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Film Review: Dune

28 October 21 words: Aaron Roe

Denis Villeneuve continues his sci-fi crusade by turning Frank Herbert’s seminal work into a deluxe blockbuster...

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac
Running time: 156 minutes

I’ve got to be straight with you, dear reader – I’ve never read Dune. Well, that’s not entirely true. I gave it just shy of sixty pages, but then for some reason – boredom, laziness or perhaps just the daunting prospect of navigating Frank Herbert’s massive expanse of language – I never fully committed. But if there’s one thing that makes me want to go back and give Arrakis a reassessment, it's Denis Villeneuve’s first instalment of his seismic adaptation of the sci-fi literature staple.

The film opens upon a sand dune, shimmering with an amber hue as the precious resource “spice” dances on the surface. “My planet, Arrakis, is so beautiful when the sun is low,” a narrator says in one of the film's rare moments of serenity, before we are plunged into some nightmarish exposition. For eighty years, House Harkonnen has maintained a tyrannical rule over the desert planet Arrakis, pillaging its natural resource, spice, and alienating the indigenous population in the process. We soon find out that spice is the most sought-after mineral in the known universe, capable of increasing the human lifespan and crucial for interstellar travel. Harkonnen's reign comes to an end, or so it seems, when the Emperor of the universe orders House Atredis to take stewardship of Arrakis, initiating a chain reaction of greed and betrayal that will seem familiar to any space opera fan. Luckily, for people new to the worlds of Dune, cinematic liberties ensure that Herbert’s bureaucracies are no harder to understand than in Star Wars or The Lord of The Rings.

It really doesn’t come as a surprise that the film works impeccably well on a superficial level – this is the same director who resurrected Blade Runner and who gave us visual spreads like Arrival and Prisoners. Herbert’s material provides a perfect sandbox for the director and his team to go all out with the worldbuilding, and rarely do alien atmospheres feel this breathable. Geography has always been an important factor throughout Villeneuve’s filmography. Think about those sweeping birds-eye-views of Blade Runner 2049 and Sicario that really immerse us in the landscape – Dune is no different and you’ll find yourself trying your hardest to stop your jaw slamming on the ground.

The film is chock-full of Hollywood royalty, and while some characters have more dimensions than others, there is one star that threatens to run away with the whole thing: Hans Zimmer. The composer – who collaborated with Villeneuve on 2049 – synergises with Villeneuve’s vision so well, milking every ounce of awe each frame has to offer with his face-melting crescendos in true Zimmer-fashion.

Each shot gurgles with an ominous, visceral feeling of dread which never really dissipates

Even when Zimmer isn’t doing his thing, there’s still much to admire in Greig Fraser’s stunning cinematography, fleshing out worlds with his vivid dreamscapes. As with all Villeneuve films, every technical aspect culminates into a sensory bombardment, but it isn’t the soulless bombast that it could have fallen into – each shot gurgles with an ominous, visceral feeling of dread which never really dissipates.

But stopping us from sinking into a sea of spice and intergalactic politics is the film's dominant arc: the hero’s journey of young Paul Atredis. Timothée Chalamet delivers a typically angsty performance as the young man struggling against the insidious weight of destiny, anchoring the spectacle to what is essentially a coming-of-age drama set against a gargantuan canvas.   

I’m sure that my opinion will gain nuance once I’ve read more into the source material, but from a newcomer’s perspective it’s everything we have come to expect from a Hollywood blockbuster. It’ll no doubt draw comparisons against Star Wars, but only on face value, as whimsical space opera antics are replaced by a more cerebral evocation of primal violence, juxtaposing science fiction with the weight of a historical epic. After Blade Runner 2049 the “unfilmable” Dune seemed to be the next logical step for a filmmaker who you feel could have been the only one to make Herbert’s vision work. The only glaring issue with the film is the frustration that comes with a first instalment. But for logistical purposes – no doubt money, attention spans, and our bladders – these things sometimes cannot be helped. For now, however, we have two more years to get fully acquainted with Dune’s spice-fuelled visions before Part Two is released. Who knows? We may have another franchise on our hands.

Did you know? The first attempt to adapt Dune – before David Lynch’s divisive 1984 take – was by surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-1970s. The film would have featured a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and designs by acclaimed artists Moebius and H.R. Giger, as well as an ensemble cast including Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and Mick Jagger. One of the deciding factors as to why the film was never made was Jodorowsky's proposed running time, demanding that it would need to be over ten hours long to do Herbert’s novel justice.

Dune is in cinemas now

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