Frank Herbert’s Dune is… complex. Even that doesn’t seem to communicate just how gigantic and seemingly convoluted the iconic book is. David Lynch famously adapted the 1965 novel into a feature film, which isn’t fondly remembered by anyone and Alejandro Jodorowsky also tried to adapt the book into a movie in the 70s, but failed to complete the project. Dune has become notorious for being a difficult, perhaps unfilmable piece of science-fiction literature.
The latest to tackle the challenge is Denis Villeneuve. The director has already mastered complicated sci-fi with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, but can anything really prepare one to tell a story as massive as Dune? Villeneuve has certainly given it his all and the end result is a visually ravishing, but at times hollow film.
Dune follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) who is moved to the planet Arrakis. Paul has been plagued by strange visions of Arrakis as well as a mysterious girl with blue eyes, a characteristic of those who have lived on Arrakis and ingested the planet’s valuable asset, Spice, for a long time. The House Atreides are an easy target on the ruthless planet and soon, they are betrayed, leaving Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) at the mercy of the desert.
Dune, as expected, looks great. But looking good for a film of this scale feels like the bare minimum. The real challenge of adapting Dune is to make a coherent, entertaining film that not only makes sense, but never talks down to its audience and that’s where Villeneuve succeeds, for the most part at least. The first 30 minutes of the film is clumsy and exposition-heavy; there is simply so much to set up, so much to cover that any filmmaker would buckle under that. Zendaya’s soothing voice guides us into the world of Dune and introduces us to Arrakis, before we change to the point of view of Paul.
It takes a while for Dune to get going. Once the script, penned by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Villeneuve, gets past the inevitable introductions, the story of political power struggles becomes compelling and Dune is constantly a thrilling watch. Some of the attempted humour falls flat and Dune takes itself way too seriously. Villeneuve’s world often lacks warmth and even humanity as characters come and go without distinct personalities or agenda. Arrakis might be scorching, but Dune is at times cold.
Villeneuve’s vision of Dune is clear and surprisingly concise. The story, while gigantic in scale, feels accessible and Arrakis feels both ancient and futuristic. It’s mostly made out of sand and stone and unlike most science-fiction films, Dune’s world is dirty and tangible, close enough to ours to feel real but fantastical enough to provide a sense of utopia. Arrakis can get visually a little bland and repetitive but cinematographer Greig Fraser captures the sand dunes and vast desert impressively.
The sound design of Villeneuve’s film, including Hans Zimmer’s monumental score, is eardrum-bursting, sometimes needlessly so. Increased volume doesn’t always guarantee a more immersive viewing experience and Dune would be a stronger film if it didn’t constantly try to outdo itself and be the biggest film of 2021. Villeneuve confidently guides the story but often gets too lost in it and Herbert’s detailed mythology and loses the sense of intimacy he works to build. There are simply too many characters and too many actors, all of whom are on fine form.
All of Villeneuve’s cast bring their A-game. Chalamet is confident, if at times comically brooding as Paul. Paul isn’t an easy role as he’s often frustratingly emotionless, like a blank slate but Chalamet is typically watchable. The film’s biggest surprises are Rebecca Ferguson and Jason Momoa. Momoa especially is delightfully relaxed here and this is the actor’s finest work to date. Ferguson gives a nuanced, complex performance as lady Jessica but most of the women in Dune are magical and while powerful, somehow lack agency.
Villeneuve’s Dune isn’t perfect, but it is impressive. It’s clearly only half a story – the title reads Dune Part One on screen – but even as such, this is exciting work from one of the most assured, visionary directors working in Hollywood.
Dune is in UK cinemas October 21.