Dune review: Big, bold and brilliant
James R | On 12, Dec 2021
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgård
“Unfilmable” has been used to describe many books over the years, but perhaps none so epically bonkers as Frank Herbert’s Dune, a sci-fi saga that balances ecological messages and themes of power and politics with giant, sand-tunnelling worms and a floating evil baron. As of the start of 2021, the best adaptation of the book was a documentary about a failed adaptation that didn’t even happen: Jodorowsky’s Dune. Now, though, Denis Villeneuve has translated the seminal book into a full-on movie blockbuster – and, even more impossible than that, the result is set to be an absolute all-timer.
The film follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir of House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). The family is appointed to take over the stewardship of Arrakis (also known as Dune), a planet that has been passed from House to House over the years, as they each continue the mining operations that harvest its mysterious natural spice – a profitable hallucinogen that can prolong life and also be used to fuel interstellar travel.
The planet is occupied by the Fremen, a desert-dwelling people who are tired of their home being raided and exploited by off-worlders for industrial gain. When Paul starts to have dreams of young Fremen woman Chani (Zendaya), it becomes clear that this clash of resources, rights and respect isn’t going to be straightforward. The result is somewhere between Avatar and The Lord of the Rings, with a dash of John Carter of Mars thrown in.
The latter is perhaps the most direct touchstone for the film, as Villeneuve manages to capture that same sense of wonder and adventure as a new world is introduced to us on screen. The world-building is impeccable, from the wing-fluttering flying machines to the heat suits that preserve water and make it possible to move about on the desert surface. The political tensions are equally well realised, whether it’s a leader being brought before Leto with distrust of an apparently fair and respectful truce agreement or the strange tribe of elders and soothsayers that Leto’s wife and Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), belongs to.
An early interrogation scene makes it clear that Villeneuve’s script – co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth – is staying faithful to Herbert’s source material, but it smartly chooses not to tackle the whole thing in one go. That means, unlike David Lunch’s Dune, it doesn’t get tangled in the novel’s unmangeablae mythology, and also has more chance to savour the sheer scale of the endeavour. The colossal sand worms are just the start of an epic that feels suitably massive, with the stunning cinematography fused with seamless special effects.
With all this going on, a lesser film would lose sight of its characters, but Dune keeps them front and centre throughout. Chalamet has all the leading man charisma of a young Johnny Depp as Paul, a boy fated for big things but unable to grasp what exactly they might be yet – that newcomers to the story don’t know yet either only reinforces the emotional impact of his coming-of-age journey.
He’s supported superbly by a stacked adult cast, from Oscar Isaac, who brings bundles of humanity and compassion to a ruler who could easily be a distant, two-dimensional figure, and Jason Momoa, who has a poignant nobility as ruthless swordmaster Duncan Idaho, to Stellan Skarsgård as the sinister Baron Harkonnen (the depiction of the Baron as overweight to indicate his villainous, consuming nature is the only misstep).
The show is stolen, though, by Rebecca Ferguson, whose potent mix of maternal care, a brutal protective streak, an unblinking ambition and a chilling loyalty to her order makes her the most complex, terrifying and interesting person we meet. As for Zendaya, when she does arrive, her chemistry with Chalamet promises interesting conflict and co-operation to come.
Leaving us wanting more is no mistake, as the title clearly proclaims this to be “Part 1”. “This is just the beginning…” we’re told, and not since Fellowship of the Ring has there been such a satisfying first entry in a franchise that manages to make a merit out of not divulging everything at once. That in itself is an achievement, but even more remarkable is how little traces there are of Jodorowsky’s Dune – a film that has gone on to inspire Alien, Star Wars and every other sci-fi going. Villeneuve’s Dune feels entirely its own beast, majestic and astonishingly fully formed. Unfilmable? Roll on Part 2.