"Dune" climbs the sci-fi mountain as a film ripe for modern times
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya. Written by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Now playing at theatres everywhere. 155 minutes. PG
Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” adapts Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel of interstellar colonization and environmental exploitation into a blockbuster for the eye, the mind and the now.
This commanding and transfixing film, rich in subtext and ripe for modern engagement via the biggest screen possible, is geared to viewers who are already “Dune” fans. Newcomers may want a second look, but they should consider it a pleasure rather than a necessity.
Dialogue and plot are lesser concerns in a scene-setting drama that introduces characters in much the way “The Fellowship of the Ring” began “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy and “A New Hope” launched the original “Star Wars” odyssey. “Dune” covers just the first half of Herbert’s original novel; its full title is “Dune: Part One.”
“Dune” isn’t about rocket ships or space travel per se, despite being set on the distant and water-deprived desert planet Arrakis thousands of years in the future. The mechanical meshes with the organic; the most common conveyance is a helicopter that resembles a dragonfly.
Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”) and cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Rogue One,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) unfold astonishing images, set to Hans Zimmer’s thundering score.
First and foremost are the fearsome giant sandworms of Arrakis, which appear from beneath the planet’s broiling dirt like blind demons from hell. These toothy behemoths produce a much-prized substance called “spice,” a cinnamon-scented mélange that expands minds, fuels bodies, helps guide spacecraft and sparks battles to seize control between feuding colonial houses Atreides and Harkonnen and Indigenous dune-dwellers known as Fremen.
“Dreams are messages from the deep,” reads an ominous note at the outset. Referring to the harrowing and prophetic visions of central figure Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the messianic son of newly appointed Arrakis leader Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his consort, warrior priestess Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), this poetic snippet is all the guidance you get going into the film.
Such brevity, presuming much prior “Dune” knowledge, is a bold move by Villeneuve and his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, considering the density of the source novel’s prose, which has often been deemed “unfilmable” due to its multitude of characters and motivations. (“Star Wars” famously used lengthy opening scrolls to introduce and explain its many chapters.)
Two major figures are mostly shadows in this film: the mysterious Padishah Emperor, ruler of the universe; and Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya), who is drawn to Paul despite the natural antagonism of Fremen toward the colonial spice raiders.
The Emperor remains invisible, although his authority sets in motion the film’s most violent feud, after he controversially orders House Atreides to assume stewardship of Arrakis and its spice fields from rival House Harkonnen. The latter has handsomely profited from spice mining for decades and is reluctant to give it up. Duke Leto is suspicious of the Emperor’s intentions but he loyally moves his family from their bountiful home planet Caladan to accept his new assignment on arid Arrakis.
House Harkonnen is ruled by the loathsome Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), a floating gargoyle modelled after Marlon Brando’s bloated Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” This is one of many references to classic films that Villeneuve slips into “Dune.”
Chani is heard more than seen, beginning near the start of the film as she angrily recounts via voice-over the history of colonial oppression of Arrakis: “They ravage our lands in front of our eyes … Who will our next oppressors be?”
The central “Dune” themes about the evils of stealing the land of others and of destroying the natural world are as resonant today as they were in the 1960s, if not more so.
Getting to know any of the characters in “Dune” is a challenge, considering how many players enter and exit the stage in a story that might have been better served by a TV miniseries.
The main figure of “Dune: Part One” is Paul Atreides, who Chalamet plays with cool reserve, mainly hinting at the hero’s journey to come. Think Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars,” one of the many film and TV properties to be influenced by “Dune.”
Villeneuve has chosen to make Ferguson’s Lady Jessica more central to a tale that is otherwise dominated by male characters. She intrigues as both a loyal member of the mysterious Bene Gesserit sisterhood — yet another “Dune” alliance — and a rebel within its ranks, having given birth to a son in defiance of its daughters-only policy.
Another cast standout is Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, the brash and charismatic Atreides loyalist tasked with teaching warrior and survival skills to young Paul. Idaho gives “Dune” a real sense of swashbuckling vigour and, as such, seems the cast member most likely to land an Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. The film itself will likely draw nominations for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, plus a slew of technical nods.
It’s Idaho who suggests the best way to appreciate the look of “Dune,” with its mesmerizing oceans of sand that resemble not just waves of water, but also the icing on an elaborate cake: “It’s beautiful out there!” he roars. 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)