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Film Review: Dune deserves the biggest screen you can find

Denis Villeneuve's version of this intergalactic epic is huge and impressive, with warm human touches.
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson star in 'Dune'. Image: Warner Bros.

In a galaxy ruled by an evil Emperor, a young man is told he is the inheritor of a legacy that could change the course of history. On a harsh desert planet a war between good and evil begins, while powerful forces – some of which have access to powers akin to magic – begin to meddle and manipulate. Fanciful names and titles abound, while our hero has a name common on Earth today. Hang on, there’s no robots – this isn’t Star Wars after all.

Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune was such a huge influence on Star Wars (mix Dune with Flash Gordon, throw in some decent special effects and you’ve pretty much got the winning formula) it’s no surprise it’s had two big budget adaptations over the last forty years. David Lynch’s 1984 attempt remains his one major misfire, a confusing and at times embarrassing mess. Can Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) finally bring it successfully to the big screen?

Short answer: yes. In fact, go for the biggest screen you can. Where Lynch’s version focused on the strange and perverse nature of the galaxy circa 10,191 (and that date is counted from a point already thousands of years in our future), Villeneuve goes for sheer size and impact. This is a future where humanity is dwarfed by both its creations and the worlds it dwells on; if you’re after a drinking game you could do worse than take a shot every time we see a giant spaceship touch down (close up of landing gear optional) followed by a massive access gantry being lowered and a handful of tiny people walking down.

It’s definitely impressive to experience, even if it’s slightly at odds with the source material. The future of Dune, which Lynch conveyed but Villeneuve skips over, is one where a religious war long ago wiped out thinking machines. There are no robots or computers. Everything has to be done by someone. So combat is mostly hand-to-hand with shields and knives; the future of humanity itself will be steered by an individual bred across generations for the role. Enter Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

While he chafes (lightly) against the confines of being a royal son, his father is overseeing a shift in galactic politics. The Emperor has given House Atreides rulership of the desert planet Arrakis, AKA Dune. It’s the only known source of spice, a hallucinogenic drug that, amongst other things, makes it possible for humans to guide interstellar travel. The previous rulers of Dune, House Harkonnen, aren’t happy, which is the point; the Emperor wants them to fight (and Harkonnen to win) to prevent either side from becoming powerful enough to challenge him. The Fremen, natives of Dune, have other plans.

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This backdrop of galaxy-wide intrigue and scheming is a major part of the appeal of the source material – it’s a big story about big issues – and Villeneuve gets that across in every scene. There’s room for human touches too, mostly Paul’s warmth towards his family and teachers, who are all-too-aware that in this universe human feeling gets you killed. But this is an epic in every sense of the term, and if it’s occasionally a little one-note in the thudding portentousness of it all, that’s a price Villeneuve is clearly willing to pay.

visually there isn’t a dull frame to be found.

Under the weight of the sheer epic sweep of this film, the story itself falters on occasion. Lynch’s version possibly told it better, or at least was more interested in it; while the plot itself is never muddled, many of the supporting characters here blend into the background more than they should. On the other hand, the insect-winged ornithopters used for travel on Dune look amazing. If narratively this isn’t as fully realised as it could be, visually there isn’t a dull frame to be found.

This film focuses on the first half of the novel; a sequel telling the second half of the story (and possibly providing more of the backdrop) was greenlit a week or so into its release overseas. There’s perhaps a little too much emphasis on Paul’s mystical visions of the future here, pointing the way towards an ending that we’ll now get to see for ourselves in (supposedly) October 2023. It will be a long wait, but considering the epic scale of everything else about Dune, that seems only fair.

Four Stars: ★★★★

DUNE
USA 2021
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Based on the novel by Frank Herbert
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem
Produced by: Mary Parent, Denis Villeneuve, Cale Boyter, Joe Caracciolo Jr.
Distributor: Universal
M, 2 hours 35 minutes
In cinemas from December 2

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.