A big, bold, beautiful piece of science fiction
Sand. It gets everywhere. In all the cracks. Although despite the abundance of sand in this sweeping spectacle of a movie, there are no real cracks to show. Dune is a tightly crafted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 work and is much better than David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation which was beautiful to look at but flawed, largely due to the studio interference that scuppered the Twin Peaks directors’ vision.
There are no signs of studio interference with this latest release. Denis Villeneuve, who has already proven his ability to create a piece of science-fiction on an epic and thoughtful scale with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is clearly calling all the shots with his version of Dune. The film is big, bold, visually fantastic, and perfectly in tune with a director who has imagination to spare.
By all accounts, this is a faithful adaption of the novel (I read it as a kid but can’t remember much about it), even though it doesn’t cover every event from the original story. A second chapter covering the remainder of the novel will (if everything goes to plan) be released at some point in the future. This is a good thing as it has given Villeneuve the opportunity to take his time with the world-building the story deserves. If the entire novel had to be squeezed into one film, it would have surpassed its already long running time (2 hours and 35 minutes), and certain key scenes may have been missed if the studio decided to aim for brevity.
The film chronicles the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), who has his destiny changed forever when his father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Issac), accepts control of the desert planet Arrakis. Leadership over the planet is seen as important as it is the source of ‘spice,’ one of the most valuable substances in Frank Herbert’s universe.
The drug is highly sought after for its mystical and medicinal properties although access to it isn’t easy due to the giant sandworms that are responsible for its production.
If you’re expecting an action-heavy sci-fi epic in line with Star Wars, you are going to be disappointed here. George Lucas was clearly inspired by Frank Herbert’s novel but his was a more boys own adventure than this serious-minded affair. The similarities are many.
Both pieces of fiction have a desolate desert planet, forces that give their users mental and physical abilities, political factions that serve both good and evil causes, and a young man cited as the ‘chosen one.’ But in Herbert’s work (and the film adaptation), there are very few attempts at humour (there are no comical droids to fall back on for light relief here) and the focus is on conversation and not gun battles and space combat.
This isn’t to say there is no action in the film at all. Villeneuve stages some impressive set pieces, including a brilliant sandworm attack and cleverly orchestrated fight scenes featuring Jason Momoa’s swordmaster. But in between these thrilling bursts of action, there is a lot of self-reflection, ominous political conversation, and dialogue exposition that is largely there to explain the workings of the Duniverse to the audience. Such scenes aren’t necessarily boring, although they may stretch the patience of those who want light relief from the film’s sombre tone.
For lovers of the original work, the film will be immensely satisfying. All the core ingredients of the novel are here, including the backstabbing politics and Paul Atreides visions of his messiah-like future. Most of the major characters of the novel are given time to make an impression, including Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother.
Played by Rebecca Ferguson with the required amount of tenderness, she introduces her son to the powers he can wield, including a powerful voice power that equals the Force for controlling the will of others. Other characters also make an impact, including Duncan Idaho (the aforementioned Jason Momoa) as the sworn protector of House Atreides and weapon master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) who trains Paul in the way of combat.
Those not au fait with Herbert’s novel may struggle with some elements of the film. The tone is heavy and portentous, and the political workings of the story are a little confusing. The latter isn’t a problem as a rewatch will bring about a greater understanding of the people and opposing powers within the film’s story. However, those looking for something easy to watch on a Friday night may start to become frustrated by the overwhelming nature of it all.
Everything, from the striking visual spectacle of the greater universe to the wailing choirs present in Hans Zimmer’s score, adds to the sweeping scale that Villeneuve is trying to create. This is all impressively mounted but those not hypnotized by the director’s grand vision may find it all a little too much.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film, despite its length and the sometimes complicated cosmic politics. I enjoyed the rich visual detail, the throbbing music score, and the performances of the supremely talented cast.
When one character informs Paul at the end of the film that “this is just the beginning,” I was excited that this was also a promise to the viewer that there was more to come. It is rare to see a piece of sci-fi on this scale and if you’re willing to buy into the story, despite the self-important tone and sometimes incomprehensible dialogue, I’m sure you will enjoy this too.
Verdict - 8/10