Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin
This review contains major spoilers.
Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto from the House of Atreides, is troubled by visions in his sleep. The young heir has visions of a woman with bright blue eyes on the desert planet Arrakis. He sees a ceremonial knife handed to him, then bloodshed, then the death of his allies.
Paul is the son of Lady Jessica, an acolyte of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood who possess psychic powers including the ability to command other people using their Voice. Jessica senses that Paul’s dreams may be portents of the future and instructs him to share his dreams with the Emperor’s truthsayer – Gaius Helen Mohiam – a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit.
The Emperor assigns Duke Leto and his House to take over stewardship of the planet Arrakis. Although the planet’s desert landscape and oppresive heat make it nearly inhospitable to humankind, it is valuable and strategically important planet because it is the only source of spice, a natural resource that provides expanded consciousness to humans who consume it and is the only known resource for enabling space travel. Duke Leto is reluctant but ultimately agrees to the Emperor’s commands as he sees the opportunity to bring peace to the planet and its indigenous people, the Fremen, who previously suffered terribly under the reign of House Harkonnen, an antagonist and war-mongering clan. Unbeknownst to Leto, the Emperor sees the Atreides as a threat to his rule and plans for the Harkonnen to stage a coup and reclaim the planet upon their arrival.
This is expansive and grand stage setting for Denis Villeneuve’s sweeping two part sci-fi space epic Dune, based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel.
It is one of the most ambitious and high-profile science fiction features in years (especially for a non-Disney/Marvel/Star Wars film) and is largely successful in all that it sets out to do thanks to the singular vision from Villeneuve, who creates a distinctive aesthetic, mood and style with Dune that sets it apart from the theme-park attraction presentation of recent Star Wars and Star Trek features. It feels very confident that audiences will soak up the world building and minutiae as it rolls along at a methodical pace that feels comparable to LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring. This is a world that feels authentic and lived-in thanks to the time taken to examine little details like the ‘sand walk’ that spice harvesters do to not disturb the worms and the ‘spit greet’ that the indigenous people have when meeting someone they respect.
In general the vibe I got from Dune is admirably weird and full of mystique. There are alien races that appear humanoid but stretch to twelve feet tall who bathe in black goop. Villeneuve is guarded with how and when he showcases the sandworms so it feels like an enourmous event whenever they make their presence felt.
Up to now I have missed most of the star-making arthouse features that Timothee Chalamet performed in that made him a household name. I thought he was terrific as Paul Atreides and at once saw why he has been in such hot demand as a leading performer. The ensemble cast that Villeneuve has assembled here is terrific including the ever reliable Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson as stand outs for mine.
If there is one small quibble I have with the film it is that the presentation is so sleek – the cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s score etc – that occasionally there are rough edges to Dune that I assume can be attributed to the source material which stand out like a sore thumb. Frankly I found it a little weird that in the same world that we have character names such as “Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit”, there’s also a boisterous space cowboy called “Duncan Idaho”. And in a film that so carefully crafts a particular tone, the film ends with Zandaya looking at the camera with the memorably groovy final line “that’s desert power~!”
None of these little quirks are enough to spoil an overall excellent film. I just find them weird and possibly even endearing upon reflection.
Although the film ends with a set up for a sequel (which has since been green-lit), Dune actually concludes on a perfect note with Paul arriving at the decision to lead the Fremen on his own terms, just as his father had hoped. Anything that happens from here on out will effectively remove the shroud of mystery surrounding Zendaya’s character and the Emperor. Most of what is merely hinted at in Dune would need to be explored in full. I hope when Villeneuve takes the audience on that journey that he is able to stick the landing.