Extraordinary and epic, this new adaption of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel doesn’t just demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible, it questions whether there exists a screen large enough to do justice to this Lawrence of Arabia meets Apocalypse Now space opera.
Directed with a relentless majesty by Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian takes the tremendous sense of scale he essayed in Blade Runner 2049 and beats it mercilessly into a cocked hat as he crafts a tale of cosmic proportions.
Assembling the considerable weapons of the Hollywood arsenal such as a huge budget, state of the art special effects, a pantheon of big name stars and a well known intellectual property, Villeneuve allies them to his astonishing vision and outstanding technical ability to deliver thumping action and spectacle on an out-of-this-world scale.
Starring as Paul, a young man is stripped of his wealth and status, and outcast on a dessert planet where he begins to develop his mystical mind control powers, Timothee Chalamet further cements his heartthrob-with-talent status with a nuanced performance geared to character development.
If this setting all sounds familiar then you won’t be surprised to find there’s also an evil all-powerful empire and a brutal lord as the villain who commands an army of faceless stormtroopers.
Dune was one of the key texts influencing Star Wars supremo George Lucas, but where he leant into the comedy, Villeneuve’s broadly faithful and respectful version embraces the slowly unfolding tragedy.
With its litany of betrayals and battles Dune is at times extraordinarily exciting, yet the script has time to explore contemporary concerns such as resource scarcity and colonialism. It’s a film rich with its own internal history and yet also is remarkably intimate, exploding with charisma as humanity blooms across the desert with romance, loyalty and love to spare.
Paul’s dreams are filled with visions of a beautiful woman of the desert planet Arrakis, as she’s played by Zendaya this seems perfectly reasonable for a person of his age. And the accomplished actress brings much needed humour as she casts her lines with a delivery even more dry than Arrakis. Fans may feel short changed by her screen time, but her charisma allows her to make an impression even among this most manly of company.
Paul’s troop of macho role models are played by Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Jason ‘Aquaman’ Momoa, and it’s the latter who’s swagger is closest the film has to a Han Solo character. Opposing them is the considerable muscle of Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgard.
This remorseless machismo is partially offset the icy presence of Charlotte Rampling, and a ferociously commanding Rebecca Ferguson, who’s quite astonishing at conveying the complex layers of emotions and pain involved in being Paul’s mother as she guides him to his destiny.
Meanwhile Sharon Duncan-Brewster is given the gender-flipped role of Dr. Liet-Kynes, and makes it her own with a subtly powerful performance of openly guarded wit and grace.
Villeneuve treats his audience as adults by throwing in Herbert’s vocabulary of ‘Fremen’, ‘Mentat’, ‘Bene Gesserit’ and so on, but this is no more puzzling than Sith, Jedi, and so on. Besides, the storytelling is so well rendered you could follow the story without the dialogue. Puny humans being terrorised by giant sand worms looks the same whatever language the characters are screaming in.
Plus with the outrageous phallic symbolism of the hero having to master an enormous worm as proof of his manhood, it’s difficult not to imagine Herbert smuttily giggling to himself as he conceived the idea, and laughing out loud as he dared himself to write it.
In a film of wondrous design, it’s the rotating winged aircraft resemble mechanical insects, called ‘thopters, which make you gasp, and stand alongside the Eagle craft of TV’s Space 1999 as a classic of sci-fi iconography.
Complementing the monumental cinematography of Greig Fraser, who’s work can next be seen in next year’s superhero neo-noir, The Batman, Hans Zimmer’s score is a teeth-rattling achievement, even for this noted composer of titanic-sized themes, and Zimmer seems to have invented a new language of noise, which blends seamlessly into the equally unique and thunderous soundscape.
David Lynch’s disowned 1984 film version has been not ungenerously described as ‘a glorious mess’. But I’ve respect for its imaginative leaps of hideous design, and it scores over this version in that it manages to complete the book in one sitting, whereas Villeneuve only delivers the first half or thereabouts of the book.
However the sheer Everest-like enormity of Villeneuve’s Dune ensures it never feels like half a film, instead it feels more like a myth fashioned in primordial clay and brought to life by the lightning of the gods. This is a planet-stomping titan of a movie, and for us not be presented with part two would be a crime against cinema.