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New to VOD - DUNE

dune review
A young man discovers his true destiny amid a battle for a planet's resources.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen

dune poster

Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune is beloved by the sort of blokes who corner you in the kitchen of house parties and lecture you about its continued relevance. "Frank was a prophet, man," they intone as they pass you a spliff. Perhaps they're right. Watching Denis Villeneuve's crack at adapting Herbert's book - which opens with a military power leaving a desert land only for it to be quickly taken over by another force – it's impossible not to think of recent events. But then, if your book is about imperialist powers messing about where they shouldn't, it's always going to be timely.

David Lynch filmed Herbert's book in 1984, baffling audiences who expected something to fill the void recently left by the original Star Wars trilogy. I've made several attempts at watching Lynch's film and have always found myself lost by the halfway point. There are no such issues with Villeneuve's version, which distils Herbert's story down to its basics, making it accessible to a degree that may be a tad conventional for hardcore sci-fi nerds.

dune review

And basic a story it is. Surprisingly so. After trying to get your head around Lynch's version, if you haven't read Herbert's book you'll be taken aback at just what a generic story this really is, a classic "hero's journey" tale of the sort that was well worn long before Herbert published his tale.


Dune tells the story of the desert planet Tattooine, sorry…Arrakis, which houses valuable spice that floats in the desert. It's populated by the Bedouin-like Fremen, who have spent the past 80 years battling the imperial forces of House Harkonnen, invaders who have plundered the planet's resource. To everyone's surprise House Harkonnen promptly leaves Arrakis. The power vacuum is promptly filled by House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), who moves to Arrakis with his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul (Timothee Chalamet). From the off they face hostility from the Fremen and are bugged by the dreaded feeling that Harkonnen's retreat was all too convenient.

If Lynch's Dune was easy to admire but difficult to like, Villeneuve's adaptation is easy to like but a little too generic to provoke much admiration. What Villeneuve has done here in comparison to Lynch's enigmatic mess is a bit like a steady hand taking over a football team previously coached by a mercurial genius whose side lost every match 4-3.

dune review

I can't say Lynch's film is one I have much time for, but if I close my eyes I can picture many of its striking images. The same can't really be said for Villeneuve's movie. That's not to say it's not visually appealing – it certainly is. There's just not much in the way of invention here, with most of its images recalling previous sci-fi movies. The costumes, sets and various space vessels all look like they could have been taken out of storage from some other sci-fi epic. Ditto Hans Zimmer's score, which is certainly moody, but relies a little too heavily on emulating 2001 and Blade Runner.


What Villeneuve does do exceptionally well here, with the aid of screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, is mine an engaging story out of Herbert's book by stripping the tale down to its soap opera basics. It's a classic tale of feuding powers, family squabbles and backstabbing doublecrosses – Dallas in space.

Eschewing the sort of overblown and overlong action set-pieces common in today's big budget sci-fi spectacles, Villeneuve resolutely focusses on character here. He's assembled one hell of a cast and exploits his performers' strengths in a way that makes us care about his film's characters, even those that pop up briefly. When they start to get killed off towards the film's end, we genuinely miss them. Scene stealers include Charlotte Rampling as a creepy Reverend mother, Josh Brolin as Paul's Roy Keane-esque combat tutor, and surprisingly, Jason Momoa as the wonderfully named Duncan Idaho, a hotshot soldier whom Paul looks up to.

dune review

Dune's storytelling rhythm has more in common with the epics of the late 1950s and early '60s than with recent CG infested blockbusters, and there's more than a whiff of Lawrence of Arabia about the whole affair. It's commendably in no rush to get to the next obligatory action scene, instead allowing us to get to know its characters and the world they inhabit. It's strongest in its first half as we grow accustomed to Herbert's fascinating setting and political dynamics. When the big action scene does arrive it gets in and out without a fuss, unlike say the Marvel movies, which drag their dull set-pieces out to an interminable length. It's a refreshing callback to a time when Hollywood storytelling was about telling stories rather than passing time between explosions.

Will modern audiences be receptive of this sort of storytelling? I'm not so sure. Villeneuve has filmed just the first half (or first two thirds according to those familiar with the work) of Herbert's book here and is relying on a successful performance to get a sequel made. I don’t think he's done himself any favours in the point of the story where he's chosen to end this first film. The final half hour of Dune Part One plays like it may have worked better as the first half hour of Dune Part Two, whereas an earlier point might have ended the movie on a more dramatic, Empire Strikes Back-esque note.

Dune
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.



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