By the House of freaking Atreides, they didn’t stuff it up!
2021’s “Dune” could have so easily been over-gorged, over-ambitious and so reliant on spectacle and special effects that any sense of story got thrown out the window, just like the litany of its mediocre adaptations to film and television since the 1980s. The 1960s series of novels on which the film is based is notoriously convoluted and complicated, sprawling across galaxies and political dynasties and hundreds of pages in Old Testament size text so converting it to film was always going to be an insurmountable task. Not only have screenwriters Dennis Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth managed to condense the novel (into an admittedly still long 156 minute run time), they’ve done so in a way that has simplified and streamlined the story so its not only palatable but genuinely gripping and immersive.
The story is akin to the big, rich, old school space operas that inspired Star Wars; its 10191 and all the planets in the universe are under the control of an aristocratic empire. Duke Leto of the House Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has been appointed as the new ruler of the desolate desert planet Arrakis, which has been commodified due to being the only planet with “spice”, a valuable substance that bestows its users heightened vitality and expanded consciousness. The Duke’s teenage son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is the story’s hero, not only the heir to the House Atreides but also the son of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is one of a long line of a mystical sisterhood whose members possess magical mind control powers. When the House Atreides is overthrown, Paul must rise up as his father’s replacement, forge an alliance with the native people of Arrakis, and save Arrakis from House Harkonnen, a breed of fat bald men who can levitate and headed by the biggest and baldest of all of them, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard). And of course, everyone has to dodge the giant sandworms which roam the desert looking for things to swallow.
“Dune” is a big, unapologetic Hollywood motion picture; brilliant and slick and dazzling and grand in the steed of old-fashioned epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Ben-Hur”. I loved this film; I loved the world that was created, I was invested in the political power struggles and the magical forces at play, I loved the scope and grandness of the whole thing and as soon as the credits rolled I checked my phone for when the second instalment was due (October 2023 by the way). The cinematography is phenomenal and fully embraces the spectacle of the vast desert world of Arrakis, the eerie wailing score by Hans Zimmer creating the perfect illusion that these conflicts and lands are part of something ancient and prophetic. What is done perfectly is that even though I have no doubt that the source material is intricately and meticulously woven, watching the film I wasn’t distracted by trying to piece together who everybody was or their motivations. I was dropped right in the middle of this universe and the film was constructed so well that I was able to simply be washed away with it rather than having to struggle to stay afloat. That’s good storytelling.
Sci-fi fans won’t be disappointed either; there are plenty of flash guns, aircraft, and futuristic gadgets and a seriously cool device that attaches to your belt and projects an invisible shield over the wearer’s body and flashes red when its integrity is being compromised. The performances from the stellar cast were dignified and pitch perfect, particularly so for Timothee Chalamet, who is fast becoming one of the most interesting and promising young actors in Hollywood and strikes just the right balance between a young and inexperienced child and the man who is going to take responsibility for what he knows to be his destiny.
“Dune” is an uproariously entertaining and beautifully crafted movie, telling what truly is a pretty epic tale with dexterity and an obvious respect to the source material. Films like this are designed for the cinema; with the rest of the world blocked out, the lights dimmed, your phone on silent and nothing but the story to sweep you away. At one stage I could have sworn I felt the sand of Arrakis between my toes.
By Jock Lehman