The rite-of-passage sci-fi novel Dune is memorable years later for its intergalactic warfare and the magic of “spice”, the psychotropic silt harvested from the surface of the arid planet Arrakis. That and the 100-metre sandworms which are seen from way off as they burrow through the desert before erupting through the sand and devouring everything in sight.
It is enough to get started heading in to Denis Villeneuve’s marvel of a film that puts to rest all ideas that Frank Herbert’s books were too complex to bring to the screen. There are a few laboured explanations deemed essential by way of setting the scene but nothing that gets in the way of the story at the heart of Dune, which is the archetypal tale of a young man, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of the Duke of Atreides, finding his destiny as a ruler.
As the movie starts, spice has brought inestimable wealth to the oppressive Harkonnens but in a political play, the evil Emperor conspires with them and bequeaths Arrakis and its spice harvest to his rival, Duke Atreides (Oscar Isaac), who wants to rule fairly rather than exploit the native Fremen people. It’s a setup, wouldn’t you know?
There are intricacies to what follows that take some untangling, like the role of the Bene Gesserit line of witches who include the Duke’s mistress, Paul’s mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). She has trained Paul in the ancient arts and is his protector, giving him a birthright equal to that of his beloved father, the Duke.
Three generations of actors fill the screen, from Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother called in to assess Paul’s potential as the man of their prophesies, to contemporary stars Isaac and Ferguson, and most excitingly the new bloods, Chalamet and Zendaya as Chani, the blue-eyed Fremen girl in his dreams. The choice of Chalamet may have been questioned but his charisma and existential beauty bring all the reluctant destiny you need.
Filmed in Jordan, Hungary, Abu Dhabi and Norway, Dune looks breathtaking with giant red sunsets above the shifting sands where you can almost smell cinnamon in the air, and one gorgeously staged interior sequence in which Paul deflects an attack from an assassin insect. Protective shields bring vibrato to fight routines that are enormous fun and the Atreides take to the skies in clanky old choppers with multiple blades that soar like dragonflies.
The sacred prophesies and visions elevate the plot above the messiness of some of the narrative and Villeneuve has simplified things by focusing on the first part of Herbert’s story. There is a deep sense of myth-making and commitment to beauty that sets this apart from its Marvel rivals and Dune deserves to be appreciated for it. And this is just Part One; another is on the way.
Dune opens in cinemas on December 2.
When you commit to a regular weekly, fortnightly or monthly tax-deductible donation to InReview, each scheduled donation will be matched by Creative Partnerships Australia. That means you’re supporting twice as many InReview stories to be commissioned, edited and published.Donate Here
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.