Director: Denis Villeneuve.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Chang Chen.
|It was true. The sand did look just as sandy from up here.|
One of my favourite "sliding doors" moments of cinema is David Lynch passing up the opportunity to direct Return Of The Jedi to instead make Dune. Man, I would've loved to have seen David Lynch's take on Jedi.
But instead, we got Lynch's version of Frank Herbert's much-loved 1965 sci-fi novel Dune. While it's now something of a cult favourite, it was a critical failure and box office bomb, and Lynch's Dune effectively sank the idea of adapting the book for the big screen for more than 30 years. The fact that it bested Lynch, as well as directors Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott (who each tried to make it in the '70s) meant film-makers stayed away, despite the book being the biggest-selling sci-fi novel of all time.
Enter Denis Villeneuve, who's coming off an incredible run of films that includes Sicario, Prisoners, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. The latter movie is an example of his ability to beautifully realise a pre-existing sci-fi reality; to immediately make it feel real, and to tell a worthy story in that world without getting bogged down. He's done it again with Dune.
Wisely splitting Herbert's hefty tome in half, the film follows Paul Atreides (Chalamet) and his family as they are given control of a valuable planet in the distant future. But there is much to contend with on the planet, including the hostile locals, deadly sandstorms, enormous killer worms, and intergalactic machinations that are guaranteed to leave a trail of blood across the face of the planet Arrakis.
For those who have never read the books, seen the previous film or TV mini-series, played the games or even heard of Dune, the film is immediately accessible. It sets up its worlds, its politics and its players with a deft charm, striking a perfect balance between exposition and immersion.
This helps to make its universe (Dune-iverse?) feel real. A killer cast certainly helps too, as they make sure the characters are fleshed-out people. Chalamet, Ferguson, and Isaac are all fantastic, but no one lets the side down. Every minor character and side player is a cog in the big Dune machine, which is genuinely impressive.
But its the use of effects that really does the job in clinching this reality. Amid every sandblown and windswept scene it's easy to forgot who much CG there is here, but it all feels so wonderfully grounded and immersive. The effects are a great example of how Villeneuve creates worlds, but also the reality he seeks in his storytelling.
This video is awesome at explaining how the Dune team did their effects, and why they work so well:
The upshot of all this is that you are drawn into this world in a way that lets the story be the focus - not the effects and not the fan service. It's a familiar hero's journey, even though it ends on an offbeat due to the book being cut in half (part two is on the way), and Paul Atreides' place in the galaxy is never quite clear. There are notions of honour, duty, destiny and doing the right thing in here, but Dune doesn't hammer home its themes - it's more concerned with plot, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
From its stunning score to its fascinating visuals, Dune tells its story in a powerful and engaging way. If they can maintain this level of quality for the sequel, then there's potentially a new powerhouse sci-fi franchise in town.