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Dir: Denis Villeneuve. Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya. Cert 15, 155 mins
In Frank Herbert’s Dune, we’re introduced to the fictional planet of Arrakis – an arid place, its winds so choked with sand that it seems impossible for any creature or person to dwell within it. And yet, from somewhere deep below, a rumble can be heard. Sandworms, both fierce and mountainous, move unseen but still felt. It’s an oddly accurate way to describe the fate of Herbert’s own book, widely recognised as one of the greatest pieces of science fiction, but absent from the popular consciousness to such a degree that George Lucas could pilfer its story of ancient religions and desert messiahs without much notice.
Meanwhile, Hollywood has come to consider the book as something of a poisoned chalice. Dune has already felled two great visionaries: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s psychedelic vision collapsed in on itself, while David Lynch’s typically absurdist take was reviled by critics. So there was an undeniable audacity to the decision by Warner Bros to revisit Herbert’s 1965 novel, placing it now in the hands of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and dividing it into two parts. But that risk has been richly rewarded.
Villeneuve’s Dune is the sandworm exploding out from the darkness below. It is a film of such literal and emotional largeness that it overwhelms the senses. If all goes well, it should reinvigorate the book’s legacy in the same way Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy did for JRR Tolkien’s work. Indeed, much like Jackson, Villeneuve has a certain pliancy to his vision that, in this case, has been his saving grace. Arrival and Prisoners, two of his previous films, may have possessed their own distinctive look but, when it came to Blade Runner 2049, his belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, it spoke fluently in the language of what came before.
Dune, then, is firmly grounded in Herbert’s book. The author’s story of feudal nobles waging war over Arrakis, the only source of a powerful drug known as spice, is thick with conflicting ideas that academics are still unpacking today. For Villeneuve, his interests seem to lie mostly in where colonialism and religion collide, specifically in the weaponisation of belief in order to control a population. The film opens with a piece of narration from Chani (Zendaya), one of Arrakis’s indigenous Fremen, as she ponders over who will be the next to oppress her people. The cruel and ruthless Harkonnens have left their planet and given up control of the spice trade. In their place arrives House Atreides: Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet).
Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a spiritual order of witch-like women who have served as the guiding hand of history. Through the careful intermixing of bloodlines, they hope to produce the “Kwisatz Haderach” – a mind so powerful that it could bridge space and time, past and future. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Paul himself may be the fated being in question.
Centuries before the events described in Herbert’s novel, there was a revolt that destroyed all computers. Patrice Vermette’s production work and Jacqueline West’s costumes have thus eschewed many of the conventions of futuristic design in favour of something far more archaeological and symbolic. Painted Japanese panels sit beside Byzantine robes, with just a touch of the mechanical eerieness of artist HR Giger, once hired for Jodorowsky’s film. Hans Zimmer’s score, so dread-filled that it’s frightening, includes both throat singing and Scottish bagpipes.
Villeneuve allows the terrible, suffocating weight of Paul’s destiny to infect every frame of Dune – from the sterile, muted palette of his homeworld Caladan to the gold-flecked haze of Arrakis. Figures traverse across vast landscapes, while miniature swarms of spaceships gather like invading insects. That smallness allows, too, for some humanity. There is a fragility to these characters, upheld by a cast of actors all too smart to be swallowed up by portentousness. Chalamet will always have his sheepishness, Zendaya a cutting clarity to her voice.
But Dune is a complicated book. It’s also a complicated film. There’s a real question as to why the Fremen – whose language, dress, and culture are so directly inspired by the nomadic, Arabic Bedouin tribes – don’t feature any Middle Eastern and North African (Mena) actors in speaking roles, their leader instead played by Javier Bardem in a shemagh-inspired headscarf. The casting choice is poor, and will only cause further problems if Villeneuve is able to make the second part of this story. It’s a small, but noticeable chip in the paint when it comes to Dune – a work that’s otherwise of such intimidating grandeur that it’s hard to believe it even exists in the first place.