Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Dennis Villeneuve, Jon Spaight, Eric Roth (script), Frank Herbert (novel)
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya, Javier Bardem
Producers: Cale Boyter, Joseph M. Caracciolo Jr., Denis Villeneuve
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cinematographer: Grieg Fraser
Editor: Joe Walker
Running time: 155mins
What’s the story: The year 10191. In a distant galaxy, the House Atreides has been given governorship of the desert planet Arrakis, to mine a precious substance known as Spice. While Duke Leto Atreides (Isaac) establishes his base on Arrakis, a planet colloquially known as Dune, his son Paul (Chalamet) is beset by visions of betrayal and war.
What’s the verdict: Dune. The Great White Whale of sci-fi literature that leaves film and TV adaptations lying face down in its wake. Back in 1984 David Lynch infamously tried and failed to wrestle Frank Herbert’s entire 500+ page novel onto screen in just 137-minutes. Licking his wounds after it belly-flopped harder than a sandworm, Lynch sought refuge in smalltown America with Blue Velvet. He was rewarded with box office success and Oscar nominations.
Arriving almost thirty years after Lynch’s movie (and twenty odd years after the forgotten Dune TV minis-series), Denis Villeneuve takes 155-minutes to tell half the story and soars where Lynch stumbled. His efforts have been met with box office success, and Oscar noms must be waiting in the wings.
“Dune – Part One” declares the opening title (with Part Two now greenlit). Galactic in scope and a marvel of conception and design, this adaptation is a colossal success. In presenting only the first half of the epic tale, Villeneuve and co-screenwriters Jon Spaights and Eric Roth do not overwhelm either the movie or the audience. But, you’re not short-changed on the ambition; this movie inspires genuine awe. Not the spectacle of toppling cities in increasingly bland superhero movies. An awe akin to the Hollywood epics of yesteryear, Dune thrills where Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 only sporadically engaged.
The best comparison is Francis Ford Coppola in his prime. Apocalypse Now is directly quoted in Stellan Skarsgård’s gargantuan, bald pate baddie, Baron Harkonnen, plus the fleets of attack ships that rain down fire during a giant set-piece. In the intrigues and betrayals of the families and vested-interest schemers is the power, corruption and violence Coppola brought to The Godfather saga. Robert Morgan and Jacqueline West’s gorgeous costume design recalls Eiko Ishioka’s similarly sumptuous Oscar-winning work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Thankfully, we could find no trace elements of Jack.
In an enterprise this humongous actors risk becoming just more props. Smart casting decisions avoid this. Sure, there are as many stars on Dune’s sandy surface as in its skies, but everyone breathes life and emotion into their characters, rather than resting on celebrity. At the centre is Timothée Chalamet, who takes Paul through callow enthusiasm, to fear, then determined resilience. While hinting at a darkness that may arrive in the second installment if his visions are anything to go by. As a wry aside, Paul will appeal to many a die-hard fanboy, yet these prophecies are basically spoiler reels for the next movie.
Oscar Isaac swaps Cameron Poe’s gung-ho for a performance of noble diplomacy and caution. The Star Wars spirit of adventure is found in Jason Momoa’s wonderfully named Duncan Idaho, played as Han Solo with Jedi fighting moves. Josh Brolin’s perma-scowled Gurney Halleck, Leto’s right-hand and an expert warrior, is Jason Bourne flung to worlds far, far away. One grumble is that Skarsgård’s Harkonnen is absent the gleeful malevolence of Kenneth McMillan’s performance in Lynch’s movie. Bad guys here generally are not as interesting as their upstanding counterparts in House Atreides, so Dune does have connective tissue with the MCU…
Where the film presumably diverges from the book is in positioning women front stage, continuing the female-focussed sci-fi of Arrival. Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica (Herbert really could conjure memorable monikers) is Paul’s mother, but also part of an all-female clan (the Bene Gesserit, another great name) who affect the male-dominated proceedings through guile and stealth influence. Zendaya’s Chani, one of the Fremen native to Arrakis, becomes more prominent in the final act, but those spoiler-visions promise she will emerge a central player in Dune – Part Two. As will Javier Bardem’s Fremen elder, who pops up for a memorable cameo.
Another clear comparison is with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series. Like Jackson, Villeneuve uses dramatic locations and augments them with digital matte work. The result is a visual feast located between Middle Earth, Tatooine, and a Nat Geo photoshoot.
Political allegories are ready and waiting if you need them, and the impression is Villeneuve welcomes the interpretations. Colonialists invading a resource rich land and subjugating the indigenous population is the United States’ origins story. But, a white superpower travelling to a desert land to monopolise a vital substance, only to find themselves unprepared for local resistance is the story of Western foreign policy from the past twenty years. We look forward to seeing how Part Two will (presumably) subvert the white saviour narrative of Herbert’s book.
As this ends midway through the story, Dune closes with a minor skirmish and promises of adventures yet to come. Those craving sci-fi spectacle should be satisfied with an enemy assault that proves the director is as comfortable with massive battles as he is with the ground-level shoot-outs that sizzled Sicario. City-sized motherships, attack craft, levitating battle suits, and more make the film’s main action scene breathlessly exciting. And a relief, as we worried the movie would lean heavily on its sandworms for suspense and thrills. As it is, the 400-metre long beasties are judiciously used for maximum impact, keeping their powder Arrakis dry for the next movie.
So far, Villeneuve seems to have conquered Dune. The only question we are pondering is whether this will still engage on the small screen. We hope so. For the moment however, find the biggest cinema you can and prepare to be dazzled.