A cool wind sweeps through the sands of Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s chilly, majestic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 science-fiction novel.
Hot as it may be on Arrakis, the desert planet that draws the universe’s most powerful interests to its mineral-rich but inhospitable sands, Villeneuve’s film is a solemn slow burn. This Dune, a cool-headed colossus, erects a massive, brutalist architecture of otherworldly science-fiction to craft a big-screen spectacle of thundering splendour.
It is, to be sure, rather cool to the touch. Villeneuve does atmospheric exteriors more than he does emotional interiors. In muted monochrome shades, rich textures and deep sonic soundscapes, his speciality — already familiar in the deep shadows of Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 — is invoking a severe ominousness.
So Dune is a more sombre trip into the desert than, say, the ferociously frenetic Mad Max: Fury Road. Its tale of oppression and messianic fervour, though, does — like the book — recall Lawrence of Arabia. Instead of Peter O’Toole and his aflame blue eyes laying siege at Aqaba, we have Timothée Chalamet seizing power, potentially, on Arrakis. There. Is. Another.
Herbert’s opus, forged out of the Cold War and dawning environmental dread, begot a cottage industry of sequels but has before now made curiously little headway into wider popular culture. David Lynch’s much-derided 1984 film, which even he disavowed, didn’t help. This version, which debuts Thursday evening in theatres and on HBO Max, is a second stab at turning Dune into a wide-screen event. And considering the dozens of entries in the book series, Dune could just as surely as the "spice” in the Arrakis sands be mined for more. Dune is optimistically subtitled “Part One”, adapting just the first half of the 1965 tome.
The easiest criticism of the film is that it doesn’t rise to a climax but withers away in the dunes. That bothered me less. I was transported enough to just hope Dune — which is well worth seeking out in theatres rather than at home — does well enough to lead to a part two.
Villeneuve has streamlined the book in a script by him, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth. That has lost some of the novel’s eccentricities, but it has also made coherent an ambitious epic. Here, Dune is an operatic parable of power and exploitation, with an ecological resonance that’s only grown more relevant.
With a princely sense of destiny, Chalamet plays Paul, whose father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is head of House Atreides, one of several governing fiefdoms. The spice on Arrakis, which makes interstellar travel possible and has other mind-expanding capabilities, has long been harvested by the fascist House Harkonnen, as overseen by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (played by a grotesquely swollen Stellan Skarsgard, with nods to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now). But for unknown reasons, a switcheroo has been ordered.
Harvesting spice is no easy task, though. It’s oppressively hot. There are mammoth sand-worms. And the local Fremen (among whom is Zendaya’s Chani) resent their “out-worlder” overlords. Leto hopes to begin a friendly collaboration with the Freman but quickly finds their operation sabotaged at every step. When things turn violent, attention turns to Paul, who has been trained in swordplay by Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and mentored by his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, fabulous) in “the way” — a mysterious mind-controlling power. The Freman believe he could be a prophesied savior. Whether Dune will tweak the white saviour set-up will ultimately, though, have to wait for a possible sequel.
The plot is enough for even a sand-worm to digest. All the world building leaves only so much room for anything very intimate in character development. Dune, like most of Villeneuve’s previous films, is a little hollow beneath its immaculate surfaces. But those surfaces! With Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Patrice Vermette’s production design, Dune is so sublimely rendered that you could easily follow it with the sound off, sans Hans Zimmer’s hulking score. With an immense sense of scale ranging from mosquito to (Jason) Momoa, Dune renders an age-old tale of palace intrigue and indigenous struggle in exaggerated cosmic contours. Like any drift of sand, Dune feels sculpted by elemental, primal forces.
Dune, a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material. Running time: 151 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.