“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”
There are certain movies that are special to sci-fi fans. Alien, Blade Runner and Moon to name just a few. The original Dune is up there, too – with a long legacy based on Frank Herbert’s original novel. Denis Villeneuve faces a huge challenge to live up to this legacy. But there are some films you know are something special as soon as you’ve seen them. Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune is one of them.
Dune begins with an Empirical decree, tasking Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) and the House Atreides with protecting and ruling Arrakis – a harsh and inhospitable desert planet. But it’s no mere wasteland. Arrakis is also the only planet in the universe where ‘spice’ is found – an elusive substance which extends human life and makes space travel possible. But while this sounds like a job for a trusted ally, House Atreides are not the emperor’s favourites. Far from it.
Jealous at the vast amount of power that House Atreides has amassed in recent years, the emperor is setting them up. A pact between the emperor and the formidable House Harkonnen sets the stage for a bloody, brutal civil war. And only the Duke’s son Paul (played by Timothée Chalamet) can put a stop to it. Straight off the bat, Denis Villeneuve sets up all the pieces for a brutal conflict. House Atreides is the epitome of duty and honour, filtered through the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, House Harkonnen cuts a rather more evil stature with Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Harkonnen. Dave Bautista adds some formidable brawn in the form of Glossu Rabban – the Baron’s twisted nephew.
In the middle of all this are the Fremen – the planet’s native people who just want to be left alone. Obviously, the galaxy’s dependence on spice means this is never going to happen. It’s a conflict we’ve seen before, almost to the letter, in the original Dune. But Villeneuve approaches this classic sci-fi tale with a deftness we expect of his work. Vast landscapes feel claustrophobic as the sand encroaches on House Atreides forces. Elsewhere, a thundering score from Hans Zimmer adds looming tension to the already strained proceedings.
Dune fans will be delighted at the faithfulness of this adaptation. But that’s not to say Villeneuve hasn’t done something new and interesting here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Villeneuve’s previous works have all led to this point. There are fingerprints of his previous films all over Dune – whether it’s the dusty silhouettes of Blade Runner 2049 or the elongated curves of Arrival’s alien space craft. Here’s the thing – Dune is unmistakably a Dennis Villeneuve movie while also being the best version of Frank Herbert’s Dune to grace the big screen.
Timothée Chalamet is just about the perfect Paul Atreides – bringing a sense of hesitancy to his duty-bound ceremonial existence from the off. Oscar Isaac is equally perfect as the Duke, who bears the weight of a man bound by honour. Other standout performances include the inimitable Jason Momoa, who adds a touch of levity through Duncan’s friendship with Paul. Josh Brolin counteracts this with some necessary stoicism as Gurney Halleck, while Zendaya cuts a mysterious figure as a Fremen girl who appears in Paul’s visions. The casting all around is pitch perfect – Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen is as evil as they come.
But while Dune relies on its ensemble to pull together different components of the rich story, it’s director Denis Villeneuve who does most of the heavy lifting – recreating the harsh and unforgiving Arrakis straight out of the original novel. Dune is a sweeping sci-fi spectacle of epic proportions. Its thunderous soundtrack, stellar performances and spectacular set pieces come together to create something truly special. And this is only the beginning.
“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows.” Taking care to set the stage in the best possible way, director Denis Villeneuve has left us desperate to find out what happens in Dune: Part Two. But for now, we’ve got this absolute masterpiece to think on. And that’s the beauty of Dune – it will leave you thinking about it for a long time to come.