In UK cinemas from 22 October
ONE of the most anticipated flicks at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the first chapter of a new two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel.
The story begins in AD 10,191 in a universe ruled by an interstellar empire in which noble houses fight to control planetary fiefs.
The Atreides family, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is tasked with administering Arrakis, an inhospitable desert planet abundant in “spice”, a mind-altering substance that is crucial for interstellar travel. Neither the planet’s previous rulers, the Harkonnens, nor its hardy citizens, the Fremen, are pleased to see them – and mining spice is made treacherous by the presence of gigantic, territorial sandworms.
The first part of the film depicts the transition of power after the family’s arrival on Arrakis, and establishes the relationships that the Duke’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) has with his mother, the mystical Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and his two mentors, weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and swordmaster Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa).
This set-up is effective: we learn that Paul fears his future as the next Duke, that he dedicates himself to intellectual and physical training and that he can count on his parents who, despite their institutional roles, are generally supportive.
As Dune progresses, however, the focus shifts from family drama towards politics and the turbulent relations with the Fremen. This transforms the remaining two-thirds of the film into a dull space opera, where the serious and the overly solemn tone starts to impinge on the excitement and mystery. Meanwhile, the story descends into cliché-filled dialogues about strength, courage and honour, the likes of which are all too common in the sci-fi and superhero genres.
“Adrenaline-filled scenes and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score make Dune a rather tiring experience”
Villeneuve takes spectacular visuals to the next level – the Harkonnens’ attack on Arrakis is a prime example, as is the scene in which Idaho manages to dispatch half a dozen enemies with relative ease despite a serious stab wound to the chest.
While the movie is packed with tension, majestic heroism and countless mortal dangers, it is sadly let down by the mediocre quality of the writing and the varying levels of performance among the cast.
Chalamet successfully embodies a young man hesitantly embracing the perils and the responsibilities of adulthood. Stellan Skarsgård brilliantly portrays Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s greed and pure evil, and it is a shame that his character wasn’t more present throughout. Ferguson, however, fails to provide the complexity of her tripartite role of wife, mystic and mother. She opts for a strange neutrality of expression that struggles to prompt any particular sympathy or antipathy.
Chani, the Fremen warrior portrayed by Zendaya, is reduced to someone bathed by the setting sun, and who occasionally shows up in Paul’s visions. Later, she makes a short, clichéd “tough-girl” appearance, before taking part in one of the most banal endings in the history of sci-fi.
Overall, the adrenaline-filled scenes teamed with Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent, bombastic score make the 155-minute viewing time a rather tiring experience. Unfortunately, the visually astonishing cinematography by Greig Fraser, the star-studded cast and the industrial quantities of special effects don’t save the day.
Dune fails to deliver the ecological, anti-colonialist spirit of the original novel, nor does it provide an urgent, fresh take that would justify retelling its epic vicissitudes. In short: too much action, not nearly enough heart.