I kept my fingers crossed for the new adaptation of Frank Herbert’ notoriously unfilmable sci-fi classic to succeed ever since watching the awe-inspiring trailer… and Denis Villeneuve’s bold, mesmerising epic doesn’t disappoint. I wish I could say this more often.
It might be a heresy to say this, but prior to Dune, the jury was still out for me on Denis Villeneuve, who also directed Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. I’m happy that someone out there still has a passion for making thoughtful, slow-burn, ambitious sci-fi movies and, maybe more importantly, has the financial backing of major studios to bring his ideas to fruition. I still wasn’t convinced however that Villeneuve’s storytelling quite matched his ability to make a visually stunning movie – there’s a lot to like about Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival but I also found them both to be massively flawed. Dune may not be perfect either, however it’s easily a Villeneuve film I enjoyed the most so far.
I was also curious to see how this new version compares to the 1984 adaptation by David Lynch, famously disowned by its creator; though it’s a fascinating failure at best it was more vivid in my memory than the original books, which I read way back in my early 20s (if memory serves me correctly I stopped at God Emperor of Dune). Lynch’s version was of course doomed from the start by trying to fit Herbert’s dense novel and its intricately imagined, lore-heavy world into one movie, in an era when splitting a story into several films wasn’t yet a thing.
Aesthetically, the main difference between Dune 1984 and Dune 2021 was best summed up by a review I watched recently, which remarked that while Lynch’s version revels in and exaggerates the weirdness of its world, Villeneuve’s treats the weird and the extraordinary as if it was completely normal and realistic. I confess, a part of me did miss the Lynchian eccentricity and quirkiness, but the new Dune absolutely delivers on the dazzling spectacle and visual majesty teased in the trailer. I’m glad I had a chance to enjoy the full glory of the Melbourne IMAX screen, where you could really drink in all the lovingly crafted details and scale: the natural beauty of the Atreides home world, the stark desert vistas, the vast cityscapes, the futuristic yet gritty technology (in my mind, I dubbed this movie a “spaceship porn”).
Despite the more grounded approach, this is still a deeply strange, alien world to get immersed in, which is why it’s a jolt to spot the small details that remind you of the ties to the distant past, i.e. our own world: the statuette of a bullfighter and a bull, or a bagpipe player heralding the arrival of the House Atreides on Arrakis. The otherworldly feeling is further enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s textured retro-future score, which combines choral, world music and electronic elements. I doubt I’d ever want to listen to Zimmer’s score for Dune on its own, but it serves the film perfectly.
The story is stripped back to its most elemental: the political intrigue played by the space aristocracy of the future, with the House Atreides commanded by the Emperor to take over Arrakis, a planet formerly controlled by the cruel House Harkonnen that is home to the universe’s only source of spice, a substance that prolongs life and enables space travel thanks to its mind-enhancing qualities. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), knowing very well that he’s been handed a poisoned chalice as a gift, plans to survive by forging alliance with the Fremen, the hardy natives of Arrakis who had adapted to the harsh desert. Meanwhile Leto’s teenage son Paul (Timothee Chalamet), trained by his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in the mysterious arts of the Bene Gesserit order, is beset by strange dreams of a Fremen girl and glimpses of the future that hint on potential divinity.
As much as I admired Herbert’s imagination, I appreciated his books for world-building more so than characters, so my best hope was for the talented cast to bring something extra of their own to the table. I was rather sceptical about Timothee Chalamet, who I felt was too young and scrawny to play Paul, but his natural intensity won me over and he’s believable as a young man marked and set aside from the rest by a special fate. Plus, the film itself cheekily acknowledges Paul’s boyishness and lack of impressive physique. Rebecca Ferguson is perfect as Jessica (one character from the books I actually really liked), who switches between a warm maternal presence and a steely Bene Gesserit nun with a frightening power to control minds.
Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck), and Javier Bardem (as Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen tribe) are all seasoned pros who bring grit and gravitas to their parts. Prior to the film I was on the fence with the casting of Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, but he’s a very welcome addition who brings fun and humour to the mostly serious proceedings, and brings out the lighter side in other characters, especially Paul who instantly lights up with boyish hero worship in his presence. Stellan Skarsgard’s gargantuan Baron Harkonnen is a much colder villain than the one seen in Lynch’s film, with the shades of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz.
I can’t fault the casting of Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, but I couldn’t help thinking that Sian Phillips’ Reverend Mother from Lynch’s version would have eaten her for breakfast. That woman’s death stare and cheekbones would drill through Fort Knox!
Perhaps inevitably, some characters get short-changed, most notably Dr Yueh who is a genuinely tragic figure in the book but doesn’t get much development here. Also, while the film overall moves remarkably well and I appreciated its slower, meditative, almost hallucinatory stretches, some time during the second half I was feeling the running time. However I still left the theatre mighty impressed, and hoping that Villeneuve can sustain the excellent run (or a giant sandworm ride if you like) in Dune: Part Two.