Most films are eagerly awaited by someone; with Dune, that wait has been substantial for many. Frank Herbert’s 1965 book was a franchise starter, and also a game-changer that led directly to Star Wars, so it’s no surprise that film versions have been mooted for decades. There’s even a feature film about the abortive making of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s un-filmed version, a tv show with James McAvoy and William Hurt, and David’s Lynch’s famously stilted 1984 version, and that might have been the end of that if Canadian film-maker Dennis Villeneuve hadn’t fancied it. The man behind Enemy, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 seemed like an ideal choice to make sense of a deeply tricky property; who would have guessed space-mice and bagpipes would make such a difference?
And different it is, because this Dune looks and feels very different from previous versions in one striking aspect; it makes sense. Yes, even if you couldn’t tell the House of Atreides from the House of Harkonnen, Villeneuve’s Dune takes a classic story and tells it with admirable simplicity, over 150 minutes of complex space opera compellingly told. The narrative has a 60’s feel, spice, drugs and Vietnam all seem to have influenced Herbert’s vision. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet, finally showing his leading man chops to good effect) is a chosen one who might well lead the sandy people of Dune in revolt against their colonial oppressors, but who are the real enemies? The Emperor is kept off-screen for now, but with Paul’s family and the House of Arteides taking control of an industrial spice operation on desert planet Arrakis after the previous occupiers left abruptly, what political machinations are clicking into gear?
An opening credit immediately clarifies that this is ‘part one’ of an adaptation of the novel, but it’s still immensely satisfying; the final duel in the sand tops off a narrative that’s stronger for being stripped down to the key elements. The film’s look is dynamic, almost like a silent movie, and Villeneuve knows how to use special effects to develop rather than smother a narrative. There’s high-end support from Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling, Rebecca Ferguson and others; for once, all the stars have lots to do, with bags of exposition detail handled in an accessible, creative fashion.
The overall effect of Dune is overwhelming in the right way; you’re left wanting more, a quality rarer than intergalactic spice in the world of blockbusters. While movies like Star Wars and The Matrix have borrowed from the world of Dune, it’s something of a relief to finally see a great story told well. I’ve made a habit of mocking other bloggers about their interest in invented titles like Sandworms of Panopticon IV; The Chyrizalids of Bazingoid 5, but if I’d seen a movie like this at an impressionable age, I might well have embraced the fantasy world from the get-go. With a mind-blowing sci-fi production, a terrific Hans Zimmer score, and all the pieces falling into place, Dune is the must-see movie of 2021 so far, and has the potential to be an iconic Godfather-level franchise for grown-ups in the years to come.
Dune hits cinemas in the UK and US from Oct 21nd 2021, and HBO Max on Oct 22. UK previews tonight (Monday 18th Oct )
Thanks to Warner Brothers UK for advanced access to Dune on the big screen.