DUNE *****

Directed by Denis Villneuve.
 Starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac.
Science-fiction, US, 155 minutes, certificate 12.

Released in the UK in cinemas by Warner Bros on 21st October.


After a yearlong delay due to COVID, cinema audiences finally get to see what Denis Villeneuve could accomplish with Frank Herbert’s complex science-fiction saga. After the artistic success of BLADE RUNNER 2049, a sequel that despite its under performance at the box office became an immediate cult classic much like its predecessor, hopes were high that Villeneuve could succeed where the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch struggled. Jodorowsky’s aborted attempt has long been thought of as one of the most spectacular films never made, captured expertly in the documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, while Lynch’s flawed yet fascinating attempt has a singular style and design that has not really been seen in any big budget blockbuster since its 1984 release.


Where the previous film tried to cram Herbert’s first epic novel into two hours screen time with copious amounts of voiceover to help guide the viewer through the story’s many intergalactic locations, characters and political machinations this is a more controlled and paced out affair. Confidently asserting itself as DUNE: PART ONE in the opening credits, the resulting two and a half hour running time smoothly guides us through the first half of the opening volume without overwhelming an audience unfamiliar with the source material’s dense mythology that involves multiple mysterious objects and peoples such as the Kwisatz Haderach, Gom Jabbar and the Bene Gesserit.


So, here we concentrate on the Atreides, a royal family who are ordered by the unseen Emperor to relocate to the desert planet of Arrakis, in order to oversee the production of Spice, a mysterious hallucinogenic substance that aids the mysterious Navigators to traverse the great distances of space and time. A move that has angered their lifelong enemies the Harkonnen, who have previously occupied and profited from the planet much to the displeasure of the Fremen, the native people who call the vast deadly deserts of the planet their sacred home.


Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto and his partner Lady Jessica, has been experiencing mysterious visions involving the planet and has caught the attention of the Bene Gesserit, a secretive group of women with telepathic powers who Jessica turned her back on after falling in love with Leto. Why the Bene Gesserit are so interested in Paul and a conspiracy involving the Harkonnen moving against House Atreides lead the young man on a journey across the harsh planet and to a long-foretold destiny that could shake the universe to its very core.


As you can see there is a lot to set up here but Villeneuve manages it easily without letting the story get bogged down or confusing. The first two thirds of the film move swiftly, using expert world building with a sense of scale that has rarely been seen since Peter Jackson brought Middle Earth to the screen twenty years ago. The designs and size of the many spaceships and landscapes on show here will no doubt tickle the pleasure centres of sci-fi fans while the different cultures on display impress just as much. The comparisons of Arrakis to an occupied Middle East are unavoidable, which won’t be a surprise to Herbert’s fans as he pulled many influences for the concepts and languages for his books from there. Alongside this topical influence we also glimpse other diverse cultures such as the brutish and shadowy Harkonnen, led by a never more menacing Stellan Skarsgard as the floating obese figure of the Baron and the truly nightmarish and punishing world of the Sardaukar, the most feared army in this part of the galaxy.


The impressive cast acquit themselves impressively here. As Paul, Timothee Chalamet gets to grips with a character confused and in the dark as to his part in all of this without ever coming across as self-centred or pitying. Whilst ably supported by the likes of Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa as his gruff tutors in combat, Rebecca Ferguson gives just as an impressive performance as his mother, another compelling character with an interesting part to play in future events.


While all this setting up is expertly done and whets the appetites of the book’s fans, newcomers should be just as impressed and hooked. This is big budget American film making done right. The spectacular visuals reach to a stunning crescendo with a night-time battle, impress with their fresh staging and composition, never feeling like run of the mill CGI and making demands of the viewer to see it on as big a screen as possible. Even if only to experience the absolute majesty of the gigantic sand worms that rip along under the desert creating massive tidal waves of sand.


If there is one complaint from myself it is only with the fact that we have to wait for part two, and that depends on if enough people turn out to see part one. In a world that seems to be becoming more adaptable to long form storytelling on screen let’s hope they grasp the opportunity with this wildly ambitious and spectacular adaptation that succeeds on just about every level. It only gets wilder and more ambitious from here.


Iain MacLeod.


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