It’s hard to overstate what an incredible accomplishment this film is. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, the hugely influential science fiction novel upon which this film is based is actually quite a simple story – a noble family is unwittingly thrust into a war for control of a planet. But this simple tale is surrounded by a dense and arcane mythology, a complex political backdrop, and every page is steeped in hard sci-fi and fantasy. There’s enough gobbledygook in the first few pages (gom jabbar, Bene Gesserit, Kwisatz Haderach and so on) to make you wish you’d never picked the damn thing up in the first place.
But that’s why we love it, right? The sandworms and epic battles might draw us in, but it is the vast, sprawling details, and centuries of otherworldly history that keep us going back and reading it again and again. The challenge of any filmmaker tackling ‘Dune’ is to somehow capture the awe-inspiring spectacle of Paul Atreides’ epic journey, but do it without losing any of the complex intrigue of the wider story, and, still be accessible to people who haven’t read the books.
Miraculously, director Denis Villeneuve and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth have done just that. Bolstered by one of the starriest casts ever assembled, Villeneuve and his collaborators have created an extraordinary piece of event cinema, whilst also staying largely true to the book. Or to be precise, half of the book. As others have learned somewhat painfully over the years, adapting Herbert’s colossal novel is not easy. Here, Villeneuve has adapted roughly the first 300-pages, in the hope that it would be enough of a critical and commercial success to allow him to make the rest of it. ‘Dune: Part Two’ is currently in production.
But back to Part One, which sees the noble House Atreides assigned control of the desert planet Arrakis. This is the most valuable planet in the galaxy, as it is the only source of the spice, Melange, a psychotropic drug which heightens consciousness. Its value derives from making interstellar travel possible, as the spice gives navigators the prescience to safely plot routes through space. However, the cruel House Harkonnen have ruled Arrakis for 80-years, and they are not going to go quietly, regardless of Imperial decree.
Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) senses that his new fiefdom is a trap, and wants to make an alliance with the indigenous population, the Fremen. Meanwhile, his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is having dreams of a mysterious Fremen girl (Zendaya), and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) fears this is a sign that he may be the chosen one, as foretold by the Bene Gesserit. These are a mystic order of priestesses (kind of like the Jedi but all female) who have spent centuries guiding and influencing humanity from the shadows.
This is just the setup, which Villeneuve establishes with exacting precision, allowing him to then let the rest of the film breathe. With the scene setting out of the way, he then does what he does best, which is pure visual storytelling, but on his grandest canvas yet. ‘Dune’ still looks amazing on blu-ray, but this film was meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Greig Fraser’s majestic cinematography is largely still, allowing Villeneuve’s grand visions and Patrice Vermette’s gorgeous production design to fill the screen. Then when you think this can’t get any bigger, Hans Zimmer goes “Maximum Zimmer” on the score.
It doesn’t stop there of course, because then when they cast this film, they cast as BIG as possible. I still think this was an intentional decision to soften some of the more sci-fi-fantasy elements for a mainstream audience. Gibberish dialogue is so much more palatable when it’s being delivered by a beautiful and familiar face. Chalamet and Ferguson are outstanding. So much of the film rests on them, not only to do the heavy lifting with the plot, but also to keep the film grounded at a human level.
There’s still an awful lot of ground to cover in Part Two, but this feels like it could be the beginning of something very special. A huge, visually stunning, and spellbinding slice of cerebral blockbuster cinema, ‘Dune’ is a modern masterpiece. A fully immersive cinematic experience, and an absolute feast for the eyes and ears. Bring on Part Two!
For those of you who like your blu-rays with special features, this release will make you very happy. With more than an hour of brilliant behind the scenes content, this is the level we wish all mainstream releases would aspire to. ‘The Royal Houses’ is the main behind the scenes clip, featuring interviews with all the main creatives and cast members.
The ‘Filmbooks’ are a very cool special feature looking at all the main aspects of the film, but done in the style of the educational clips watched by Paul in the film. ‘Inside Dune’ is three separate clips taking us behind the scenes of the Training Room scene with Paul and Gurnney Halleck, the Spice Harvester scene, and the film’s biggest set piece, the Sardauker Battle. The last clip in particular is very good, and further proof if you need it, that Jason Momoa is the coolest guy on the planet.
‘My Desert, My Dune’ is an interview with Denis Villeneuve talking about the development of the film. This clip also focuses on the concept art, the location shoots, and some of the astonishing VFX work. There are further featurettes looking at the construction of the Ornithopters, the design of the sandworms, and the spectacular wardrobe. There’s also a terrific piece focused on Stellan Skarsgård’s terrifying Baron Harkonnen, and the amazing 7-hour makeup work he underwent every day of the shoot. Finally, there is a ten-minute clip on the extraordinary sound design and Hans Zimmer’s exotic score.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling Director: Denis Villeneuve Writer: Denis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth Released By: Warner Bros Home Entertainment Certificate: 12 Duration: 156 mins Release Date: 31st January 2021