At once serious and very, very silly, David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune was one of the biggest flops in cinematic history. Stuffed with all the things fans of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel would expect – spice, special effects, sandworms – it also featured Sting as a campy, orange-haired aristocrat who wears a codpiece. Denis Villeneuve’s new reboot thankfully ditches the silly, but it does take itself extremely seriously.
Based on Herbert’s seminal 1965 work – and not Lynch’s box office bust – Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of a noble family who’ve recently been entrusted with the most precious planet in the universe. On Arrakis, huge deserts are harvested for spice, the vital ingredient used for interstellar travel. Later, when his father (Oscar Isaac) is murdered in an imperial plot to unseat the Atreides family, Paul and his psychically powerful mother (Rebecca Ferguson) are dumped in the desert and left for dead. To survive, Paul must track down mysterious tribe The Fremen, who have a prophecy that calls him ‘The Chosen One’ destined to bring peace to the galaxy.
If that all sounds a bit like Star Wars, then that’s because it’s a lot like Star Wars. Preternaturally gifted boy takes on evil empire with the help of a secretive band of resistance fighters is hardly a new story. But where Villeneuve’s Dune differs is in its execution. Much like its sandy setting, his film is so vast that it’s difficult to comprehend at first. Shot through an arthouse lens, great, red drifts blend together in the haze while monstrous space ships shoot through the sky above. During battle scenes, the camera swoops in low over fierce warriors fighting with razor-sharp blades before suddenly zooming out as rockets slam into skyscraper-sized vehicles. Villeneuve has made it very clear he’d rather his movie be viewed on the big screen. And he’s right. The scale is jaw-dropping.
The only thing as impressive is Dune‘s cast, which must have cost more than Arrakis’ yearly spice revenue. Chalamet plays the conflicted lead well, but he’s outclassed by Ferguson, whose Lady Jessica has years of maternal worry etched into her every expression. Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista and Josh Brolin add muscle and gravitas, each playing varying forms of the same gruff military man. While Jason Momoa (who nails the script’s single joke) pops up as an archetypal handsome pilot with a roguish grin. Only Zendaya struggles to make an impact, but that’s less related to her performance and more to do with the film’s plot. Dune, some will only realise as the credits roll, is but one part of a duology. As such, Zendaya’s character, Fremen youngster Chani, appears only in Paul’s dreams until the first chapter’s end. Chalamet has been quick to promise interviewers they’ll see more of her in the next movie (yet to be green-lit).
After two hours and 35 minutes, Dune‘s lack of closure feels irksome to say the least. The average cinemagoer might not have realised they need to come back for another round – and there’s little about Dune‘s marketing to help them twig. That said, the sheer ambition on display here means you get plenty of bang for your buck. Cast member David Dastmalchian described the film to NME last week as “like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” which is certainly correct. You could probably apply that statement to Lynch’s Dune as well, but in this case it’s actually a good thing. Here’s to part two.
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
- Release date: September 16 (SG cinemas)