeneuve crafts his world magnificently bringing a sheer scale to proceedings, using wide shots to bring the world of ‘Dune’ to life, and populating the world with sparse landscapes and brutalist architecture. There’s a real sense of a world that’s retreated in on itself, governed by fear and paranoia.
Our entry point into the story comes through Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), the son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and the daughter of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the ancient religious order, the Bene Gesserit. The Atreides are compelled to take on the stewardship of the planet Arrakis, a dangerous desert planet that contains the most valuable element in the entire universe, from the vengeful Harkonnens. The substance is melange (or spice), a drug that can facilitate interplanetary travel, extend human life, and sharpen thought. To mine it, you have to brave the harsh desert landscapes and run the gauntlet of gigantic sandworms, not to mention the Fremen, Arrakin natives who inhabit the desert. Much of the story will centre on Paul’s journey involving all of the above mentioned people and creatures, with Villeneuve doing justice to the key plot developments from the first part of the novel.
One of the biggest criticisms of Lynch’s version was how silly it was and this version is a massive improvement in that regard. A lot of that is down to improved special effects, aided by technological developments, but also because Villeneuve plays everything with a straight bat and dials down the strangeness (a choice not all will agree with I’m sure). No dancing naked Sting here! It is extraordinarily well cast, from Chalamet in the central role down to characters who only make fleeting appearances such as Javier Bardem as one of the Fremen and Charlotte Rampling as an elderly member of the Bene Gesserit. There’s a lot of exposition to get through to bring people into the world of ‘Dune’, especially those unfamiliar with the source material, and this is a patient, slow burning movie, but Villeneuve knows when to pick his moments and when he lets the handbrake come off the movie really takes off.
It can’t help but feel like a first part because it is, but it certainly whets the appetite for the second part should it come. Fingers crossed there’s enough of an audience for such dense and detailed science fiction epics to deliver the box office this film deserves and needs!
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Stellen Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa, Stephen McKinley Henderson, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine and Javier Bardem