I've never been a voracious reader, so the chances of me making it all the way through Frank Herbert's Dune were always pretty slim. It's a book I think I started about four times when I was younger, until I just gave up altogether. It's dense, wordy and quite difficult to follow — it ultimately proved too great a literary challenge. The lore always fascinated me, though. I grew up hearing mention of the spice melange (I love saying that word), the warring Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, and the mystical, unforgiving desert planet Arrakis, primarily through watching my brother play the strategy computer game on our Amiga. Fast-forward 25 years or so, to me hearing that one of my favourite directors, Denis Villeneuve, was releasing his interpretation of the epic sci-fi saga. To say I've been looking forward to this movie for a while is the understatement of the year. In fact, in a way, I've been looking forward to this movie for most of my life. For that reason, it gives me no small amount of delight and fulfillment to say Villeneuve's Dune is utterly staggering, and is probably my favourite film of 2021. (EDIT: after writing this, I saw West Side Story. What a twist.)
This is not to ignore David Lynch's 1984 adaptation completely, in which he views Herbert's tale through his idiosyncratically bizarre but endearing lens. There's a lot to admire there in his uncompromising commitment to the slightly skewed and, at times, absurd tone. To compare Villeneuve's touch to that of Lynch nearly 40 years ago is basically meaningless, given Lynch's reliance on practical effects (be honest, the digital effects in Lynch's shield sparring scene are, at best, charming in their terribleness). So I won't.
Villeneuve deftly gives us exposition only as we need it, more often letting his impressively eloquent visual style tell the story. He makes short work of the seemingly convoluted source material — having never made it to the end of the novel, I never once felt confused watching this film. Dune primarily takes place on the desert planet Arrakis, home of the spice (don't worry, in this film they only ever refer to it as "the spice", so you don't have to learn another word). Whomever controls the spice (the universe's most valuable resource) controls...the universe. At the beginning of the film, the brutal Harkonnen are in charge of spice harvesting, making them exceedingly wealthy and powerful. However, by decree of the Emperor, House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), are given control. The Harkonnen acquiesce, but do not plan to make the transition easy. Leto's son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), next in line for leadership of House Atreides, assists his father in taking custodianship of Arrakis, which is also populated by its own native people, the Fremen. All the while, Paul's mother, Lady Jessica (a brilliant Rebecca Ferguson) attempts to train him in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of witches who possess unparalleled mental and physical powers, in the hope that he might be their long-awaited messianic figure who will bring peace and unity to humanity.
Look, I did my best.
The sheer scale of this film is unrelenting. Set around 8,000 years in the future, it is unapologetic in reimagining what the last fifty years of science-fiction films have trained us to expect from a movie like this. Breathtakingly large spaceships, higher than they are wide, seemingly as big as the location on which they land, dock effortlessly with the speed and ease of an X-wing fighter. Flying transport vehicles pick up gargantuan spice harvesters by floating above them, spewing out huge mechanical latches and deploying almost comically-large air balloons. For science-fiction fans, Dune is a visual smorgasbord of images that enthral right to the last frame, even if you have no idea what's going on. You start to become acutely aware of its 156-minute runtime during the last half-hour, but mercifully, the entrancing visuals, gorgeous cinematography and art design should be enough to get you over the line if you're starting to wane.
Impressive as the near-continuous feats of seamless visual spectacle are, though, I was transfixed by the smaller details and more fleeting, human moments. The Gom Jabbar test early on in the film is an all-timer. "Remove your hand from the box, and you die." With a poison-dipped needle at his neck, Paul must keep his hand inside a box of unimaginable pain in order to test his self-control. Chalamet's understated acting in this scene is superb. On the other side of the door, Ferguson turns in a moment of career-best anguish, fully aware of the importance of the test and the possibility of Paul's death, coupled with the knowledge that she walked him in there herself. Amidst the almost ludicrous physical scale of the film, it never forgets that humans are in it.
Hans Zimmer's score provides some fairly generic Zimmerisms (minus the trombone bwaahs, but heavy on the percussion, propulsive synth beats and shrill vocal interjections and whispers) and does a fair amount of heavy-lifting in Dune's never feeling static, but it's not his career-best work. However, the race for the Oscar for Best Sound surely just ended. The sound design is its own character — it almost seems as though Dune would be just as interesting to listen to as it is to watch. The most powerful evidence of its sonic mastery is the design of The Voice, an irresistible technique used by the Bene Gesserit to bend others to their will. It seems to be simultaneously a shout and a whisper and its prominence in the mix is completely breathtaking every time it's used. I cannot wait to hear it again in a cinema.
There is a lot of political nuance left largely untouched by Dune — it is, as a whole, a sci-fi action epic. Perhaps it was too much to ask of audiences to learn an entire universe worth of lore, as well as appreciating the personal inter-House dynamics of each warring faction, while also not being irretrievably blown away by the sheer spectacle of watching and listening to the movie. I found myself wondering whether it was a bit like watching Star Wars for the first time back in 1977 — lots of names, fictional planets and races, seemingly infinite physical scale, pseudo-religious governing bodies, but the characters are already aware of all of it, so the audience is constantly playing catch-up. This, to me, highlights the magnitude of Villeneuve's achievement here, turning a notoriously impenetrable book into a stunning piece of art that intrigues as much as it entertains.
Dune is in cinemas now.