Unveiled out of competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival this month, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a movie of unimaginable scale. Perhaps it’s a consequence of spending months of watching films at home on a television screen during the pandemic, but there’s something jaw-dropping about this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 seminal science fiction novel. Villeneuve and his team have created a work that ranks amongst the great sci-fi films of the 21st century.
Famously, esteemed filmmakers have tried to adapt Herbert’s book before, including Alejandro Jodorowsky (a failed effort that never got off the ground) and David Lynch (a 1984 film that remains a black mark on his resume). But alongside Christopher Nolan, Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is one of those rare directors that commands a huge studio budget and final cut. He has the clout to make Dune in the way it should be made.
Such is his confidence, this meaty two-and-a-half-hour version stops at roughly the halfway point of the novel. There is no sequel announced yet, just the hope that audiences will be excited enough to demand the book’s second half be told in a follow-up. Deliberately paced, though never lethargic, Villeneuve has the time to set up this faraway future world in detail, and he doesn’t squander the opportunity.
Set in 10191, Dune is a story of political machinations and personal discovery. Timothee Chalamet takes centre stage as Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). The Duke is assigned the hostile desert planet of Arrakis, where the drug melange, popularly known as "spice", is mined. “By far the most valuable substance in the universe”, we’re told, this sacred hallucinogen is even used for intergalactic travel.
While the so-called House Atreides is there to oversee the smooth running of the spice-mining operation, there are plans afoot to destabilise them, via the rival House Harkonnen, led by the viscous, corpulent Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard). A man of huge appetites, he’s as foul an antagonist as you could ever wish to meet. Also thrown into the mix are the native Fremen people, including chieftain Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the warrior-like Chani (Zendaya), their eyes turned bright blue from the spice in the atmosphere.
Partially shot in Jordan and Abu Dhabi, the desert scenes will leave viewers stunned by the beauty of these haunting natural landscapes. But then all of Dune is a work of art. The cinematography by Australian-born Greig Fraser (Rogue One), the gargantuan production design by Patrice Vermette, the booming Hans Zimmer score, and the splendid visual effects overseen by VFX supervisor Paul Lambert are all exemplary.
Much of this combines during the film’s centrepiece, the arrival of a giant sandworm. Creatures that live under the Arrakis surface and grow up to 400 metres in length, the scene is staggering in its conception and execution. Just in this moment alone, Herbert fans and those who love good sci-fi will be blown away. While Villeneuve is often called a "visionary", an overused term these days, the French-Canadian truly lives up to the billing here.
With the likes of Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa and Charlotte Rampling also featuring, it’s a marvellous ensemble that Villeneuve has brought together. Call Me By Your Name star Chalamet grows across the film, as Paul must become a man during the story. It’s a terrific performance in a daring Hollywood blockbuster.
Now just pray that studio backers Warner Bros pony up the money for Villeneuve to finish the job and complete this epic story.