Dune review: A grand pitch for a compelling sci-fi franchise to come with Timothée Chalamet leading us into an epic adventure
If you have read Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel walking into the theatres to watch Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, you may feel the excitement surge through you to see this strange fictional future of the universe come to life. Well, if you haven’t then you may be in for a grand surprise.
The Blade Runner 2049 filmmaker has a rich source material at hand in Herbert’s first book in the series, half or so of which has been used to create this spectacle of a film that hits the cinemas today. He adds to the mix a glorious string of cast members from whom you can only have great expectations. Hans Zimmer’s music and Greig Fraser’s cinematography heighten the promise of a riveting sci-fi franchise in the making but put this all together and does Villeneuve deliver on his promise?
While watching Dune: Part One, it becomes abundantly clear that the focus is on building the world in which this tale of inter-planetary political upheaval, messianic religion, and scientific advancement is based. At the center of all the action are two houses Atreides and Harkonnen and their rift which is over a dessert planet Arrakis. While Harkonnen’s have mined spice, the most valuable resource in the universe, on the planet for 80 years and reveled in riches, the Padishah Emperor has now handed over the reins to House Atreides.
We are introduced to Arrakis and its harsh life through the eyes of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), his family and his troops. The leader of House Atreides arrives on the planet with plans to make an alliance with the natives of the land the Fermen who have been long oppressed and underestimated by the previous rulers of the land to mine the spice.
Duke Leto, however, isn’t the hero of the story. It is his son Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) who we have our eyes on. Paul has an interesting legacy with a royal heritage from his father’s side and as a male child of Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) who is training him in the ways of her secretive sisterhood which has a mission of its own. He is suspected to be Kwisatz Haderach, the one male Bene Gesserit who could see through time and space and is the result of a careful cross breeding. The Fremen believe him to be the Lisan-al Galib, the messiah. Paul has visions of the future which make him apprehensive of what is to come but also guide his choices.
Timothée Chalamet may not look like the 15-year-old Paul Atreides is in the first book, but he certainly embodies the keen, perceptive and calculating character who shoulders the story tactfully between all the greats around him.
Denis Villeneuve takes his time setting the tone of the layered narrative of Dune. While the first half of the film is all exploratory, guiding us through Arrakis, flaunting his grand and intricate hard work of building a whole new world where pillar-like spaceships travel through the galaxy, giant worms that could destroy everything in their path crawl beneath the sand surface, dragonfly-like aircrafts are modes of transportation across the sands, shields that have a hologram effect in a fight are used and mosquito sized drone are used to kill. Every inch of every frame speaks of the grand scale at which the film is produced.
It is the second half where the Harkonnens arrive with their evil schemes to get back what they have lost and the conflict arises. The plot twists and harrowing hardships seemingly have no end after this as House Atreides scatters like grains of sand having been brought on the planet only to be wiped off. Paul’s visions then take charge of the story as he sets out with Lady Jessica to find the Fremens he’s been dreaming so much about relying on their alliance with his father.
Hans Zimmer’s music though adding to the grandeur in places falls short in places but still succeeds in instilling the mood. The cinematography spells life on this strange planet transporting you and immersing you into the world completely. Villeneuve has taken his liberty with the order of story even when dealing with just the first half of the book but kept the plot mostly intact.
The characters have been given more shades than they hold in the book although the film throughout carries a somber mood as though they are all seers looking at their grave future from the start. The only bouts of excitement come from Chalamet’s character on meeting with his friends who are his father’s generals as re runs in to hug them.
Coming to the glorious cast, one can identify the characters who will steer the story simply by seeing the amount of time we see them on screen. Timothée Chalamet obviously dominates the screen time in this regard. Stars like Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Jason Mamoa as Duncan Idaho who are generals on the Atreides side are given very little to work with.
Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen makes for a menacing villain who plots the revenge but is seen not lifting a finger in pursuit. Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban another Harkonnen is not given much to do except deliver stoic expressions and have but one bout of angry screaming. Zendaya is mostly a fragment of Paul’s vision until she makes an appearance at the very end of the film. Even the deadly sandworms that rear their head more than once in the film seem conveniently harmless through they have been talked up to a menacing capacity.
It does make you wonder what for these big stars signed on for except wanting to be a part of Villeneuve’s grand vision. A lot of Paul’s visions for the future, one can only suspect would form the crux of the second film which is yet to get an announcement, where a battle is imminent.
Dune gets a rather abrupt and unexpected ending when you are eager to see where Paul’s journey takes him and but are made to vacate your seat questioning, ‘this was it?’.
Denis Villeneuve definitely succeeds in building an alternate universe that could lead to a successful film franchise but there is a long way to go for that and Dune is merely a pitch for it. It does make one wonder if the depth and detailing required in building this world could have better been achieved as a multi-seasonal series like Game of Thrones but Villeneuve’s grand schemes certainly make for a cinematic experience that would be laid to waste on a smaller screen.