Dune – Film Review
by David Turpin
Director – Denis Villeneuve
Writers – Jon Spaihts(screenplay by), Denis Villeneuve(screenplay by), Eric Roth(screenplay by)
Stars – Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa
In the year 10191, noble House Atreides is granted control of the planet Arrakis – known also as Dune – the only source of a valuable ‘spice’ that enables interstellar travel. Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) decamp to Arrakis, but soon fall foul of the grand designs of the galactic Emperor (as yet off-screen). This, in very broad strokes, is the outline of Frank Herbert’s 1965 tome Dune, which has famously bedevilled filmmakers for half a century. Alejandro Jodorowksy’s doomed effort is chronicled in the entertaining 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, while David Lynch actually managed to complete a version in 1984 – albeit famously not to his satisfaction.
Villeneuve’s is an altogether more streamlined effort, tackling only the first half of the novel, and doing so with a determined – some might say slavish – fealty to the text. Gone are Lynch’s vivid flashes of the grotesque (and, it must be said, his Regan-era politics). In their place is a tonally controlled ‘serious blockbuster’ very much of a piece with the Collected Works of Christopher Nolan. However, while Nolan’s last film – 2020’s swiftly forgotten ‘time inversion’ whatsit Tenet – felt antic and defensive, Villeneuve’s Dune exudes nothing so much as… professionalism.
A central problem with Herbert’s Dune as source material is that its appeal is in its complex imaginative world, rather than in its sparse rewards as narrative. Unusually, Villeneuve’s film soars most in its expository stages Fear not, though: there is so much to exposit in Dune that fully an hour is given over to laying out specifics before anything much actually happens. These sequences are tremendously alluring – costuming, set design and gorgeously curvilinear space vessels all seeming to bear the influence of 20th-century French comics artists Moebius and Philippe Druillet.
The film is on duller terrain once we settle into the planet Arrakis, and the trap that has been set for the Atreides family is finally sprung. The fights and chases that ensue are handled well enough – although Villeneuve’s preference for extreme close-ups and wide-shots with little in between doesn’t permit much spatial clarity – but they still feel like wheel-spinning. Entire narrative dead-ends are faithfully reproduced from the novel – notably a failed assassination attempt involving a poisoned tooth that ends up having no consequence whatsoever.
Villeneuve has inherited from Herbert a huge dramatis personae and cast them with famous faces, but Dune – like many ancient mythologies – catalogues the comings and goings of emblematic personages, not ‘characters’ in the modern-day sense. In that sense, the film initially feels more genuinely mythological than many ham-handed efforts at the contemporary mythic (the unending ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’, for instance, is about as ‘mythic’ as an AGM). Real mythology rarely involves a ‘hero’s journey’ in the bogus sense that is so frequently invoked in commercial cinema, so there is a certain irony in how Dune feels progressively less mythic the more it attempts to involve us in the burgeoning manhood of the callow brat played by Chalamet. (An interesting side-note, though, is that the very Ancient Greek whiff of incestuous desire between Jessica and Paul, surprisingly glossed over by Lynch, gets a discreet airing here).
Though it is often compared to Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, Dune has more in common with Robert Graves’ I Claudius and its memorable TV adaptation – right down to its very 20th-century paranoia about secret gynocracies. Graves, however, had the advantage of dealing with real historical figures. Dune certainly has a kind of allegorical purchase (although the word ‘jihad’, used frequently in both Herbert and Lynch’s versions, is here conspicuous by its absence), but cannot make similar claims. At the risk of angering Dune purists – and this film certainly behaves as if ‘Dune purists’ are a real thing – some of its interchangeable secondary characters might have been better served by being combined.
Still, Villeneuve has an undeniable gift for a specific kind of ‘sublime monotony’ – from the mist-shrouded vistas of Arrival to the hyper-dense cityscapes of Blade Runner 2049 – and one would be hard-pressed to find a bigger canvas for him than Dune. His is a kind of Teflon spectacle. It dazzles the eye but evaporates from the subconscious. In the moment, though, it is at least something to see.