Adapted from Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi saga, 'Dune' follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as he journeys to the distant planet of Arrakis with his family to take charge of the production of spice - the most valuable commodity in the known universe. However, the previous rulers of Arrakis - House Harkonnen - plot to wipe out House Atreides in order to resume control of the planet...
The path to this adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi saga is littered with failures.
Avantgarde mastermind Alejandro Jodorowsky had a production in the '70s with Orson Welles as the villain and Pink Floyd writing the soundtrack that never materialised. David Lynch's attempt in 1984 was so reviled by the director that he has since completely disowned it from his filmography. Even when you consider the works that 'Dune' has inspired - 'Game of Thrones', 'Star Wars', 'Star Trek', musical works by Fatboy Slim, Iron Maiden, Grimes - there is a daunting task ahead for anyone who wishes to tackle it.
Yet, with all of this weight and circumstance around 'Dune', there is still a fascinating, entertaining spectacle to experience. The sheer size of the filmmaking is worth the price of the ticket alone. The cast is huge, but you never get the sense that anyone is itching for more screen time. It's set thousands of years in the future, but it all feels familiar enough to be understood. It has a wide reach of planets, houses, factions, and lore, but it's focused essentially on two characters - a mother and a son - fighting for survival in a harsh climate. There's no extraneous exposition in 'Dune', nobody is sitting down to explain what a Mentat is, but it does give one or two scenes over to a little clunky dialogue to help smooth things out. Of course, not everyone has read 'Dune', 'Dune Messiah', or watched the drearily under-budgeted TV series in the early aughts with James MacAvoy, or forced themselves through David Lynch's bizarro efforts with it.
With Denis Villeneuve's 'Dune', you won't need to. It is slick with its twists and turns, navigating you through sandstorms and court intrigue with ease. The script never loses touch with its source material but doesn't feel beholden to it either. The production design is spectacular, and the cinematography captures all of the natural wonders of the Jordanian desert as a canvas for Arrakis. Hans Zimmer's score, influenced with guitar symphonies and Middle Eastern wails, lays atop a powerful sound design that demands you see it in a cinema. The script, written by Oscar winner Eric Roth, Jon Spaiths, and Villeneuve, knows just when to pull back from the edge before it loses people.
'Dune' isn't a wham-bam blockbuster spectacular, however. It's far denser and considered than that. If you saw any of Villeneuve's previous work - 'Sicario', 'Arrival', 'Prisoners' - you'll know that pacing can be slow, but it's building towards something much more lasting. Unlike the disposable pleasures of comic-book franchises, 'Dune' is a work that will stay in your brain for days and weeks afterwards. It throws fun and frolics out the window, and deals with a dark confluence of colonisation and commerce, and prophecy and politics.
Across the cast, each ably performs their roles. Oscar Isaac's beard gives all the commanding presence, and his dynamic with Timothée Chalamet is intriguing, if a little stunted. As to Chalamet, you can tell that he's trying to grapple with the role - both literally and figuratively - and it works. His sense of unease and awkward mannerisms are layered with the fact that he knows that some terrible destiny awaits him beyond the edge of his sight. Rebecca Ferguson, who typically plays ice queens and femme fatales, has a warmth to her performance here that is quite affecting. Even though he only appears in a couple of scenes, Stellan Skarsgard's monstrous villain leaves a lasting impact, while the supporting cast of Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin are all lined up and ready for the second chapter of 'Dune'.
If it can sustain this sense of wonder, and maintain its integrity and vision into the next chapter, and if audiences turn up for it, 'Dune' might just topple its own descendants and claim its place as the foremost sci-fi saga of our time.