Denis Villeneuve specialises in delivering on the seemingly impossible.
In the last 10 years, he’s made his English-language debut one of the best thrillers of the last decade (Prisoners), given us one of the most satisfying-yet-confounding final shots in recent memory (Enemy), redefined how stressful traffic jams are (Sicario), expertly baked our noodles by cutting his sci-fi teeth on the adaptation of Ted Chiang’s cerebral short story ‘Story of Your Life’ (Arrival) and delivered a delayed sequel to one of the most beloved sci-fi epics and, against all odds, made it the original’s equal if not superior (Blade Runner 2049).
And yet, adapting Frank Herbert’s famously sprawling (some might say tortuously impenetrable) epic sci-fi novel ‘Dune’ may just be his most ambitious undertaking to date – especially when considering the space saga previously defeated Alejandro Jodorowsky and made David Lynch a very unhappy camper in 1984, labelling his effort “a total failure”.
So, is it third time lucky for the apparently unfilmable ‘Dune’?
The answer is a resounding “Yes”. Dune – or Dune: Part One, to give it its full title – is a triumph. Even if you’re usually weary of blockbusters that brazenly announce from the get-go that they’re only Part One, therefore telling you outright that you won’t be getting the full story in one sitting and will have to bide your time until you get to witness the full picture, this is worth the investment.
For those not up to speed with the premise, Dune follows the messianic Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as he comes to terms with his purpose in a feudal interstellar society divided by conflict over the exclusive control of Spice, a psychoactive chemical that preserves life, has untold mental-enhancing benefits and is key to interstellar travel. Basically, there’s not much the finely granulated commodity can’t do. The all-star ensemble cast joining him on his hero’s journey includes the ever-gloriously-haired Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin and some frustratingly brief glimpses of Zendaya – who apparently will get more screen time in the sequel. No more shall be spoilt here, except to say that those who live with the constant threat of colossal sandworm attacks won’t have a great time and that fans praying the infamous “What’s in the box?”-“Pain” line made the cut will not be disappointed.
The script by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth laudably untangles the novel’s knotty lore and quickly puts to bed any fears that you’ll need to frantically sketch family trees and fashion a glossary in order to understand who’s who and what on Arrakis is going on. At the heart of the streamlined narrative is a typical “The One” bloodline prophecy, which can seem a bore considering the countless monomyths we’re bombarded with on the big screen; but considering Herbert’s source material inspired Star Wars, Matrix and many more, it’s impressive that the familiar blueprint never comes to the detriment of some highly-engrossing stakes.
Where Dune really blows your socks off, however, is visually. Villeneuve’s spectacle is a bombastic yet uncluttered one, much like the architecture production designer Patrice Vermette treats us to. The gloriously immersive cinematography by Greig Fraser complements the spaces and the moody tone, as the foreboding grey hues are lit up by shards of light and golden yellow washes. As for the CGI, the breathtaking effects are as close to photorealistic as it comes, and you can bet that not a soul will complain when Dune scoops up every visual gong under the sun come awards season.
All that’s left to do is echo the line “This is only the beginning”, and say: Bring on the sequel. And hell, since Herbert wrote five sequels to the original novel, can we have them too? After all, nothing’s impossible for Denis Villeneuve.
Dune / D: Denis Villeneuve (US, 2021), with Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Josh Brolin. Starts September 16.