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Dune – first-look review

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By: David Jenkins

David Lynch’s 1984 Dune is a great movie and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Its garish opulence, and a self-destructive insistence on favouring eccentric micro-textures over basic coherence, means that the door has always been left ajar for someone else to sneak in and take another crack at Frank Herbert’s mind-expanding 1964 opus.

As a result of a since-childhood crush on the book, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has decided to up sticks and decamp to the desert hellscape of Arrakis in search of the spice melange. From the reams of backroom intrigue, unscrupulous politicking and densely-wrought pan-global mysticism he has produced a film which does justice to a hallowed text while retaining the slick formal shape of a pop movie. And that, in itself, is no small achievement.

Where Villeneuve’s previous film, Blade Runner 2049, too often embraced soporific longueurs as a shortcut to profundity, here the sheer meatiness of this ripping yarn is always visible through the porous skin of the film’s immaculate form. The director’s now patented landscape tableau style – in which small figures are engulfed in epic, painterly vistas – helps to create one of the most visually breathtaking and boldly idiosyncratic blockbusters to drop down the chute in a long while. Indeed, this is a hard sci-fi movie rather than a traditional blockbuster, and heeding this in advance may help to enhance enjoyment.

Condensing a book that is stuffed with detail was always going to be a question of what stays and what goes. As an adaptation, Villeneuve has managed to retain a lot, and doesn’t have to sprint through it all like Lynch had to with his truncated theatrical cut. Thankfully, Dune isn’t just a rush of information and vacuum-packed story filler. The important scenes are allowed to play out in a way that allows for a slower, more satisfying reveal of character motivation, as well as adding necessary ballast to the emotional foundations for later in the saga.

While there’s a huge cast of characters, Villeneuve has been fairly ruthless in slicing things back to essentials. Fan favourites such as Dr Yueh (Chen Chang), Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian) are given short shrift, and Duneheads may feel a little crestfallen by these omissions. (Momoa, admittedly, does a lot with little.) The focus, instead, is trained on Timothée Chalamet as Paul, heir to the dukedom of the noble House Atreides, and Rebecca Ferguson as his mother, a telepathic Bene Gesserit sister named Lady Jessica.

Chalamet excels in the lead, bridging the gap between effete royal roughneck-in-waiting to elbow-fighting war machine with convincing certitude. In many ways, Paul traverses a similar arc to Elio from 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, making the hero’s journey from juvenile confusion to tempestuous adulthood with a sudden jolt from invading destiny. Ferguson, too, is no slouch, bringing the fully rounded anxieties of motherhood to a role that is key to the book. The film is quickly boiled down to this essential mother-son relationship, which is ceded on from Paul’s apprehensively adoring relationship to his father, Duke Leo (Oscar Issac, again doing a lot with a little).

As this grand tale of warring families and intergalactic trade feuds plays out, Villeneuve takes time to emphasise Dune’s malleability when it comes to its allegorical potential. For every viewer who reads it as a film about the futility of war and the damage it wreaks on all sides, others will see a careful dismantling of capitalism and a critique of the ways in which it can be exploited. It also offers a refreshingly ambivalent attitude towards colonial rule, as even the good guys can’t help but fall into a position of unchecked cultural plunder.

Another nice touch: this version of Dune does away with computer effects as a form of empty spectacle, eschewing touchscreens and tired holographic imagery in order to embrace a refreshingly analogue design schema. This ranges from the expansive handmade artworks which adorn the ducal palace on Arrakis, to the sight of a very old school control set-up in the ’thopters (bug-like helicopters) which includes an altimeter that appears like it was snagged from a car boot sale in the ’80s.

Be warned: this is only part one of Dune, and it takes us to the roughly middle of the book. Some may find its set-up a little too ominous, even though there are a couple of exciting late game action set-pieces designed to get the heart pounding. But in the main it’s a stately film, exacting and elliptical, more in the slow-release tradition of David Lean than the candy-coated insta-high of the MCU. Go see it on the biggest screen possible and let’s nail down part two quick sharp.

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