Is Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction best-seller Dune unfilmable? Alejandro Jodorowsky spent several years and $2m trying to turn the book into an epic starring Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger. David Lynch’s 1984 version at least made it to the screen, though make sense it largely did not. (The producer Dino de Laurentiis, who slashed Lynch’s five-hour cut to just over two, later confessed that “we destroyed Dune in the editing room”.)
Whereas those directors are visionaries, Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is a journeyman with visual flair. On the evidence of his Dune, this may be what is needed to wrestle the unruly material into shape. His first smart decision is not to compress Herbert’s novel into a single film. (A trilogy is on the cards if this one is a hit.) His second is to remember that, for all its monsters, melees and skulduggery, Dune is a coming-of-age story in which a young man dreams of a woman in a far-off land. Setting out to find her, he finds himself in the process.
This is Paul (Timothée Chalamet), heir to the House of Atreides, the ruling family on the “homeworld” of Caladan in the year 10191. The word “planet” seems to have fallen slightly from favour in the 102nd century, though coffee has survived, thank God. That said, some of the preparation techniques – using spit in lieu of water, for instance – wouldn’t pass muster at the better high-street chains. Saliva latte, anyone?
Paul’s father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), has been appointed steward of the desert world Arrakis, long exploited for its precious hallucinogenic spice “melange”, which extends life, facilitates interstellar travel, and turns the eyes of the indigenous Fremen people a piercing electric blue. It is one such creature, Chani (Zendaya), who has been materialising in Paul’s dreams.
The Duke aims to bring a kinder stewardship to Arrakis than his predecessor, the savage Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), but imperialism with a smile is still imperialism. Like any good adolescent waking up to the ills of the world, Paul feels a burning sympathy for the underdogs, such as Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who tells the Duke that “the desert was ours long before you came”, then spits on the floor as a sign of respect. They’re all at it.
Paul has his own burgeoning powers to grapple with. His mother, Lady Jessica (the vivid Rebecca Ferguson), has passed on to him her supernatural abilities. “You made me a freak!” he fumes, as she shudders with a mix of fear at his anger and pride at his strength. It’s like watching Hamlet and Gertrude in space.
The pleasure of Chalamet’s performance, and the film in general, lies in how nimbly it moves between the grand and the parochial. Paul has a momentous destiny before him but he can still be a whiny little squirt, shrugging off combat training (“I’m not in the mood”) and telepathy practice (“I just woke up”). Chalamet, with his gooey eyes and upside-down triangle of a face, plays Paul as surly yet diligent, like James Dean revising for his mocks.
This contrast between an interior life and its far-reaching responsibilities is felt throughout a film that thrives on disparities of scale – as in the cuts between a hulking spaceship and a shot of Paul picking a blade of grass, or from a tiny jerboa to the immense sloping sand dune that it uses as its playground.
Villeneuve and his cinematographer Greig Fraser dramatise the abundant space without over-filling it, using small details (a frieze, a shaft of light) to suggest a surrounding vastness. Though he lacks Lynch’s transgressive imagination, Villeneuve provides a powerful sense of motion and inevitability as Paul is drawn across the galaxy towards his fate. And his Dune has its own concentrated strangeness, from Hans Zimmer’s booming score, which incorporates what sounds like a chorus of screams, to the sight of Charlotte Rampling, as the intimidating Truthsayer, whose elongated black hat-and-veil combo makes her resemble a postbox in mourning.
The heart can’t help but sink slightly at any two-and-a-half-hour movie that announces itself as “Part One” and closes with the line, “This is only the beginning.” By the end, though, it is possible to feel admiration and even gratitude for a blockbuster so clean and curious in detail, and so comparatively short on bombast. Roll on Part Two – but hold the saliva latte.
“Dune” is in cinemas from 21 October
This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm