A famous litany in the world of Dune warns that fear is the “mind-killer” that brings “total obliteration”, so I should really know better than to feel so much of it in the run-up to this film’s release. You see, shortly after I began reading Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi novel, I became fascinated by the idea of a live-action adaptation, but completely boggled by how such a thing could exist. The dense nature of the book would make it impossible to cram into two-and-a-half hours, but the sheer scale of the story would surely require the kind of mega-budget typically reserved for blockbuster cinema. In my mind, this paradox branded Dune with ‘unadaptable’ status – a verdict that previous failed attempts have firmly supported.
That opinion hasn’t changed having now seen Denis Villeneuve’s latest effort, but I will concede that the filmmaker’s cerebral blockbuster is about as good as a Dune movie could possibly be. So why am I feeling such intense fear? Because this film is in dire need of a sequel and it will need to be a box office juggernaut in order to get one. That’s a big ask of any film amid the inhospitable conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s a particularly tall order for one lacking most of the elements that comprise a sure-fire mainstream hit. And from the director of financial bomb Blade Runner 2049, no less. Hang on, let me read that calming litany a few more times.
Dune’s first act is a remarkably faithful introduction to the sprawling universe that Herbert created. The film opens by introducing Arrakis, a desolate planet infamous for being the manufacturer of a drug called spice. As the key resource required for interstellar travel, it is the most valuable substance in the galaxy and those in charge of the supply stand to make a fortune. That is, if they can survive the harsh desert terrain, fierce resistance from the tribes who call Arrakis their home, as well as the machinations of a scheming galactic emperor. The Atreides family, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), are the latest to score this tough gig, prompting son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) to experience troubling visions of what lies ahead.
That really is just scratching the surface of what Dune is truly about, with political backstabbing, ancient prophecies and an emerging messiah figure all factoring into Herbert’s complex saga. With that in mind, I suppose it’s not surprising that Villeneuve is forced to start ripping out pages left and right after his initial set-up is over, but the result is an unevenly paced film that starts out careful and considered, before devolving into a frantic race to the finish – one that leaves several key figures from the book by the wayside.
Indeed, despite clocking in at close to three hours in length, it still feels as if there isn’t much screen-time to share out between Dune’s large (and star-studded) ensemble cast. Chalamet is front and centre as Villeneuve’s adaptation takes place largely from Paul’s perspective, allowing entire subplots involving other characters to disappear without a trace, thus depriving them of some much-needed development. The result is a shocking lack of emotional heft as members of the Atreides clan find themselves picked off one-by-one, despite the best efforts of the cast.
At least Chalamet is strong in a challenging role, lacking the sarcastic quips and zany banter that have come to define blockbuster heroes of today. Likewise, on-screen parents Oscar Isaac (Duke Leto) and Rebecca Ferguson (Lady Jessica) are given just enough time to feel established, although the screenplay by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth robs the latter of her best scenes. That’s particularly disappointing when there are so few other female characters to speak of besides Zendaya’s glorified cameo and Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s underused Dr Liet-Kynes.
In lieu of screen-time, the costume design, cinematography and soundtrack do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to introducing Dune’s supporting players, working beautifully in tandem in several scenes. The prime example is the Gom Jabbar trial – featured in the film’s first teaser trailer – which is a frightening initiation to the power of the Bene Gesserit order and its formidable Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling). A sense of pure terror permeates out of the screen as she sits ghostly still in a gothic black veil, while Hans Zimmer’s ominous score blares out around her.
The same strategy is employed for Stellan Skarsgård’s villainous Baron Harkonnen, with the team behind Dune doing an excellent job realising Herbert’s grotesque description from the novel. That praise can be applied across the whole film, with everything from shields to sandworms making the leap to live-action with intricate attention to detail. It feels very much like the technology to properly attempt this story in live-action has only been perfected recently, which might have the added effect of reframing David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation into a slightly more noble failure.
Suffice to say, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is an enormous upgrade on that ill-fated version, but the omission of pivotal moments from the book could make it disappointing to longtime readers and confusing to newcomers. The latter point bodes ill for its box office fortunes, which is troubling as the narrative hinges heavily on a sequel and the film gets enough things right to be worthy of one. That’s it: I’m off to read the litany again.
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