Review: Dune is a dazzling epic crammed with star power

Dune (M, 155 minutes)

5 stars

I'm beginning to think that one of the unexpected side-effects of 18 months of COVID is the ballooning out of film running times. It might be posited that filmmakers, knowing they didn't have to rush films out until audiences were back in cinemas, took their time, killing hundreds of hours micromanaging their editorial team and making the most of every frame filmed.

Zendaya as Chani and Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune. Picture: Warner Brothers

Zendaya as Chani and Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Dune. Picture: Warner Brothers

Dune, Denis Villeneuve's stunning imagining of the Frank Herbert novel, comes in at two and a half hours long. And Villeneuve's film only gets itself halfway through the novel. This is a "Part One", with the second half yet to be filmed and due for release in October 2023.

Fans will want to know how this stands against David Lynch's also-brilliant camp 80s version. The answer is, they are both glorious, and they are completely different.

Villeneuve has a strong aesthetic to impart that references Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, Geiger designs and Lawrence of Arabia, amongst other iconic visual references.

From Herbert's cult 1965 novel, Villeneuve works with co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth on a deliberately paced screenplay as true to the novel as is possible without being 15 hours long.

On a distant set of planets, a decades-long battle of political power and intrigue has been playing out. On the sandy desert planet of Arrakis, the Harkonnen clan has controlled power and, most importantly, the mining rights to the planet's lucrative spice.

The Emperor has ordered the Harkonnen off the planet and has installed the clan Atreides as rulers and spice controllers.

Arriving on Arrakis is head of the Arteries family, Duke Leo (Oscar Isaac) and his wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Jessica might be a royal wife, but she is also a sister in a powerful sorceress-like religion, the Bene Gesserit, and it seems her son with the Duke, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) may have inherited some of her powers.

The people of Arakis have a myth of a foreign hero who will come to be their saviour, and signs exist that this person may be Paul Atreides, and the sisters of the Bene Gesserit are keen to bring this myth to reality.

But it is possible that the Emperor's placement of the Atreides onto Arrakis was a deliberate action to undermine or ruin the family, with doom coming at them from all sides, only one being the desert's giant sandworms, and many more sources being the Harkonnen waiting in the wings with massacre on their minds.

When Paul and his mother are marooned in the Arrakis desert, his growing powers may be able to save them, or perhaps their saviour might be the indigenous Arrakis girl Chani (Zendaya) who has been haunting his dreams.

The star power in this production is dazzling. Charlotte Rampling is terrifying as the mother of the religious sect, Stellan Skarsgard barely recognisable as the corpulent murderous Baron Harkonnen, a shaved Jason Momoa is just as handsome out of his Aquaman garb as the Artreides family bouncer Duncan Idaho.

Performances are equally strong, but the star power of this film is the production design. Particularly delightful are the imaginative engineering of the film's ships and other tools, beginning with imaginative tri-winged dragonfly-inspired aircraft, or the film's training weaponry that coat their wearer in Minecraft-like techno blocks.

The production team play with political symbolism, not just from Leni Riefenstahl's playbook. It's not just the film's characters that are imbedded with fascist ideology. Herbert wrote his novel in the post WWII ear, but Villeneuve hints at more contemporary inspirations.

Villeneuve's world-building is epic. Visually epic, but also part of his approach to the screenplay's slow deliberate pace to pull out the novels more important scenes and storylines. Paul only meets Zendaya's Chani at the film's end, and we can imagine the second film, when it comes, will enjoy a swifter pace, now the world-building is out of the way.

Hans Zimmer's score sits under the film's lovely visuals, reinforcing where it needs to.

A version of this film was produced for Imax cinemas and one can only imagine how spectacular that experience must be.

This story A dazzling epic crammed with star power first appeared on The Canberra Times.