Full disclaimer to start this review: My knowledge of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel and the various works attempting to adapt it, is limited. Limited in so much as I know famed auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky tried (and failed) to make his own film version of it in the ’70s, while noted weirdo director David Lynch succeeded in making a film based on Dune in 1984, but everyone just kinda collectively shrugged (either in boredom or confusion). There was also a TV show that introduced James McAvoy to the world in the early 2000s.
Okay that sounds like I know a lot, but what I’m trying to say is I haven’t seen any of these things, nor have I read the epic tome on which they are based. So I went into French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s updated take on the story fairly blind, and I’m pretty that makes me the target audience for what is a pretty darn financially risky endeavour – and that’s before COVID-19 completely smashed the kneecaps out of the film industry for 18 months. People who are familiar with the novel or previous adaptations are most likely already in, but what about the rest of us who maybe don’t mind dipping our toes into the world of science fiction and fantasy every now and then?
Denis Villeneueve’s involvement definitely helps – his major Hollywood forays starting at Prisoner, followed by Enemy, Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, all range from at least good to absolute masterworks, not to mention his breakout Academy Award nominated film, Incendies. So it’s fair to say him directing, along with a stacked cast including much-hyped youngsters Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya joined by the extremely talented likes of Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, David Bautista, Stellan Skarsgård and Jason Mamoa as charming pal Duncan Idaho, means there’s plenty to lure in slightly more casual viewers.
But once lured in, will they like what they see? Short answer…potentially! Look, it’s a little self-serious in some places (to be expected); there’s a few too many flash forward/dream sequences as Chalamet’s Paul Atreides pines after Fremen girl Chani (Zendaya) – who he’s yet to meet; and it at times feels like it’s going to suffocate under its own portentousness, but once you settle into that groove, it works. This is supposed to be epic and it feels epic – from the costumes, set design and cinematography (courtesy of Greig Fraser, DOP for next year’s The Batman), to the soundtrack courtesy of one of the all-time greats, Hans Zimmer, all the pieces combine for an almost overwhelming cinema-going experience.
The screenplay from Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Eric Roth (A Star Is Born), keeps things pretty easy to follow, especially when the story of duelling intergalactic houses, space witches, gigantic 400m-long worms, Stellan Spa-baths and sustainable mining practices for hallucinogenic space dust could quite easily have drowned in a sea of sand dunes. Indeed, it’s hard not to get swept away by the sandstorm of dusty vistas and hand to hand combat as our hero slowly gets around to answering the call that keeps interrupting his sleep like a slow-motion snooze button.
As with much franchise filmmaking these days we’re left in a frustrating position just as things are heating up at the end, cold comfort coming with news Dune Part 2 has already been green-lit. As the old saying goes however – it’s not the destination but the dreamy Duncan Idahos you meet along the way. And while the capacity to handle Timothée Chalamet’s chala-moping around may differ between viewers, it’s nonetheless a mesmerising first leg of the journey, an irrepressible amount of talent both in front of and behind the camera daring you not to hook onto a sandworm yourself and enjoy the ride.
Dune is in Australian cinemas from Thursday 2 December.
Images Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.