After the long shutdown of the pandemic and the recent Bond-led ‘resurrection’ of cinema, what we need next is an epic – one of those big, sprawling sci-fi adventures replete with stunning alien landscapes and awe-inducing special effects. So Dune really couldn’t come at a better time, but director Denis Villeneuve must be all too aware of the potential pitfalls. A previous attempt to put Frank Herbert’s source novel onto film – in 1984 – almost stopped David Lynch’s burgeoning career dead in its tracks. And while Lynch attempted to pack the entire contents of the book into one film, Villeneuve adds the extra gamble of shooting just the first half of the story, trusting to providence that the resulting movie will be successful enough to bring him sufficient revenue to make the second part.
The jury is still out on that but initial worldwide box office figures look promising.
It’s the year 10,191 and Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has recently been assigned – by the Emperor of the Universe, no less – to become the fief ruler of the desert planet of Arrakis (Or Dune, as it’s sometimes known). He and the rest of House Atreides will be taking over from its previous overlords, House Harkonnen, led by the corrupt Baron Vladimir (a hideously bloated Stellan Skarsgård). Arakis is the source of spice, a mysterious substance that pretty much runs the entire solar system, so of course the Harkonnens are far from pleased about being ousted from their exalted position.
Meanwhile, Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), has been having recurring dreams about Arakis, or – more specifically – about a young woman who lives there, Chani (Zendaya). She is one of the indigenous Fremen, who have always endured a precarious existence under the yoke of their despotic rulers. Paul begins to think that he’s destined for something important and, when he learns his friend, Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), is setting off on a preliminary reconnaissance of the planet, Paul begs to be allowed to accompany him. But he’s told he must wait until Leto and the others can go with him.
So it is not until he and the rest of House Atreides set foot on the sun-blasted sands of Arakis that they discover they are venturing into a carefully laid trap….
James Herbert’s novel has an almost messianic following and I imagine most of its readers will be pleased with what’s on offer here. Villeneuve’s direction, combined with the almost hallucinatory qualities of Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s eerie score, makes for a memorable experience. The casting is impeccable, with Rebecca Ferguson excellent as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, and Josh Brolin a perfect choice as the dour warrior, Gurney Halleck. And then, of course, there are those infamous sandworms, one of the elements that really didn’t work in Lynch’s movie, but they certainly generate lots of tension here…
Villeneuve keeps everything bubbling along at a sedate pace, taking enough time to set out his stall. The world-building is beautifully done and the theme of colonialism convincingly explored. And if Paul Atreides is just another in a long list of Christ figures, a popular conceit in science fiction, well it hardly matters. Dune carries us along on a tidal wave of sensory overload until we dimly register that the first instalment is over and we’ll have to wait another year to see how things turn out for Paul.
Quibbles? Well, yes, and it’s one that’s becoming increasingly common. Dune has a 12A certificate, which means that some of the more violent elements of the tale have been downplayed. While I understand there’s a wish to maximise the potential audience for the film, this was never going to be another Star Wars (Dune comes from a much more po-faced universe than Obi Wan and his merry gang). So I think a 15 would be a much better fit. But I absolutely understand why it is what it is.
That said, I enjoy the film enormously and I’m sure I won’t be the only one eager for a second helping, which… all being well… will be coming to a universe near you in the not-too-distant future.
4. 6 stars