Director – Denis Villeneuve – 2021 – UK – Cert. 12a – 155m
A powerful family is exiled to a desert planet populated with giant sandworms as part of an interplanetary conspiracy to end their dynasty – out in cinemas on Friday, October 22nd
Frank Herbert’s sprawling novel Dune (1965) was read in the late 1960s and 1970s by any teenage boy with the slightest interest in science fiction and fantasy. It had (a little) space travel but more significantly it had alien worlds, notably the desert planet Arrakis on which 95% of the action takes place, and so ticked the SF box.
Then it had a whole ecology involving the planet’s occupants the Fremen, a drug known as ‘the Spice’, and giant sandworms, so it also ticked the fantasy box.
On top of this, it pitted dynasties – ‘Houses’ – against each other in a tale of interplanetary political intrigue.
The plot was unbelievably convoluted, spawning a lengthy series of sequels. I gave up around the fifth or sixth book. And yet, the first book possessed an almost mythic quality that my diminishing interest in the later volumes was unable to dispel.
The sheer quantity of plot was always going to be a challenge for a standalone movie. David Lynch’s 1984 version simply tried to cram everything in, its last reel or two playing out as disjointed scenes from the book which made little sense to anyone who’d not already read it and irritated those who had. And now, Denis Villeneuve, who has shown himself adept at tackling complex SF ideas with Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), has taken it on.
Remarkably, Villeneuve has managed to distil the story down to its basic essence, retaining plot and major players but losing much of the convoluted detail. A lot has been taken out, yet the resultant film is recognisably the book with all its major elements intact.
The plot: Under Imperial edict, the desert planet Arrakis has been harvested for its ‘Spice’ by House Harkonnen, led by the ruthless Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), who are ordered to leave so that the rival House Atreides can take over. This is, however, a set up to destroy House Atreides.
Meanwhile, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), has been having visionary dreams about Arrakis, the exact meaning of which remains unclear. Jessica is a member of the powerful religious sisterhood the Bene Gesserit, whose breeding programme is attempting to produce a messiah in the long run. Her superior the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling, currently cornering the market in Reverend Mothers – she plays another in Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven, 2021) appears in one key scene where she tests Paul in a life or death session.
Other less pivotal characters have also been retained: in House Atreides are the warmaster Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), security chief Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Dr. Yueh (Chang Chen). House Harkonnen has the Baron’s callous nephew and enforcer “the Beast” Rabban (Dave Bautista).
On Arrakis, the planetologist gone native Dr. Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) has here been recast as a woman, which works well enough. Arrakis’ native people the Fremen feature less prominently, the two main characters being their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and a girl called Chani (Zendaya) who appears initially in Paul Atreides’s prescient dreams.
Don’t go expecting a complete story, because this ends on a ‘To Be Continued…’ note. Indeed, the film’s title on the print appears to be, Dune – Part One. The Fremen are likely to have a lot more screen time in Dune – Part Two should it get made. What you do get here, though, is a striking bunch of characters brought to life by a terrific cast, awesome spaceships and (quite brief) troop battles as well as incredible flying machines that look like dragonflies (these are called Ornithopters in the book). And giant sandworms.
You also get some of the most impressive costume design ever put on film. Perhaps more importantly, in Denis Villeneuve you get a director not at all intimidated by special effects, a gifted storyteller who directs with a deliberate and slow pace which at times seems almost meditative. He also throws in lots of poor visibility, for instance in sandstorms (which in one scene alas leads to incomprehensible dialogue).
Thus, Villeneuve foregrounds the elements of visionary dreams and prophecy. As the narrative progresses, you get a very real sense of Paul moving towards his destiny without knowing what that is until it starts to fall into place. If a sequel is never made, this will stand as a terrific adaptation of the first half of the book. It’s a striking piece of work in its own right and Villeneuve’s proposed sequel deserves to be made.
Incidentally, it was filmed for IMAX cinemas – so see it in one of those if you possibly can.
Dune is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, October 22nd.