Review: Dune

Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049. Read any of those reviews and you can probably imagine how excited I was to see Denis Villeneuve’s latest epic slab of event cinema. Suffice to say, Dune is (bar perhaps Tenet last year) the most intense and cinematic experience I’ve had since everything reopened, and my favourite film of this and last year. If you call yourself a fan of sci-fi, fantasy, or just general cinema spectacle, you owe it to yourself to get to the biggest, loudest screen available right now to see this intelligent, uncompromising work of art.

Adapting the first half(ish) of the famous sci-fi novel, Dune is set post-10,000AD, in an interplanetary empire across planets and galaxies, ruled by noble families. House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is handed the poisoned chalice of custodianship of the desert planet Arrakis (called Dune by most) by the galactic emperor, at the expense of rivals House Harkonnen and its odious Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard), whose organisation has brutally oppressed the local Fremen population.

Arrakis is the source of melange or “spice”, a potent drug and the galaxy’s only route to interstellar travel: whoever controls the planet not only has untold riches, but also galaxy-level power. Leto’s son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) wrestles with prescient dreams of a mysterious Fremen woman (Zendaya) on Dune before he even gets there, while the machinations of his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who belongs to a mysterious organisation of psychically powerful women, reveal themselves. Troubled by messianic prophecies and rumours, Paul and his family face incredible danger, myriad threats and more on a world few understand, which holds many secrets and dangers (one danger that’s not a secret? Absolutely enormous, destructive sandworms).

Straight off the bat, this is intense sci-fi/fantasy, but having read the book, the best way to summarise it is that it’s a blend of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Lawrence of Arabia, the more esoteric elements of Star Wars (which stole loads from it!), multiple world religions, any resource-driven conflict in a desert region, and much more besides. A lot to adapt, and as such this is titled part one (fortunately, a sequel has been approved) – and still weighs in at two and a half hours!

What all of that does NOT even begin to cover however is the truly jaw-dropping scale, tone, feel, sound and look of this. If you’ve seen any of Villeneuve’s films, you’ll be aware of exactly the sort of things I’m referring to – tangible, practical sets constructed at immense scale; crushing sound design plus earthquake-level score; and a sense that you’re bearing witness to super-scale filmmaking not often seen anymore.

What Villeneuve has in spades is this incredible sense of balance and power – his films throb through your brain and body in the cinema, permeating the audience with sensory overload, infinity and intensity. Dune is not only no exception, but an escalation. His uncanny ability to overwhelm you with sights, sounds and atmosphere however never comes at the expense of characters and their relationships, and boy does this particular story have some strong characters.

Adapting Frank Herbert’s 1960s novel has long been a challenge, with David Lynch making the only cinematic adaptation prior (Sting is one of the stars – it’s WEIRD). After Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve was an ideal choice to give it another try, and is on record as having been obsessed with the book as a teenager, calling it a dream job. That passion shines through, alongside his sense of what to keep, what to hold back, and what to jettison in the name of coherent cinema.

Alongside fellow writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, Villeneuve adapts the book by adhering to a two-part split – there’s a definitive conclusion here, but plenty more plot to come. This allows the atmosphere and the tension to sprawl out, and gives us a coherent structure. The writers take Herbert’s ecologically-minded, counter-cultural perspective on invasion, colonialism, resource wars and religion in their stride, never punching you in the face with the allegories, while utilising certain scenes to impart this fantasy world’s rules and scenarios to us.

They’re ably assisted in creating a dramatic mood by astonishing set design and location shooting in Jordan, Norway and the UAE – whether on the Atreides’ Scandinavian, fjord-filled homeworld Caladan or the immense deserts of Arrakis, the filmmakers blend real locations with huge (and I mean huge) sets and creations, while cutting-edge CGI assists in getting across the immensity of cities, spaceships and the infamous worms. Greig Fraser’s moody cinematography draws back colour for a bleached alt-future filled with gothic spaceships, gloomy fortresses and sharp contrasts, with hints of vibrant colour appearing in unexpected places.

The way this world’s been designed is really clever, given it’s thousands of years in the future with no computing technology (something not made immediately apparent). Spaceships are truly strange and thus also have a presence; weaponry is pleasingly post-guns, and sword-based; while outfits run the gamut from ancient influences to modern military with a twist. The tangibility of the stillsuits (outfits worn in the desert to retain fluids) and the ornithopters (helicopters but with wings like bugs) go a long way towards selling the idea of a realistic, yet vastly different future.

What really does the trick though is Hans Zimmer’s out-there, incredible score. Another super-fan of the book (he turned down Tenet to work on this), Zimmer’s usual tropes go unheard. He created new instruments, utilised invented languages, recorded sounds of the desert and altogether manifested the perfect accompaniment. Intense drum assaults, chattering and unnerving chanting, jangly guitar riffs, space bagpipes (yes, REALLY!), and near-feral wailing and screaming combine to create one hell of an assault on the senses. Yet, it all works perfectly with what we’re seeing., and calmer, quieter moments shine through with an elegance and a beauty to accompany the sights.

As with other Villeneuve films, quick edits are eschewed in favour of long, unbroken wide shots to truly convey the scale of what we’re seeing, and editor Joe Walker ably cross-cuts between prophetic, dramatic visions as well as brutal, concussive conflicts. When it comes to action, there is quite a bit but not that often, and it’s in service of the story; never just for the sake of it – shielded hand-to-hand combat with swords, orbital bombardments and the odd, jaw-dropping and nail-biting encounter with Arrakis’ immense worm predators.

There’s a huge cast – so you can imagine some are glorified cameos, while others are central. Timothee Chalamet is seriously impressive as protagonist Paul Atriedes, bringing an incredible intensity and holding the screen in a number of scenes that are really impressive to watch. Paul’s youth and agonising over what’s happening to him and his family harden into a steely resolve, and Chalamet balances emotion and strength very well throughout. I really look forward to seeing what he can do with the material still to come, and I now understand the fuss about the young actor.

The secondary lead is – surprisingly for a sci-fi fantasy film or book of the time – Rebecca Ferguson, as Paul’s mother Jessica. I’ve said before about how good Ferguson tends to be, and she here balances mystery, power and care as a female protagonist unlike many others. Jessica’s secretive organisation, and her actions and abilities in relation to that, define her strong but conflicted character, and Ferguson embodies the character’s conflicts over nature, nurture and the long game about as well as you’d imagine, laying it all on the line in a few highly-emotional scenes, but bringing some of that Doctor Sleep discomfort too.

Oscar Isaac is utterly believable as a gruff, world-weary and stoic dad who just happens to be the leader of an interplanetary regal house, and he nails that sense of the honour-bound lynchpin at the centre of an unpredictable interstellar power-play. Isaac is less of a presence, but in a series of scenes conveys a strong sense of duty and humanity, more Poe Dameron than the unhinged power he can usually deploy.

A couple of heavy-hitters impact in a few scenes each as House Atreides soldiers, with Josh Brolin’s flinty-faced and gruff commander Gurney Halleck (what a name), all military poise and rigour. Jason Momoa is the ying to his yang as the bravura Duncan Idaho (WHAT A NAME!), showing great brotherly chemistry with Chalamet but also reminding us why he’s an action movie star. Both are featured a little less than you might like, but a second part to this story ought to bring us more.

Some cameos paint in some detail, including Stephen McKinley Henderson’s kindly but steely advisor Thuthir Henwat, and Chang Chen’s conflicted doctor Yuen. Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s planetologist Liet-Kynes (gender and race-swapped from the book) carefully and coolly stands astride a brewing conflict until it explodes. It’s again a shame not to see more of these characters, but the casting is on point in that they make an impact, no matter how short their appearances are.

Of the Arrakis dwellers, Javier Bardem brings along his awkward, cool-cucumber vibe again as Fremen leader Stilgar, while Zendaya has relatively little to do but be the subject of Paul’s visions, though does a lot with very little, and essentially serves as our narrator and as an ever-present hint at what’s to come. Babs Olusanmokun makes a relatively big impact in just a couple of scenes as Fremen Jamis, emanating outrage and distaste as societies and cultures collide.

On the villainous, or at the very least ambiguous side (when it comes to one character), we’re treated to Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista and a chillingly eerie Charlotte Rampling. Skarsgard absolutely oozes menace, gluttony and sliminess (quite literally) as the malevolent Baron Harkonnen, and the prosthetics used to bring this monster to life are truly odious. His ability to dominate his few scenes are testament to the Swede’s abilities, while Bautista is another case of “more to come”, though his pale, giant of a bruiser (nephew to the Baron) is imperious enough and packs the usual Bautista violence.

Rampling leaves one hell of a mark as the leader of the mysterious Bene Gesserit organisation, the British actress veiled, soundtracked by disturbing music and equipped with horrific torture boxes. Her scenes with Ferguson and Chalamet, and later Skarsgard, are underlined with menace, manipulation and haughtiness, and it’s great casting – again, more to come we hope. Finally, David Dastmalchian’s latest creepy turn sees him ooze superiority over even Skarsgard as the little-seen but devious Piter De Vries.

If you’re at all interested, I beg you to see it on the big screen. It’s loud, dramatic, thought-provoking and jaw-dropping cinema spectacle – it’s exactly what we go to the cinema for. Dune is a sci-fi masterpiece that I can’t wait to see again and again.

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