Dune review – the grandiose feeling of a historical epic

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Denis Villeneuve’s epic science fiction film begins with the ethereal voice of Zendaya telling us about how beautiful her planet Arrakis is. She’s right, it’s gorgeous, and this whispering tone is the first indicator of the sort of film Villeneuve has decided to make. 

Adapting Frank Herbert’s mammoth tome, and still only taking in half of the source for a two-and-a-half-hour epic, Villeneuve crafts a film that is not only majestic in its scope but carries the same level of adoration that made Peter Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations so beloved.

We follow Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). Plagued by dreams of a beautiful native girl (Zendaya) from the plant Irrakis and visions of his mentor (Jason Momoa) dying, Paul travels with his father to their new position on the planet to mine spice, but political intrigue follows.

Villeneuve has assembled a stacked cast and crew for this film, he’s spoken before about his love of the novel and his desire to bring it to the screen. The opening narration could almost become “last night I dreamt of Irrakis”, its spell is so heavily cast upon him. Producing, directing and co-writing Eric Roth and John Spaihts this is without a date un film du Denis Villeneuve.

His cast is sprawling Chalamet, Ferguson, Isaac, Zendaya and Momoa are joined by Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard and Javier Bardem, while a suitably bombastic score is given courtesy of Hans Zimmer.

The film looks gorgeous – name a film from Villeneuve that hasn’t arrested you visually, and certain moments appear to call back to Arrival. But this film has the grandiose feeling of a historical epic, a sort of science fiction riff on The Ten Commandments.

Josh Brolin and Timothee Chalamet in Dune.

The film takes it’s time, and takes time, it’s not a film that jumps into it’s story head first. At times it feels like The Fellowship of the Ring, there’s a dense history to learn, subcultures, rituals, things that seem unimportant now but will come into play later. Villeneuve tries to lower the amount of exposition there is but the first thirty minutes are loaded with it. At times the constant flitting between one subculture to another along with obligatory introductions “We are House Atreides”, “This is the word of the Emperor”, “Beware the Freman” are all shouted stoically enough but it becomes like watching a condescend version of Game of Thrones: Season One. 

The film does pick up, and even when it doesn’t, there is enough keeping you invested thanks to clever casting. The mysterious Lady Jessica is a role built to suit Rebecca Ferguson’s otherworldly presence. Chalamet can fart out an in-over-his-head role before he takes his morning coffee. People like Brolin and Momoa have stoic down to an art. 

The film drags, but it’s never boring. It’s slow but it’s never wasteful. It’s a film that sets up its world and its table in a mature and serious way while also allowing for some fun moments of levity as well as action that caters to an audience now fat on the spectacle of Marvel punch-ups. 

Few directors are as versed as building up to an action sequence as Villeneuve, so when an impending sandworm attack looms and it becomes a ticking clock before some innocent spice miners get munched up, it’s a tension-filled couple of minutes. The sight of a frantic Josh Brolin running through sandy terrain calls to mind his last go-around with Denis – Sicario – and the same tension is employed here.

There are nods to Star Wars, which itself stole pretty heavily from Herbert’s novel. A siege on a compound looks like a less camp take on the storming of the Jedi council, the sight of a distraught Chalamet stomping around in his all-black get up could be a young Anakin, even Skarsgard appears to be channeling Palpatine if Palpatine spent the interim time from Revenge of the Sith to A New Hope dutifully eating all the pies.

Ultimately this film is the first half of a story (and first of three if Villeneuve gets his trilogy) – and there’s more to come, Herbert wrote six of these novels, and his son Brian wrote prequels. It’s a universe waiting to be explored, and the brazen title card of Dune: Part One says that this is to be taken as the starter for the main course. With the heavy lifting of the world-building done, part two looks set to be a bigger, more audacious film. One befitting the size of the doorstepping novel. 

When the call for challenging and impressive sci-fi is put out to House Villeneuve? House Villeneuve accepts!

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