Others have tried and failed at successfully adapting Frank Herbert’s acclaimed science fiction novel for the big screen, most notably in 1984 when surrealist filmmaker David Lynch released a version to an almost universally poor reception. However, with impressive genre credits such as Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 to his name already, writer and director Denis Villeneuve has stepped up to the challenge of Dune.
The complex plot centres around Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who rule over the peaceful landscape of Caladan. When the noble family are assigned to take over leadership of planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, they are faced with conflict over the mining of a melange known as ‘spice’, the land’s most valuable and sought-after substance.
A sequel was inevitably confirmed recently, making this the first of at least two instalments in the franchise. The size and scope of the project is evident in the patient pacing and the unhurried nature of the storytelling as the dense philosophical themes of religion and the human condition are gently explored. Villeneuve, along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, uses the time for world-building, establishing the backdrop and the many characters and species involved. In collaboration with cinematographer Greig Fraser whose works include Rogue One, The Mandalorian, and Mary Magdalene, the striking aesthetic is futuristic yet lived-in, revolutionary but mythical.
Hans Zimmer’s booming score enhances the visuals; the veteran composer’s music carries his trademark emotional weight but feels in-keeping with the innovative environment. Action sequences are quite sparse across the lengthy running time and may be too few and far between for audiences expecting a Sand Wars battle epic, but the action is both purposeful and necessary, creating brief moments of tension that tease the potential of what is yet to come.
In the beginning, Chalamet’s part might seem like a grain of sand within a vast desert of exposition but, like his character, he grows in stature throughout. His boyish vulnerability works well in the performance, naïve of the responsibility he is due to shoulder as he goes on an intimate journey of self-discovery. Comparisons might be drawn with Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, or perhaps more closely with Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins, but this initial turn shows that there’s way more to the young actor than the ‘stan-dom’ that surrounds him off-screen. The ensemble cast is packed with solid contribution from a host of top-notch acting talent, some though with only very minor introductions; Rebecca Ferguson is particularly excellent and Stellan Skarsgård does his best Brando in an enjoyable Apocalypse Now-esque portrayal of the bloated villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
A cinematic spectacle of grandiose sound and scale, director Denis Villeneuve delivers a thought-provoking, immersive experience that slowly but assertively sets the scene for the next chapter of the adventure.