Denis Villeneuve recently compared watching his new film Dune on a television to driving a speedboat in your bathtub. He couldn’t be more right. Unveiled out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel belongs on the biggest of screens.
Dune makes his recent science fiction films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 feel like warm-up acts to this astounding vision of a faraway future.
Wisely, Villeneuve has only taken on the first half of Herbert’s enormous novel, leaving room for a second or even third movie. The poorly received David Lynch version from 1984 will now surely be consigned to oblivion, for this must be seen as definitive.
Timothée Chalamet, in his most adult role yet, plays Paul. Heir to House Atreides, he accompanies his father (Oscar Isaac) and his father’s concubine (Rebecca Ferguson) to the desert planet of Arrakis for a life-changing mission.
It is here where the drug Melange is mined. “Spice”, as it is nicknamed, has medicinal and metaphysical properties, making it “by far the most valuable substance in the universe”.
Also on this inhospitable scorched earth are the native Freman people, including Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the warrior-like Chani (Zendaya), and giant sandworms that travel under the arid surface, occasionally rising like demented black holes to swallow anything they find.
Political tensions arise, meanwhile, with the rival House Harkonnen, led by Stellan Skarsgard’s foul, corpulent villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, whose bidding is carried out by Dave Bautista’s menacing Glossu “Beast” Rabban.
In what becomes a coming-of-age tale of almost Shakespearean proportions, “lost boy” Paul must discern whether he is “the one”. The influence of Herbert’s book on Star Wars and The Matrix , to name but two, is plain to see here.
Truly, Dune is a film to sit back and admire, from the slate-grey/black colour scheme of the vast monolithic sets created by production designer Patrice Vermette, the futuristic hardware, such as the helicopters with rotor blades buzzing like mosquito wings, and the bone-rattling Hans Zimmer score to the exemplary ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling and Jason Momoa.
Paying homage to the philosophical sci-fi of Herbert as well as Isaac Asimov and Stanislaw Lem, Villeneuve has conjured an epic on a gargantuan scale that dwarfs even his own earlier work. The only concern is whether Warner Bros, the studio behind Dune , will greenlight a sequel. For, as Chani says near the film’s conclusion: “This is only the beginning.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.