There is no doubt that Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune is a classic of the genre. It is also far from traditional. It tells the story of Paul Atreides, the heir to the House Atreides, who has been brought up by his mother Jessica, an adherent to the Bene Gesserit religion and consort to Duke Leto, Paul’s father. The family is leaving its home planet in order to take over the governance of Arakkis, the desert world that gives the book its title. It is also the source of the most precious commodity in the universe, a spice: an hallucinogen that allows Navigators the ability to fold space, and makes interstellar travel possible. However, the new mission is rife with dangers as they are supplanting their sworn enemies the Harkonnens, who are scheming to somehow return.
Did you get all that? So it’s Machiavellian political machinations played out by dynastic families on a galaxy wide scale. The Borgias in Space. Such is the complexity of the story and the detailed texture of the universe with its multiple religions, languages, technologies, cultures and societies that it has stumped directors as diverse as Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott. Arguably it also threw the usually unflappable David Lynch into a tizz, though in reality is that his 1984 version is actually much better than people remember, if only for Sting in his leather underpants.
So the prospect of Denis Villeneuve’s new big budget version has created a great deal of expectation and excitement. Add to that the enforced delay caused by the pandemic and expectations are at a dangerously high level. Can it live up to them? Could any film at this point? It certainly does its best. Villeneuve has created a serious piece of cinema. It is epic in scale and yet never loses sight of its central story of a young man finding his role in the universe.
Timothee Chalamet plays Paul as a sexy Hamlet, floppy hair, dark clothes, and the angst that comes with having a father and mother like Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac. How can he possibly live up to them? Then there’s Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, who trains him to fight and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), an older brother of sorts and tough guy who Paul hero worships. Everyone is training Paul for power: his mother teaches him the Voice, a form of manipulation that can cause people to do anything while his father has him sit in on councils. Add to this that the Bene Gesserit sisterhood have been spreading rumors that he might be The One, and you can understand why the young guy looks like he has the weight of several worlds on his shoulders. Of course, things starts to go wrong as Stellan Skarsgard’s Baron unleashes his nephew ‘the Beast’ Raban on the Atreides and there are further betrayals in store which will risk the destruction of Paul’s family and House.
Villeneuve takes all of this seriously. There is no camp, no space opera. Or if it is, it demands the kind of suspension of irony necessary for opera to work. There are two jokes in the whole picture and no zingers, the likes of which pepper Marvel films to such an extent that the winking begins to look like Herbert Lom towards the end of the Inspector Clousseau series. And if you are willing to take it seriously then there is so much in this film. The universe created is one where medieval social structures and belief systems are matched by technology that retains a hint of necromancy. The soldiers fight with swords and shields, Duke Leto uses wax to seal his documents and the Atreides arrive on Arrakis to the sound of bagpipes. Yes, bagpipes. And it all looks amazing. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is gorgeous, the scale of the film is suitably enormous with human figures often dwarfed by the landscapes and the hardware. This is science fiction that manages to look fresh – far from the last few Star Wars films that keep going back to the same planets, or ones that look very familiar and a ready branded aesthetic. This looks both new and old at the same time.
The only problem is one which is for the moment out of the hands of the filmmakers. The film title reads ‘Part One’ and the end of the film is very obviously halfway through the story. Zendaya appears as Chani, a young Fremen woman, in a series of dreams and glimpses before turning up right before the end, but her presence like much of the film really makes no sense unless the film is completed. And let’s hope it will be, because this is large-cale popular entertainment that doesn’t rely on set pieces, or constant postmodern irony. It resonates with criticisms of imperial ambitions and the exploitation of the planet as well as the indigenous peoples. Images recall Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992) as well as more recent news footage of soldiers fleeing Kabul. It deserves a conclusion. Let’s hope it gets one.
Dune premiered at the Venice Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. In cinemas on Thursday, October 21st. On all major VoD platforms on Monday, January 31st.
Dune is is in our Top 10 dirty movies of 2021.