Having established solid sci-fi credentials with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve takes on hard SF and world-building on a massive scale with Dune – the first of a two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s celebrated 1965 novel.
Entering a universe previously charted by visionary filmmaker David Lynch, as well as a faithful but forgettable mini-series, Villeneuve’s vision hones close to the source novel but makes all its mysticism, mentalism and intergalactic politicking a lot easier for newcomers to follow (and swallow) than prior versions.
The story basically follows the battle between two great houses – the noble Atreides and the sinister Harkonnens – for control of the planet of Arrakis and its valuable mind-altering spice, which is vital to space travel and the galactic Imperium. The focus is predominantly on a young hero, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), whose prophetic dreams and visions position him as the messiah figure predicted to liberate the desert dwellers of Arrakis, the Fremen. And there are humongous worms lurking below the sands…
Dune can be a tough sell – it’s not Star Wars – and the challenge for any filmmaker is the amount of exposition required so as not to completely lose the audience. Lynch’s version had a lot of the characters thinking aloud (along with some helpful narration), which often sounded daft, whereas Villeneuve adopts a visual shorthand that effectively establishes the key players and cultures, as well as the planet’s ecology. And it helps to have Zendaya’s character, Chani, succinctly sum up the situation on Arrakis as the film opens.
Moreover, framing the spiritual journey of Paul as a chosen one/coming-of-age tale – albeit with giant sandworms – makes the heady sci-fi concepts and mythology a lot more palatable to a mainstream audience.
Dune was a dream project for Villeneuve, but having a director in love with the novel he’s adapting can sometimes be both a blessing and a curse. Fortunately, his determination to honour Herbert’s classic results in a movie that looks and feels like Dune should – from the dragonfly-like transports and Guild Heighliner spacecraft, to scenes and moments from the book that haven’t appeared on screen before. Moreover, the sheer immensity of the production is gobsmacking – imagine a celestial Lawrence of Arabia with a booming Hans Zimmer score that packs a bass punch you can feel.
Dune is also a casting director’s dream and Timothée Chalamet is the ideal Paul Atreides, a seemingly callow youth struggling with the immense powers stirring within him that will determine his destiny. Jason Momoa’s amiable persona is a solid choice for swordmaster Duncan Idaho, and Javier Bardiem is a commanding Stillgar, while Stellan Skarsgard’s corpulent Baron Harkonnnen is sparing used and will get more screen time in part two. And there’s a gender switch for Dr. Kynes, played in Lynch’s film by Max Von Sydow and now by Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
For fans of classic sci-fi literature, it’s a great time to be alive, with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation recently adapted as a small screen series and now Dune hitting the big screen once again. And you should see it on the biggest screen you can find – preferably IMAX, as a good portion of the film is shot using the large format.
Villeneuve has created a movie as immense and visually astonishing as the universe it depicts. As a faithful translation of Herbert’s book, and when compared with previous screen versions, this is the definitive Dune to date (well, half of it anyway), and events are set to really ramp up in Part Two.
In cinemas: December 2
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Jason Momoa
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve