Based on the first half of the novel “Dune” by Frank Herbert, this film follows the hero Paul Atreides, from his coming to the planet Arrakis with his family, until the attack by their enemies which leaves Paul’s father dead and Paul and his mother as fugitives with the desert-dwelling Fremen. Arrakis is the only place where spice is found, the spice that enables interstellar travel. It is consequently the most valuable substance in the galaxy, and the control of the spice trade is something that many would kill for.
The direct Denis Villeneuve’s choice to use only the first half of the novel was an interesting one, and I think it enables the film to properly delve into the world-building required to really understand and appreciate the story. It is a good spot to stop, because it is the point where Paul’s childhood ends, as such, and his journey to become a ruler and ‘god’ begins. He is able to include the important elements of the story, and enabling those who haven’t read the novel to follow along easily. He makes sure the science-fiction effects do not overwhelm the story – there are shots of landing spacecraft and so on, but the film does not dwell on these for too long. The depiction of the sandworms is the same – they will become more important in the second movie but their introduction is well done.
It’s a visually stunning film, the effects and set designs really contributing to the overall story. The external shots of the barren Arrakis juxtaposed with the watery world the Atreides came from is a stark contrast which illustrates just how far outside of their usual element they are. The wealth of the ruling houses and their entourage is a sharp contrast to the local people of Arrakis, who do not seem to be reaping any benefits of the spice wealth. This illustrates that in spite of this society being technologically advanced, their socioeconomic setup is basically a feudal one, where the great houses, the emperor, and other vested interests get all the wealth and power.
Timothee Chalomet stars as Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides. This actor is excellent and I think he does really well in this role. Paul is yet to come into his full power as a prophesied messiah figure, but the actor is good at juggling the different aspects of the character such as the prophetic dreams, the training of an heir of a great house, just being a young man and not very mature yet, and so on. I look forward to seeing how he will develop the character in the sequel.
Oscar Isaac is an excellent Leto Atreides, the Duke. Leto is fully aware that the command from the Emperor to take over Arrakis is a trap designed to destroy him, but knows he has no choice but to do it anyway. Isaac gives an excellent portrayal of an extremely clever man who is well versed on the politics of his environment, what he can expect, and where the danger lies. He makes every preparation he can to circumvent the danger to keep his family and his people safe.
Jason Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, a retainer of the house and friend of Paul. Idaho’s role in Dune is small, but Momoa ably portrays his larger than life persona, and the faithfulness he has to the Atreides house, as when he knows Leto is dead and immediately kneels to Paul and swears allegiance to him as the new duke. Idaho is a character who, in later novels, turns out to be far more important that it would initially appear, and I think Momoa really did him justice.
Stellan Skarsgard is the main antagonist, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He is suitably Machiavellian, and suitably repulsive. He is not a man of action like Leto, but instead more of a puppet master, making the plans and pulling the strings. Skarsgard pulls off the sliminess of Harkonnen beautifully.
The cast is laden with great actors – others include Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Mohiam, and Javier Bardem as Stilgar. The acting is excellent from everyone.
There are many aspects of the story that are worth delving into more deeply. The whole messiah angle is, perhaps, something that has been seen a bit too often in films and tv. I love the idea that the Bene Gesserit sisterhood were, in fact, selectively breeding for a messiah they could control, but Paul was a generation too early (I don’t think this was clearly stated in the film, so I am borrowing from the book a bit here). The whole Renaissance-style scheming between the nobility might remind some of Game of Thrones, but remember, Frank Herbert was doing this long before George RR Martin (and with more style, in my opinion). Herbert thought a lot about how people might survive on such a water scarce world, and came up with still-suits, that kept the wearer’s moisture inside their bodies and recycled it. Water is the only commodity to them, so their culture revolves around it, leading to customs like Stilgar spitting on the table in front of Leto which is a gesture of peace, not an insult as was assumed by some of Leto’s people. All of these aspects have been very well realised in this film.
Back in the eighties I went to the cinema with high hopes to see David Lynch’s “Dune”. I was not impressed, as I could see that it would be hard to follow unless you had read the book. I am very happy to see that this film is far superior. Don’t expect Star Wars – it’s not space battles and gung ho. It is, instead, intelligent, epic, and a truly immersive experience. I thoroughly recommend “Dune” to everyone.