It was never going to be easy for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. The director of Arrival and Sicario took on his dream project knowing full well that previous versions of Frank Herbert’s novel had infamously arduous journeys to the screen. Then came a pandemic, and Warner Bros’ decision to include this film as part of the HBO Max announcement (something the director publicly protested). Still, this is the man who successfully brought us back to the world of Blade Runner, and he has assembled a mouth-watering cast.
Timothee Chalamet stars as Paul, heir to House Atreides, a powerful family in the distant future of mankind. His father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) has accepted stewardship of the planet Arrakis, the sole source of a substance informally known as Spice that extends life and revolutionises travel. Overseeing the production of the most valuable substance in the universe, Leto is aware the new role may be a trap set by his enemies, but seeks to make peace with the rural native communities of Arrakis known as The Fremen.
As those familiar with the book will know, it’s not easy to sum up the plot in a paragraph (as the film’s title tells us, this is only Part 1 of the story). However, what’s clear from the very beginning is that Villeneuve has dug deep into the sand to make an epic of blockbuster proportions. The Shakespearean power struggles play out in a striking concrete palace that contrasts with the bright waves of desert that surround it. It’s a triumph of both style and substance; and as the first glimpses of the jaw-dropping sand worms come into frame, it seems ridiculous that anyone would choose to watch this on anything other than a cinema screen.
For all the visual mastery, it is the performances that make the film. Leto is the leader any society would want, with a strength and genuine concern that suggests he may be doomed in a landscape this corrupt. Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa are all grunt as Leto’s military men, who live for battle and seem perplexed by Paul’s existential crises. Stellan Skarsgard is also great as Baron Harkonnen, a hideous slug-like creature who becomes a horrifying antagonist.
They’re all wonderful in their roles, but without an effective lead a film like this can fall apart. Thankfully, Chalamet is one of the most intriguing stars of his generation, following up his breakthrough in Call Me By Your Name with a work more thoughtful than the leap into a superhero suit he could surely have taken. There’s an interesting paradox in his performance: he is a boy in a world of men, but is beset by visions of his own greatness. Looking completely at home in action sequences, he fits perfectly in the role and builds an excellent rapport with Ferguson’s Lady Jessica, who is both his nurturer and puppet master.
Dune is a rare beast of a film. Combining the scope of a Marvel movie with the brain of a prestige drama, fans of the sci-fi epics of old will be well advised to find the largest screen they can, and dive into the spectacular world Villeneuve has only just begun exploring.