Dune review


Adapting Frank Herbert’s lengthy sci-fi classic into a film is not an enviable job. Its not so much that the plot is complex; in fact, it’s quite straightforward, it’s more to do with the way the book presents it. We’re given the detailed inner thoughts of a number of principal characters and masses of historical, geographical, political and linguistic information about the scenario. The book’s emphasis is as much on a look or a movement than it is about action. David Lynch’s 1984 version squeezed the 500 plus page book into a two hour movie by ruthlessly editing the story, stripping it of any finesse and the results did not really work. Dune is a story that needs to be told carefully and at a medium pace so is more in tune with modern television than film making. Denis Villeneuve though has cracked this toughest of nuts by dividing the story into two- there is a pointed Part One underneath the on screen title- and editing with precision to service the overall story rather than the running time. At two hours forty minutes this is still only half the story.



In the far future stewardship of the planet Arrakis changes hands from the despotic House Harkonnen to the seemingly more benign House Atreides. Arrakis’s value lies in it being the only planet in the Universe where Spice, a substance with incredible properties, can be mined.  Often a film trailer flatters to deceive and ends up far more exciting than the movie itself and this film's trailer, tethered to the music of Pink Floyd was definitely amazing. Yet if anything the actual film is even more amazing to watch. The first thing you notice is the scale of things. Everything is big- the landscape, the hallways and rooms, the spaceships and of course the sandworms. On an IMAX screen (for which it was specifically filmed) it all looks enormous yet believable. The desert becomes the character it is in the novel, vast and merciless with the threat of the giant sandworms never far. We don’t actually see one properly- even the scene from the trailer has been darkened for the final film but their presence is impressive. 

The buildings and vehicles are tremendously realised, especially the ornithopters while there is terrific use of light and shade to give realistic yet also cinematic impact. Even the music is big- Hans Zimmer has created an imperial score to match the visual grandeur and the sound mix is loud and unforgiving. Some of the incidental music almost distorts and could have done with a slight turning down at key moments though it might be that the cinema’s speakers are not used to such an attack! This size fits the story which is about empire building and rivalries between vast armies controlled by Houses. Well placed dialogue gives us enough information to go on without the intricate detail of the novel.

One thing I wondered beforehand was how well the film would bring the characters to life because they are drawn so well in the book. Thankfully an economical script has enough humanity in it to draw out what is described on the page in far more detail. So, a greeting is enough to show us the bond between Paul and Duncan, a brief conversation tells us about the relationship between Leto and Jessica and so on. It will probably be an unsung quality of the film just how well it truncates pages of material into short exchanges. The film manages to put over the mental power of the Bene Gesseritt and the physical power of the sandworms equally well.

While this may appear to be a narrative of the far future it also calls out to the past and addresses the issue of the exploitation of Arrakis’ native people, the Fremen by the planet’s previous owners the Harkonnens. Yet both families are also being played as pawns by the unseen Emperor. There are plenty of historical signatures- the uniforms, the seals, the protocol, the machinations between rival Dukes and Barons all echoing events that could just as easily have happened in the past. This probably explains why the story is more identifiable to people.

It’s impeccably cast and while no actor is likely to give a career best performance amidst the clamour of a movie like this the talented ensemble each manage to bring something valuable to the table especially Rebecca Ferguson who conveys Jessica’s conflicting emotions powerfully. Paul is a more interesting character in the book because we are privy to his inner thoughts so it’s a tough role to gain much audience sympathy from but Timothee Chalamet, again proving he can play any role, manages to filter out some of Paul’s bratty qualities replacing them with curiosity and bravery. There are also enjoyable scenes featuring Jason Mamoa and Josh Brolin who undercut their macho personas with some lighter touches.  Though seen rarely and stripped of the novel’s more dubious traits, Baron Harkonnen is the hissable villain this film needs and Stellan Skarsgard, whether encased in what looks like a balloon or taking a mud bath can deliver the chills.

Some of the key scenes will be loved equally by fans of the book or those who’ve never read it. The sequences where Paul is tested to his limits by one of the Bene Gesserit and later where an attempt is made on his life are superbly directed. Yet Villeneuve seems equally at home with the grandness of large scale conflict whose chaos he captures so well and the more intimate tensions. Usually, an epic like this is good at one but fumbles the other, but Dune juggles both. Like his excellent Blade Runner sequel, the director builds an immersive world that holds your attention.

Inevitably connoisseurs of the book will be irritated by some of the changes as storylines are moved around (two characters from the first part of the book don’t even appear in this film but apparently will in the second) but in every case his decisions seem spot on. So, while I was personally disappointed a pivotal dining room scene that takes up several pages of the novel is absent, I can see why it is. On the other hand, Herbert chose not to show the reader anything much of the Sardauker attack that decimates House Atreides but the film gives more detail at a time when some fury and fire is appropriate. I would have liked more of Doctor Yueh whose key role is reduced here and thus seems too rushed yet I’m more than happy for the film to have lost a dull sequence in the book where Paul and Jessica get their equipment back from under the sand. Its swings and roundabouts but crucially the progress of the narrative is largely unimpeded by the omissions and benefits from the additions.

Given that it had to end somewhere I’m more satisfied than some critics that it concludes with a hand to hand combat between Paul and a Fremen challenger. Some have said this is anti-climactic but I think it is a good point to emphasise that Paul’s struggle is not an easy one however many latent powers he may possess. It is though home to the only slight mis-step I noticed which is Paul’s angst over having to kill his opponent, however earlier we see him helping his mother kill several captors.

Dune makes you realise how influential the original book has been on subsequent sci-fi epics- notably Star Wars- and how a good story can last decades and lose little in the retelling. This is a visual treat and you really should try and see it in an IMAX cinema if you can and while I sense that the wonder lies more in the look rather than the story I hope the second part is made because it will make this first part stronger and complete this epic tale.

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