Movie review: Dune

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Some stories are so big and complex that they almost defy being told.

“Almost” being the operative word here; of course Frank Herbert found a way with Dune, his 1965 novel which has deservedly earned iconic status as a breathtakingly vital piece of science fiction.

It is the film of his complex tale which has bedevilled people up to this point with both David Lynch and John Harrison not quite hitting the mark, leading to the assertion that getting Dune up on the silver screen was an impossible undertaking and would never be successfully undertaken by anyone.

Director Denis Villeneuve, who also penned the screenplay with John Spaights and Eric Roth, clearly begged to disagree and his three-year journey from signing on the dotted line with Legendary Entertainment, has borne spectacular fruit with Dune, a film that encompasses you so absolutely and completely in its story that you don’t so much watch it as live it.

Much of the initial awe and wonder you experience with the film is courtesy of lavishly expansive cinematography by Greig Fraser who brings shooting locations in places as diverse as Norway, Abu Dhabi and Jordan alive in ways that enthrall with long sweeping shots of alien planets upon which great, bloody drama will soon unfold.

Dune is dauntingly big space opera wrought with all the majesty and terror and raw humanity that it implies.

It is the year 10191, and in a sprawling galactic empire with avowedly feudalistic trappings, a paranoid, conniving emperor (who remains unseen even while his machinations wreak destructive, realpolitik havoc) is in a stand off of sorts with family houses, chief among them House Atreides, overseen by Duke Leo Atreides (Oscar Isaac), a man who understand how power works but has still retained a strong sense of family and friendship and who rules with a wise and caring benevolence that stands him apart from other houses like Harkonnen.

This house, which is everything Atreides is not – brutalist, dark, monstrous and genocidally cruel – is ruled over by the corpulent cruelty of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), a man who, with his nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), ensures that the highly valuable spice which powers interstellar flight is mined without interruption, and with great financial reward, on the harsh desert planet of Arrakis.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Theirs is a regime birthed from violence, greed and nightmarish wielding of power, a dark night of the soul approach which stands in marked contrast to Duke Atreides who, far from being weak and effectual, draws the robust loyalty of his troops and courtiers, and the undying love of wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) simply by being a decent human being.

The scenes between he and Paul are heartwarming because he understands that his son stands between his role as the eventual head of House Atreides and his schooling as a student of the Bene Gesserit, an outwardly religious order who wield tremendous political power behind-the-scenes and who command a huge influence on the fraying social fabric of the empire.

Paul, some believe, is the Kwisatz Haderach, a prophesied messianic being with incisively powerful clairvoyant powers, a man so commanding that he will one day lead humanity to a better, you would hope, equal future.

If at this point, you are wondering if we’re in for another Destined One story, you are only partially right; yes, Paul is aware, thanks to searingly evocative dreams he keeps having, that he is not your regular guy, something bolstered by events that take place on Arrakis after House Atreides is given the right to mine the precious spice, setting in train a vicious battle between the two houses, which may or may not have been set in train by the emperor himself.

Revered as some sort of sage too by the Indigenous inhabitants of Arrakis, the Fremen, who possess mystical and environmental links to the planet that are barely understood by those who routinely exploit them – Atreides was aiming to correct this, sending trusted swordmaster of the house to get to know the Fremen better and to live with them in harmony rather than conflict – don’t embrace Paul as the hero to end all heroes at first but as time goes on, it becomes blatantly clear that his destiny as the man who will head the ushering in of humanity’s bright new future is not to be ignored.

Like countless other “chosen ones”, Paul, like it or not, is on a path that will not be denied, and much of the enthralling brilliance of Dune is watching this talented but reluctant young man grapple with his fate in a way that feels grounded, human and all too real against a maelstrom of war, titanic battles for power and sheer bloody scrabble for survival.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

For all its bigness, Dune is really an intimate story of one man’s meeting with his destiny against a vast space operatic backdrop that could quite easily have subsumed the poignancy and pain and loss of his time on Arrakis.

Villeneuve somehow manages to preserve and bring this intimacy to the fore, not easy when the overarching themes of the film are so titanically large and all-encompassing, the very essence of loud, noisy jostling for power and influence that a story of empire all but demands.

Paul’s story, his acceptance of his fate even as he rails against it, lives and breathes in every frame of Dune, even as massive space and land battles, full of fire and fury and death on an impossibly large, near-apocalyptic scale, take place all around him.

Herbert’s story is rightly seen as an intricately intense and huge tale of humanity at war with itself, with themes of genocide, colonisation, exploitation and war all prominent and engagingly and thoughtfully delivered, but it is also the small “h” humanity of one person who finds himself, far from being an unsure bystander to the great sweep of history as a whole, and that of House Atreides and Arrakis in particular, at the very centre of everything.

The director keeps these big and small aspects of the film perfectly in compelling tension, giving the vastness of landscape and action room to express themselves while allowing characters such as Paul, his father and mother, Duncan, and even characters like Dr. Leit-Keynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), the Imperial ecologist charged with overseeing the transition from Atreides to Harkonnen on Arrakis, to fully come alive and radiate their humanity into a story which is all the better for their groundedness and emotional openness.

Dune is a landmark piece of cinematic sci-fi storytelling which is enthrallingly immersive, brilliantly epic, rich in character and emotionally evocative while delivering up political intrigue and action – a perfect sci-fi space opera writ brilliantly large as these types of movies always should be and which stands the film in good stead for the thrilling conclusion of the tale to come.

Dune (part 2) is set to bow in October 2023.

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