The phrase "a lot is resting on…" has, over the past year and a bit, appeared too often in reviews of big films charged with restarting the industry: Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow. Premiering out of competition at Venice Film Festival, Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune is under more pressure than most.
The title on the screen is Dune: Part One. Despite stretching out over 155 leisurely minutes, the austere, complex, beautifully shot fantasy epic barely gets the plot of Frank Herbert's source novel into third gear. When Villeneuve conceived the film – long before Covid, as his Blade Runner sequel was poised for world domination – it scarcely seemed possible that a concluding episode would be in jeopardy. Then Blade Runner 2049 underperformed. The exhibition business is still spluttering after lockdown. Dune will, in the United States, debut simultaneously in cinemas and on the HBO Max streaming service. Might Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mum, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), be left stranded forever midsentence?
The flinty aesthetic Denis Villeneuve brought to Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 has, appropriately for the setting, here been baked to bone dryness
We will get to that later. What cannot be denied is that Villeneuve has, for good or ill, approached the task with great earnestness. The flinty aesthetic he brought to Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 has, appropriately for the setting, here been baked to bone dryness. Remaining true to his sulky-teenager persona, Chalamet allows Atreides barely a smirk as he moves from the grim sea-battered cliffs of Caladan (it's actually Norway, but it could be Donegal) to the scarcely cheerier deserts of the inhospitable planet Arrakis. The architecture has the blocky brutalist look that set designers favoured for productions of Hamlet in the 1980s. The spaceships resemble giant grey suitcases. Few will have expected – or desired – the surreal camp that David Lynch brought to his still-divisive 1984 adaptation, but the unforgiving starkness will unsettle even some of Villeneuve's greatest fans.
Still, the forbidding approach – a sort of billion-dollar Spartanism – does allow the complex diplomatic manoeuvres to play out relatively cleanly. Working with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve has devised a script that fillets out much of the meandering and leaves in a firm narrative skeleton. Atreides, heir to his family’s ancient House, is dispatched to Arrakis, where, like so many colonists, he is concerned with the extraction of a valuable commodity. In our planet’s history it has been rubber, coffee and oil. Here it is a substance called melange (or “spice”) that makes everything possible that science fiction requires to be possible.
The politics are a bit screwy for a story devised in the politically charged 1960s. It almost seems to be argued (at this early stage, anyway) that House Atreides, unlike the awful House Harkonnen, counts among that elusive class of “benign colonists”. One imagines a British imperial voice telling the desert-dwelling Fremen that they should be grateful they hadn’t been taken over by the Germans or the Belgians.
Anyway, those arguments may be clarified in that promised second episode. For now, Villeneuve has to manoeuvre Atreides and his loyal mother from his home planet to the desert domain and deep into a mess of betrayal. He does so with all the murky elegance we have come to expect from that director. Destruction is elegantly operatic. Smaller set pieces work in more invidious fashion: Charlotte Rampling, hidden behind a gauze veil, but still unmistakably herself, has the standout cameo as a sinister elder with improbable psychic gifts. Hans Zimmer outdoes himself with a blaring score that makes diverting use of massed bagpipes. All other Zimmer scores feel like rehearsals for the current intergalactic HONK!
The most charismatic actors in the piece are stuck with roles that are either too brief or too sketchily drawn. Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet, meanwhile, worry hard but generate not a single spark between them
What’s really missing here is character. The most charismatic actors in the piece – Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem – are stuck with roles that are either too brief or too sketchily drawn. Ferguson and Chalamet, on whom the action ultimately hangs, worry hard but generate not a single spark between them. Fans of Zendaya should be aware that she is barely in the thing.
Dune: Part One feels like a beautifully designed machine that, for all its elegant clockwork, fails to deliver much that connects with the soul. Will it generate enough income to allow completion? Warner Bros, the worldwide distributor, financed Stanley Kubrick even after the financial catastrophe that was Barry Lyndon. But that great director wasn’t trying to make Barry Lyndon Pt II.
Historical comparisons are of no use. None of us has been anywhere like this before. They can put that on the poster.