First things first. Yes, the sandworms are awesome. Gigantic voracious tubes with thousands of scimitar teeth that curve inward to form a kind of giant eyeball, they’re a bit like what would happen if the Channel Tunnel had a baby with a Sarlacc.
These subterranean nightmares that lurk beneath the surface of the vast desert planet of Arakkis are just one element of this big, thinky blockbuster to seriously exceed expectations. An epic sci-fi full of premonitions, Dune director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) must have had a few of his own when he set about bringing Frank Herbert’s thematically dense book series to the screen: mostly involving sobbing into his on-set coffee at the sheer enormity of cramming it all into a film.
But the Canadian filmmaker has nailed it where, in different ways David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowksy and Ridley Scott all floundered. His Dune is sprawling, spectacular and politically resonant in its critique of colonialism and exploitation. Okay, technically it doesn’t have an ending – it’s ‘Part 1’ of a series that may not get a Part 2 – and not everyone will get along with the levels of patience Villeneuve demands of his audience, but those who do will be rewarded with precise storytelling, visual fireworks and some god-level world-building.
The bulk of Dune unfolds on Arrakis. It’s a severe and inhospitable place from which the cruel overlords of the House Harkonnen extracts spice – a prized commodity used to power space travel – and fight the indigenous Freman people, who use it for spiritual enlightenment. The insurgency comes to an abrupt halt when the Emperor swaps the Harkonnen for the more enlightened House Atreides.
Of course, as any Dune stan will tell you, this is just a trap to eradicate the fancy-dan Atreides altogether. At the heart of these Shakespearean machinations is Timothée Chalamet’s gifted, introspective Paul Atreides. He’s a Prince Hal-like figure who may just be the messiah-like chosen one the universe has been waiting for. He has inherited political power from his dad (Oscar Isaac) and magic from his mum (Rebecca Ferguson). He can use his voice as a mind-control device and has surprising fighting skills for one so tousled.
The wrinkle is he’s young and gauche – the voice thing is still a bit hit-and-miss – and the clock is ticking. The evil Harkonnen is on the verge of a galactic double-cross that will leave Paul on a hero’s journey across the remote, lethal badlands of Arrakis. There are portents involving knives, battles and a mysterious Freman (Zendaya). Oh, and a Jedi-like religious cadre called the Bene Gesserit, who get shortish shrift from a screenplay by Villeneuve, Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts that mostly makes sage decisions about what to include and what to omit from Herbert’s source material.
If you’ve read the books, you’ll know what all these premonitions signify; if you haven’t, no biggie. Hang in there for the giant worms.
And hang in there, too, for some expertly handled action sequences. Unlike a lot of skittishly cut modern-day blockbusters, Villeneuve allows his to breathe with measured editing and VFX that blends into the massive sets and desert locations (Dune was partly filmed in Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum). Also cool is the insect-like tech – spaceships flutter like dragonflies and drones hover like bees – and a Hans Zimmer score that sits halfway between Maurice Jarre’s work on Lawrence of Arabia and the György Ligeti used on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Chalamet is rock solid as this Luke Spicewalker figure, but everyone is watchable here – there’s no Sting to stink the place up. Pick of the supporting cast is Stellan Skarsgård, who channels Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now as the Harkonnen’s bloated head honcho, the Baron. He’s a power-hungry schemer whose litany of monstrous traits includes floating through the air like an evil children’s balloon. Like a lot in Dune, he’s shrouded in gloom and hardly a laugh riot, but he’s not short of substance. He’s just one reason to hope for Part 2.
Dune premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. It’s in US theaters Oct 22 and UK cinemas Nov 19.