Thursday 11 November 2021

Film Review: Dune


Spice up your life with Denis Villeneuve's ambitious and magnificent new movie, Dune.

Famously unfilmable, Frank Herbert's influential novel Dune has eluded a definitive cinematic adaptation – until now. 

French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, hot on the heels of reviving another sci-fi classic in Blade Runner 2049, has stepped up the plate – and delivered a modern classic in the process.

Set in the year 10191, the film is a hero's journey that follows young nobleman Paul (Timothee Chalamet), heir to the powerful spacefaring house Atreides. Paul's father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), has been charged with ownership of the planet Arrakis, a harsh desert world that serves as the source of a powerful resource called 'spice'. House Atreides' old rival, House Harkonnen, intend to retake Arrakis by any means neccessary – sparking an interplanetary conflict that threatens to destablise the balance of power in the galaxy.

That's a very abridged version of the film's plot; safe to say, there's quite a bit more to it than that. The engrossing first hour of Dune eschews action in favour of methodical worldbuilding and character groundwork; this is Villeneuve taking his time and pouring over the details, in the same way that Peter Jackson front-loaded Fellowship of the Ring with a bunch of dense exposition and mythmaking. 

Where Dune excels, is in making this groundwork interesting and digestible. Villeneuve sticks to the adage 'show don't tell' – the audience, even those going in cold as I did, won't have a hard time following the story or the nuances of this rich universe. Come the end, you too will be able to wax lyrical about everything from the Gom Jabbar and the Sardaukar to the Bene Gesserit and the Kwisatz Haderach. It's complex, but not confusing. 

From a technical standpoint, Dune is already the best film of the year – it just looks, and sounds, stunning. This time, Villeneuve has partnered with cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Rogue One), and together the vistas of exotic worlds and spacebound armadas are nothing short of spellbinding on the big screen. From a colour palette filled with deep blacks and rich oranges, to the sheer scale of the arresting action set pieces, every frame is grand and gorgeous. 

Hans Zimmer's unorthodox and seismic score leverages instruments from across the world, to create something that feels alien and otherwordly. Everything from flutes and distorted guitars to bagpipes and vocal percussion weaves together to create a big sound that perfectly complements the even bigger visuals. 

The production and set design is second-to-none; an intriguing juxtapositioin of militaristic urbanism, exotic touches from across Asia and Arabia, and elemental stonework gives the film a weighty, tactile aesthetic. 

Towering pyramids and palaces feel both alien and familiar, as Villeneuve's production team pulls from the past to envision the future. A look and feel that is inspired by myth and medieval feudalism seems apt, given the story is centred around warring houses, rich dynasties and vast landscapes where the only rule of law is war.

While this is Paul's story (and Chalamet is a surprisingly effective lead), Dune's ensemble is awash with talented actors. Isaac is warm and stoic as Paul's father; Josh Brolin is Gurney Halleck, a gruff mentor figure and ally; Stellan Skarsgard plays the villainous Baron Harkonnen; Javier Bardem as Fremen chieftan Stilgar; and Jason Momoa plays a charismatic pilot called Duncan Idaho (no, really).

However, the best of the bunch was Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, Paul's mother and member of the secretive Bene Gesserit order. She's the emotional centre of the film, caught between her duty to her house, her duty to the order and her duty as a mother. Zendaya is also in this movie, as a Fremen women called Chani. Although she features heavily in the marketing, her role is this – the first part of a bigger story – is quite small. 

It's this point that might annoy or lose some viewers. The titlecard – which proclaims this to be Dune: Part One – confirms that there will be further films down the track, which plunge further into Herbert's novel and subsequent sequels. After two-and-a-half hours, the film reaches a conclusion of sorts – but it's also the beginning of the 'second act' in what could be two or even three films. Don't go in expecting a rounded ending; again, much like Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring, this film is just the start.

The Verdict: 10/10

Villeneuve's ambitious first chapter in the Dune saga is a monumental achievement that mixes maximum emotion, spectacle and artistry in equal measure. Superlatives such as epic and beautiful don't do it justice. 

Dune is available in cinemas across Australia on Thursday 2 December. 

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