Dune reminds us what a Hollywood blockbuster can be. Implicitly, its message written again and again in the sand, Denis Villeneuve’s fantasy epic tells us that big-budget spectaculars don’t have to be dumb or hyperactive, that it’s possible to allow the odd quiet passage amid the explosions. Adapted from Frank Herbert’s 60s opus, Dune is dense, moody and quite often sublime – the missing link bridging the multiplex and the arthouse. Encountering it here 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”, which 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.
If the tale’s real-world relevance was not clear enough, Villeneuve has taken the decision to put the local women in hijabs and make the bulk of his interiors look like north Africa. On their arrival, Paul and the Duke tramp down the gangplank wearing golden livery, serenaded by bagpipers. They could be a pair of old-style colonials, come to impose civilisation on the natives and fill their coffers with plunder.
But the desert world of Dune has a knack for destroying those who come to tame it, just as the novel itself has claimed some high-profile casualties. Alejandro Jodorowsky tried and failed to bring it to the screen. David Lynch’s 1984 version was widely dismissed as a dud, while a TV miniseries that aired in 2000 appears to have since turned to dust. Even Villeneuve finds himself unable to celebrate a victory just yet. The Dune we have here covers only the first half of the book. Should this crash and burn at the box office, his story looks likely to remain incomplete.
“I’ve been set up to fail,” says the Duke when spice production has stalled and he realises how malign the forces behind him really are. Josh Brolin’s weapons master can’t save him, while Stellan Skarsgard’s bloated, floating baron is plotting a bloody revenge. Paul’s only chance is to embrace his disenchantment and carve out a new path, one that leads into the hills. The sand blows and drifts like a living thing. The worms will swallow you whole if given half a chance, and poor Paul’s in a hole, wondering what he will do next. “This is only the beginning,” he is assured – and one dearly hopes this is true.
In the meantime: good heavens, what a film. The drama is played out with relish by an ensemble cast (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 has constructed 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 an gesture of respect, 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.
• Dune screens at the Venice film festival and is released in Australia and the UK on 21 October, and in the US on 22 October.