Phenomenally cast, staged and shot, this Timothée Chalamet-led version of sci-fi’s desert-dwelling space thriller is spectacular.
December 02, 2021
A spice-war space opera about feuding houses on far-flung planets, Dune has long been a pop-culture building block. Before Frank Herbert's 1965 novel was adapted into a wrongly reviled David Lynch-directed film — a gloriously 80s epic led by Kyle MacLachlan and laced with surreal touches — it unmistakably inspired Star Wars, and also cast a shadow over Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Game of Thrones has since taken cues from it. The Riddick franchise owes it a debt, too. The list goes on and, thanks to the new version bringing its sandy deserts to cinemas, will only keep growing. As he did with Blade Runner 2049, writer/director Denis Villeneuve has once again grasped something already enormously influential, peered at it with astute eyes and built it anew — and created an instant sci-fi classic.
This time, Villeneuve isn't asking viewers to ponder whether androids dream of electric sheep, but if humanity can ever overcome one of our worst urges and all that it brings. Dune tells of birthrights, prophesied messiahs, secret sisterhood sects that underpin the galaxy and phallic-looking giant sandworms, and of the primal lust for power that's as old as time — and, in Herbert's story, echoes well into the future's future. Blade Runner 2049 ruminated upon a similar idea in its own way, as many movies do. Indeed, Ridley Scott was hired to helm Dune before Lynch, then made the original Blade Runner instead, so Villeneuve is following him again here. Dune's unpacking of dominance and command piles on colonial oppression, authoritarianism, greed, ecological calamity and religious fervour, though, like it's building a sandcastle out of power's nastiest ramifications. And, amid that weightiness, it's also a tale of a moody teen with mind-control abilities struggling with what's expected versus what's right.
That young man is Paul Atreides, as played by Timothée Chalamet in a stroke of genius casting that seems almost fated — as if returning Dune to the big screen had to wait for the Call Me By Your Name star. (The book also earned the TV miniseries treatment in 2000, and we should be thankful that a 90s iteration soundtracked by the Spice Girls' 'Spice Up Your Life' didn't ever eventuate.) When the narrative begins in Villeneuve and co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Eric Roth's (A Star Is Born) retelling, Paul's life has been upended. House Atreides, led by his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, Scenes From a Marriage), must leave its watery home planet of Caladan to take over the desert world of Arrakis. Previously run by their enemies in House Harkonnen, it's the source of the universe's melange stores, with the spice making interstellar travel possible.
Spice also expands consciousness and extends lives — and, while forced by imperial decree, the monstrous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, Chernobyl) isn't happy about handing Arrakis over. To say House Atreides' move doesn't go smoothly is like saying that its new home is a tad toasty, but the tricky transition is just one of Dune's concerns. Another: the plans for Paul. House Atreides' heir, he's being trained as such by the Duke, security expert Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Devs), swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa, Aquaman) and weaponry whiz Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, Avengers: Endgame). But Paul's mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, Reminiscence) hails from the Bene Gesserit, an all-female group who pull the galaxy's strings, and she sees him as its fabled chosen one.
On the page, Dune sports an abundance of plot, of which this film only relays half; its title card dubs it Dune: Part One, a move only backed up post-US release when Dune: Part Two was greenlit. This opening chapter is never overladen, however, even if the Fremen — Arrakis' blue-eyed Indigenous peoples, including tribal leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows) and the defiant Chani (Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie) — are clearly poised to enjoy a larger part in the sequel. Savvily, one of Villeneuve's big choices is to let Chani's narration introduce the movie. It immediately helps to side the feature with the oppressed, rather than merely embracing several layers of power from the get-go. It also signals a concerted effort to ensure this isn't primarily a story of men. It whets the appetite for more, too, including from Zendaya — who doesn't get much screentime, but still leaves an imprint that'd stick even in sand.
Treading not only in Lynch's footsteps, but in Chilean French director Alejandro Jodorowsky's — whose aborted 70s stab at Dune is chronicled in stellar documentary Jodorowsky's Dune — is a mammoth task. Big-budget slams and failed visionary attempts tend to stick in filmic memory. Plus, Lynch's movie featured a heap of other future Twin Peaks stars, and Sting, and a score by Toto (no one blessed the rains, though). Meanwhile, Jodorowsky had Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles, with Pink Floyd on soundtrack duties. To match, Villeneuve boasts a magnificent cast, all doing their utmost, while Hans Zimmer's throbbing notes set an intense and ominous mood as expertly as his immensely dissimilar work on No Time to Die also did. But what gleams brightest in this take on the tale is its breathtaking visuals, meticulous plotting, a pace that gives the narrative space to breathe and an alluring sense of mystery, as well as the ability to prove simultaneously vast and intimate.
When Dune's desert landscapes linger as far as the eye can see, they shimmer with heat, texture and possibility. When the film lurks in palaces bubbling with political scheming, it hews slick, muted and brutal. As lensed by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (Lion), these are shrewd choices — pitting the expansive, grainy yet inviting against the confined, sleek and savage — in a movie that knows how to make every image both count and feel visceral. Awe-inspiring to behold, and operatic, Dune turns a literary giant into a cinematic one. It broods brilliantly, dreams vividly and muses sharply, as Villeneuve's work (see also: Arrival and Enemy) does at his best. It stages tremendously engaging action sequences, too, as Sicario also did. The one drawback: as grand and majestic as it is, and as much of an astonishing feast for the senses as well, it could use a slightly wilder streak. Dune rarely makes surprising moves — it doesn't quite take a "walk without rhythm and it won't attract the worm" ethos to heart, aka the line from the book that's immortalised in Fat Boy Slim's 'Weapon of Choice' — but it's always thrilling, immersive and spectacular.