The opening novel of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi opus has been as stubbonly resistant to a satisfying adaptation as a Sherman tank is to a fusilade of Nerf darts with Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch and, er, the Syfy Channel all unsuccessfully attempting to wrestle the massive prose down to the sand.
Enter Dennis Villeneuve, a man no stranger to attempting visually stunning, art house sci-fi pieces that don’t get the attention they deserve, thanks to his jaw-dropping work on Blade Runner 2049 and who obviously (and thankfully) hasn’t learnt his lesson about trying to visualise inpenetrable novels – for it is he who is responsible for this latest attempt at the sprawling epic.
Well, it gives me a warm and sunny feeling to report “by jove, I think he’s got it!” at the top of my lungs as Villeneuve’s ballsy “less is more” approach to Herbert’s super-dence story has finally cracked it in a way that keeps things clear for newbies while not sacrificing the tangled universe for the uber-fan.
The year is 10191 and the noble House Atreides has been assigned by the Emperor Of The Universe to take over production of Spice mining on the desolate sand planet known as Arrakis (aka. Dune), much to the ire of the previous caretakers, the brutal House Harkonnen. Among other things, the Spice is essential to space travel and the entire Galaxy is dependent on it’s continued production, but this whole shift in galactic policy is actually a bold move from the Emperor who plans to use the vengeful Harkonnens as an instrument to remove Duke Leto Atreides as his power is steadily growing among the other houses and as the conspiracy grows, Leto has no choice but to walk into the jaws of the beast in order to try and gain more power by approaching the Fremen, Arrakis’ native population.
While all this is going on, the Duke’s young son, Paul, is having to deal with visions and dreams of a future life where he is leading a life with the Fremen, something that’s been caused by his mother’s link to the Bene Gesserit, a religious sisterhood who manipulate galactic events from the shadows and that has given him some of their mysterious mental powers.
As the Atreides finally make it to Dune, they find that harsh climates, suspicious Fremen and Harkonnen subterfuge are the least of their troubles as the mining of the spice melange tends to summon the arrival of gigantic fucking sandworms that gobble down the mining platforms like a bowling ball disappearing down an alley.
Can House Atreides possibly hope to escape intact when the Harkonnen’s trap finally snaps shut and will the Fremen prove to be the salvation Leto obviously hopes they are – whatever happens, Paul will prove to be the key….
So, while I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that someone’s finally gotten Dune right, let me first say that for all it’s flaws, I still have a little soft spot for David Lynch’s magnificent 1984 failure – but when comparing it to Villeneuve’s modern masterpiece, it’s quite obvious what needed to be done to make this work. Nerve.
You see what we get here is barely the first half of the first book (while poor old Lynch had to cram everything into a constricted 2 hours and 17 minutes) and the director does everything he can to stop the mountainous backstory from crushing the main story of House Atreides under it’s sheer weight. Anything that isn’t essential to the main story is brutally sheared and is only mentioned in passing. We certainly hear a lot about Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, but we certainly don’t see the duplicitous bastard; same with the barely glimpsed, mutated Spacing Guild or even the chief villians, Baron Harkonnen and his sadistic nephew Rabban, who hardly warrant a handful of scenes each. Everything is funneled through the necessity what what the film actually needs to set up in the here and now and if a part two allows the filmmakers to finally give us the rest, then so be it. It’s this freedom to continue as if a sequel is already confirmed (at the time of writing it really bloody isn’t) that gives the notoriously heavy story room to breathe. Meticulously setting up the world and the characters within with his typically minimalist visuals, Villeneuve goes straight for the characters in order to make them separate from the cool spacecraft and truly stunning vistas and his cast is more than up to the job.
Timothée Chalamet utilises every inch of his Johnny Depp-style bone structure to give Paul a tortured intensity while Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Issac clench their jawlines as their characters weigh up the responsibilities ahead of them – but it’s Josh Brolin and Jason Mamoa who get the coolest lines as the film wisely leaves some room for some good, old fashioned bombast.
Others still make the grade with limited screen time as they patiently wait for a hopeful sequel to bless them with more to do with Zendaya and Javier Bardem’s Fremen freedom fighters patiently poised in the wings before their plot lines finally blow up.
Any issues? Nothing important. As someone who was fascinated by the original in a bewildered kind of way as a child, Stellan Skarsgård’s version of the Baron is weirdly low key compared to the carrot-topped insanity of Kenneth McMillan’s diseased, screaming, floating chubster of evil and no matter how hard Hans Zimmer’s score goes (and believe you me, it goes super hard) I still miss the wailing guitars of Toto – but these are all pointless gripes in the face of a prime slice of sci-fi (even if the pronunciation of “Harkonnen” in this movie is gonna take some getting used to…).
Fingers crossed everyone involved manages to score a well-earned Dune: Part 2 so we continue to see this legendary story done right. I mean, Dune goes much further than this as the story continues on for numerous future generations of the Atreides bloodline, but for now let’s just tale it one step at a time and pray to the collective gods of cinema that we get a capper to this particular part of the story.
But while we wait for the Sleeper to awaken, or to find out who the identity of the Kwisatz Haderach will be, take solace in the fact that all involved has put out a top notch sci-fi epic that only covers half of the orginal story and still manages to give this adaptation the spice it needs to hold it’s head up high.
Guess you could say that the worm has finally turned…