Film review: ‘DUNE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Frank Herbert’s award winning iconic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune is a broad sweeping saga of royal ascent, political intrigue and imperial conquest while at the same time a story filled with multiple character arcs and invented alien societies, cultures, religions and mythologies.  Consequently, Dune makes for a dense and tangled narrative and one that many have deemed unfilmable. In 1984, David Lynch almost proved that with his stylish but dull and rambling cinema adaptation. Also, part of movie lore is Chilean-French surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted 1970s version that, tantalisingly, was to feature designs from HR Giger, a cast that included Salvador Dali and a soundtrack from Pink Floyd and symphonic art rock outfit Magma.  Even if it had been a total mess it sounds like it would have been great.  That project eventually crashed for financial reasons but there is a fascinating documentary about it simply entitled Jodorowsky’s Dune.

Making a film of Dune would, therefore, seem to be a poison chalice for a director but now Canadian DenIs Villeneuve has taken on this challenge. It’s important to note that this movie is just part one, part two is due for release in 2023.  Has Villeneuve tamed this fabled monster or has he become another if of its victims?  Audiences may still be ruminating on that question when they leave the cinema as Villeneuve has fashioned an often stunning-looking film but in trying to compress Herbert’s multi-layered, cast of thousands narrative into something vaguely coherent, he’s given us a fairly superficial and at times ponderous experience.

Dune, which is set in a fictional universe, takes place on a variety of planets but mostly Arrakis, a brutally hot desert world largely inhospitable to life but one that contains the most precious substance in the galaxy, the spice.  To the ruling empire, the spice is a vital fuel with remarkable properties that allow interstellar travel.  To Arrakis’ indigenous people, the Fremen, it has magical hallucinogenic and near spiritual powers.  Ruled for centuries by the sinister house of Harkonnen, Arrakis has now been handed over by imperial decree to the more moderate and humane House Atreides led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac).  The Harkonnens, however, don’t want to relinquish that spice without a fight.  Not only do the Atreides have to battle the ruthless Harkonnens and the scorching desert but Arrakis has another menace lurking beneath the sands in the form of gigantic and very hungry monster worms. That’s a thumbnail sketch of an elaborate plot that largely provides the scaffolding for the story of the rise of Duke Leto’s messianic son Paul (Timothy Chalamet) the reluctant and slightly fragile looking heir to House Atreides.

Watching this film, it becomes apparent just how influential Dune was on Star Wars with its imperial  battles, desert planet setting and an impetuous and naive young hero who even has Jedi-like mind powers. The sand worms with their toothy circular mouths also appear to have inspired our old mate Sarlacc from Return of The JediStar Wars was, however, a fun, rollicking creature feature and matinee adventure with characters perfectly judged for its cartoonish world.  Dune, is a far more po-faced experienced and sorely lacks character light and shade.  It doesn’t even have as much sly wit as the film that seems to have at least partly inspired Herbert’s novel, Lawrence of Arabia.  It also contains that fantasy film scourge of characters spouting pretentious dialogue in pompous monotone voices.

As Wagnerian space opera and sheer spectacle, Villeneuve’s Dune mostly succeeds. Plenty of scenes dazzle with stunning images of vast spacecraft descending from the sky, gargantuan spice mining rigs ploughing through desert sands and enormous armies converging on the Atreides stronghold.

The film also touches on some vital issues such the devastating impact on indigenous people of imperial powers pursuing resources and wealth in a foreign land but it doesn’t prosecute these sorts of political issues in sufficient depth to be really compelling.

The film’s biggest flaw, though is that the personal stories and human drama fail to engage.  With a vast array of characters that include Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s witch priestess mother Lady Jessica, Josh Brolin as Paul’s grumpy combat instructor Gurney Halleck, Javier Bardem as a Fremen leader Stilgar and Jason Momoa as Paul’s heroic warrior friend Duncan Idaho, it struggles to find a centre.  Chalamee, who has been so impressive in smaller, more intimate character dramas like Call Me By Your Name and Ladybird, fails to give the film the dramatic focus it needs and looks out of place in this expansive sci-fi action world.  As the characters aren’t particularly interesting, the interpersonal dramas don’t really work which leaves some big slow patches between the battle sequences.

Dune is a technically impressive piece of filmmaking and certainly an improvement on Lynch’s effort but it didn’t have this reviewer desperately awaiting part 2.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Science Fiction/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Denis Villeneuve.

Release date: 2nd Dec 2021.

Running time: 155 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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