Dune is not a film for the faint-hearted. And I mean that literally, not figuratively. This booming, mega, intergalactic saga will shake your seat and make your heart pound. It’s full-on from start to finish (though of course there is no real finish, this being touted as ‘Part One’) and is huge in scale, length and depth. Director Denis Villeneuve has grappled with Frank Herbert’s tricky cult ’60s novel and has managed to conjure a coherent and manageable tale.
Essentially, as with so many sci-fi plots, the story is as old as the hills. A young man, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is worried about the onerous duties required of him as the son of a duke (Oscar Isaac). The duke has just been awarded custody of the planet Arrakis, a provider of a ‘spice’ harvested from its vast deserts that is used to enable space travel. The island has been run by the cruel and viscid baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who wants his lucrative planet back. Meanwhile the planet’s indigenous inhabitants (the Fremen – their name both ironic and portentous) are seeking to survive while other planets come and exploit them.
Added to this is a subplot that involves Paul’s mother (Rebecca Ferguson) as a concubine with extraordinary powers. She has passed on and taught her gifts to her son, despite the admonishments of her head reverend mother (an imperious and scary Charlotte Rampling). Is this gifted boy the future liberator and leader of Arrakis? What are the visions Paul has of the strange and beautiful Fremen girl (Zendaya)?
The great ensemble cast features such classic blockbuster characters as the loyal tough-guy with a heart of gold (Josh Brolin), the maverick fighter pilot and friend to the young dukeling (Jason Momoa – who makes a good joke about Paul’s lack of muscles), the mysterious doctor (Chang Chen) and a host of other stars illuminating this galaxy far, far away. It’s no spoiler to assume that some of them won’t make it to the end of the film. There are also dangerous creatures – the giant sand-burrowing worms that inhabit the planet, but none as dangerous as the humans fighting for control of the precious spice.
The film is a strange mix of your usual crazy big spaceships, zapping gizmos and high-tech body shields combined with basic sword fighting that wouldn’t look amiss in a sword-and-sandal blockbuster depicting ancient Rome. There are bagpipers and royal seals imprinted with wax, soothsayers and sorcery. Similarly, the excellent costumes are also a melange of the ancient and futuristic – we could be in medieval Scotland or twenty-first century sub-Saharan desert. As the very near future foresees famines, wars and displaced people due to water shortage on planet Earth, the correlations between the planet Arrakis and our own are spelled out by Villeneuve.
This is a fun, high-octane and intelligent adaptation and it would be a shame not to see what Part Two has in store.