The 50 best films of 2021 in the US, No 6: Dune

Denis Villeneuve’s fantasy epic finds a happy truce between booming multiplex blockbuster and moody arthouse drama

Dune reminds us what a Hollywood blockbuster can be. Implicitly, the message of Denis Villeneuve’s fantasy epic, written again and again in the sand, is that big-budget spectaculars don’t have to be dumb or hyperactive, that it’s possible to allow the odd quiet passage. Adapted from Frank Herbert’s 60s opus, Dune is dense, moody and quite often sublime – the missing link between the multiplex and the arthouse. Encountering it was like stumbling across some fabulous lost tribe, or a breakaway branch of America’s founding fathers who laid out the template for a different and better new world.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, your archetypal hero, unsure of his powers and questioning the merits of the mountainous task before him. His father, the Duke (Oscar Isaac), has been handed stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, source of a magical substance called “spice” that extends life and fuels space travel – all the good stuff. But Arrakis, though sandy, is not entirely deserted. It is home to vast worms that can rise up with little warning, and an oppressed people – the Fremen – who see the spice harvesters as exploiters.

The drama is played out with relish by an ensemble cast (Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa), and Villeneuve is confident enough to let the temperature slowly build before the big, operatic set-pieces eventually break cover. He constructs an entire world for us here, thick with myth and mystery, stripped of narrative signposts or even much in the way of handy exposition.

He has handed us a movie to map out at our leisure and figure out on the run: apparently spitting on someone is a gesture of respect on Arrakis, while walking sideways like a crab is the safest way to proceed. After that we’re on our own, wandering in the desert, wonderfully immersed. It’s a film of discovery; an invitation to get lost.


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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