Dune (12A ) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Denis Villeneuve, US/Canada, 2021, 156 mins

Cast:  Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac

Review by Carol Allen

I was intrigued and fascinated by Denis Villeneuve’s previous science fiction movie Arrival because of the philosophical implications of what it was saying about time and communication.  I was hoping for something similar in his version of Frank Herbert’s much loved sci-fi novel but any such in this big budget movie gets lost in the film’s imperative for big screen, high concept spectacle.

The story for those who haven’t read the novel is set in the future – of course – and deals with the battle for the planet Arrakis, the one place in the universe where a mind-expanding natural resource known as Spice can be found.   It seems to be the future equivalent of fossil fuels, in that everything – space travel, knowledge, commerce and even the potential of human existence all rely on it.  But rather than trying to find an alternative, humans are in conflict for the prize with another species, they don’t have a great relationship with the planet’s oppressed natives, the Fremen, and the hostile nature of the planet itself is a challenge – heat, sandstorms and above all the monolithic and scary sandworms that devour all in their path.   An everyday story of colonialism on one level then.

Our sympathies though are required to be with the humans, who live on another planet, most particularly Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of the planet’s ruler Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his mistress, the powerful warrior priestess Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).  Paul has inherited some of his mother’s intuitive mind powers and has a fateful destiny, as foretold by the elder priestess of the mystic cult to which his mother belongs.  She is the Reverend Mother Mohiam, played by Charlotte Rampling, who is called on to act out her cameo role with her face hidden behind a veil made up of strings of beads.  Paul’s destiny is bound up with the remote sands of Arrakis and also with a young Freman woman Chani (Zendaya).  He also has to assist his father, who has been ordered by the galactic emperor to take over control of Arrakis from the Harkonnen people, who are led by their obese baron (Stellan Skarsgård in a fat suit with shaven head), who is very cross about it all.

Dune is without doubt a spectacular big screen experience, particularly if you watch it in IMAX format.  Rumoured to have cost around $165,000,000, at that price it jolly well ought to be.   But the spectacle and effects overwhelm the characters much of the time.  Isaac as Leto manages to move us occasionally, particularly in his final scene and Ferguson too has her moments.  But for a lot of the film they are all dwarfed by the spectacle.  The sandworms in particular are breathtaking –  star performances.  But for example when the aerial battle commences between the two opposing factions, it feels like a rerun of Star Wars with gloomier and artier lighting.

Lovers of Herbert’s novel, which was published in 1965 may well enjoy the film and be able to find in it the much lauded depth of the writer’s original.  I’m afraid for me it gets lost in the “sound and fury” – and I also didn’t believe in a word of it.