Dune is a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. Not many films can leave you in awe, where its immersion and the dreamlike patience of its intricate world-building overwhelms the senses both beautifully and poetically. And yet director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Sicario) accomplishes just that.
Such emotional engagement and esteem are indicative of how Villeneuve has exponentially approached science fiction in recent years. Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and his latest spectacle represent the growing evolution and resurgence of the genre, and the rise of ambitious filmmakers who have been steadily pushing its capabilities; where its engagement is not solely reliant on its visual aesthetics but places equal measure on the dramatic depth that underpins its characters. With grace and ease, it pulls its audience deeper into a thought-provoking narrative that either subverts our expectations or dares to question the essence of human nature. Annihilation, Ad Astra, Inception and Ex Machina are recent examples.
But Villeneuve has crafted something special by fulfilling a life-long dream with Dune. Because it’s not solely about telling a comprehensive intergalactic ‘coming of age’ story, about political intrigue and exploitative greed, power, space colonisation and subjugation for spice (for he who controls the spice, controls the universe). Villeneuve is intent on making the audience feel every passionate weight and soul in his grandiose adaptation of Frank Herbert’s renowned book anthology.
READ MORE: The Sabata Trilogy – Blu-ray Review
It is a stark contrast from David Lynch’s 1984 version, well-documented for its on-set troubles, Lynch at odds with a big-budgeted spectacle, studio interference, and compromised editing to ensure a two-hour running time. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances, and time has been kind to it to grant it cult status. But time has allowed for this iteration of Dune to deliver the best possible version for the big screen, losing that 80s campy flair for a more serious encapsulation, and utilising the best in modern technology. This is a different beast altogether.
For those familiar with Herbert’s book or Lynch’s version, the latest adaptation follows the same pattern. But the real skill to Villeneuve’s direction is its accessibility towards the Dune mythology. For all the different houses (Atreides, Harkonnen, The Emperor, Fremen), cultures and languages, the emphasised care and meticulous attention always finds a way to bring its concept right down to Earth.
As Chani (Zendaya) introduces the history of Arrakis – a mixture of beauty followed by its subsequent oppression – spice exploitation mirrors the countless wars fought in Africa and the Middle East over their natural resources, most notably in the aftermath of The War on Terror. Science fiction has always been a gateway to explain the brutalised predicament of our natural world, but at its heart are the basic principles we deeply connect with – family, friendships, love, loyalty, betrayal, and destiny. The subtle evocation of the ‘bull’ and ‘matador’ throughout the film shows how much nuance it’s willing to draw upon when it’s wrestling with those dynamics of power and control.
Part one – as Dune is titled – is sealed with a fate by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) in answering the Emperor’s call to manage the spice production on Arrakis. Alongside his heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet), his concubine and Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and the entire House Atreides clan, they travel to the perilous planet of Arrakis to uphold humanity’s fate. Hoping to combine forces with the Fremen – the planet’s original inhabitants – their efforts are hampered by production sabotage, desert space worms and a devastating plot to wipe out the entire Atreides bloodline.
Splitting the films makes logical sense knowing how extensive the material is. The script – written by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth – emphasises its slow-burning character-building and the complex relationships that populate Dune’s landscape. It is a father trying to impart wisdom and responsibility on his curious son. A mother (who can weaponise her words using ‘the voice’), who believes her son is a path to a new future, and a son who’s struggling to understand his gift whilst living up to the expectations that have been set before him. All this, set against the backdrop of scrupulous turmoil by those who want to shape the future for their own gain.
There’s no escaping the ‘white saviour’ tropes, but a lot of weight is placed on Chalamet’s young, generational shoulders to carry this adventurous story through. And he does so with aplomb. It’s his ability to instil a conflicted gentleness and restraint to his performance where he’s always at odds with his surroundings and his place in the world – a feeling made more potent the more he becomes acclimatised to Arrakis. Like all good character stories that Villeneuve has a knack for bringing the best out of, the audience is allowed to feel that same burden as Paul does, as if we’re experiencing the intensity of his dreams of Chani or the psychological effects of the spice right alongside him. Such craft and ingenuity only add to the immersive experience the film encompasses, and the various ramped-up dramatic shifts in its consequential third act.
When you’re surrounded by a phenomenal cast, that performance is magnified. Rebecca Ferguson’s duality between complicity and compassion adds to the mystique of her character. Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho adds a loveable and charismatic levity. Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen inhabits an unnerving and ethereal existence. Even Zendaya, who graces the screen with a dreamlike demeanour, cannot be chalked up as a cameo performance (despite her limited time). Every actor plays an integral role where their arcs are given significant breathing room with an invested stake in Dune’s intricate story. The film’s only weakness is the lack of MENA actors in a film steeped heavily in its Arabic culture.
But those relationships are equally matched by how much Grieg Fraser’s cinematography expands that cinematic canvas, taking full advantage of that IMAX screen (which is highly recommended). It’s a captivating technical marvel, showcasing its incredible production values in costumes and design. But that reality sinks in by Villeneuve’s complete and utterly unapologetic engagement in the film’s visual poetry. Whether it’s a sandworm devouring a spice miner, the attack on Arrakeen, or the ruthless Sardaukar silently dropping into action, it relishes every opportunity to inject reflective pauses in its action to put into perspective the scale and depth to Dune’s world-building.
READ MORE: Yokai Monsters Collection – Blu-ray Review
But it is Hans Zimmer who delivers a score for the ages, his best since Gladiator (a statement I do not take lightly). It exquisitely complements Villeneuve’s vision, working in tandem as it evokes Dune’s emotive otherworldliness. There’s room for the big-sweeping motifs we know and love from the composer, but this is far more of an enriched involvement. It’s a spiritually poignant subversion of his previous work, enhanced by the inclusion of female voices, which ensures the genre is never a male-dominated affair.
It’s like we’ve been all waiting for that next big epic story to lose ourselves in, that next Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and Dune indulges in that call. It is cinema at its finest, an extraordinary effort in scale, scope, craft, execution, and imagination that rightly puts it on a path as one of the best films of the year.
This is only the beginning. Bring on part two.
Dune is out in Cinemas on 21st October.