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Dune Review: A Sci-Fi Epic With ‘Lord Of The Rings’ Scale

by : Cameron Frew on : 03 Sep 2021 13:36
Dune Review: A Sci-Fi Epic With 'Lord Of The Rings' ScaleWarner Bros. Pictures

Uncharted lore hangs in the balance, but only the sands of time will decide the fate of Dune – a breathtaking, imposingly dense cinematic experience made for the senses, if not the heart.

Frank Herbert laid the foundations of modern sci-fi – Star Wars is surely the biggest property to stem from its roots – equatable to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in sheer cultural influence and honour. Its mythos is near-biblical, with six novels in the author’s original run and 17 expansions.

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Its translation to the big screen has been notoriously iffy. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s take was the first to fall, canned amid a ballooning budget and 14-hour runtime. David Lynch’s was the most notable, but a commercial and critical failure. If there was anyone to finally crack the tome, it’s Denis Villeneuve – spectacle notwithstanding, the latest movie still grapples with a longtime fear: is it unadaptable?

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Even breaking down its plot requires some studious navigation. By decree in the time of the Imperium, the Baron Vladimir (a deliciously disgusting Stellan Skarsgård) of House Harkonnen – they’re not human, they’re ‘brutal’, one character urges – is banished from Arrakis, a dangerous desert world with giant sandworms and the galaxy’s most valuable substance: spice, a hallucinogenic drug with medical benefits, capable of improving mental abilities but also vital for interstellar travel.

Duke Leto of House Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is subbed in to govern. While believing it to be a trap – in simplest terms, like being given a terrible job by a boss who hates you – he brings his own ruling royals: Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), his partner and a Bene Gesserit, essentially a woman with certain superhuman abilities; and Paul (Timothée Chalamet), his son and ducal heir of the House, afflicted by visions of a sand-roaming Fremen (Zendaya) and unsure of his own destiny.

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Dune Warner Bros.Warner Bros.

It’s an enormous cast, but explaining everyone’s roles would devour my wordcount, so expect to see Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Javier Bardem and Jason Momoa – perhaps most surprisingly, it’s the latter DC star who makes the biggest impression, lighting up scenes with an affable, boyish charm.

It’s well-performed across the board: Ferguson has always been a force of nature, and here she really shoulders the emotional heft of the family’s woes; and Chalamet is saddled with less personable dialogue, but survives on his unique brand of charisma.

The depth with which Villeneuve has captured the world is extraordinary: deserts are captured with a singular clarity; buildings are intricately sketched, with large engravings and sculptures dying to be perused on rewatches and rooms staged with immersive, yet subtle production design; and characters, minor and small, are sketched with a distinctive aura and place in the wider picture. It’s undoubtedly comparable to Lord of the Rings, in this regard.

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DuneWarner Bros.

Then, with all that awe, it lapses in making you feel something deeper. For two-and-a-half hours, it mostly plays out like realised concept art with banging, goosebumpy music, courtesy of Hans Zimmer (keep an ear out for the bagpipes, which made this Scotsman very happy), and Grieg Fraser’s often stunning cinematography (regretfully, it never stood a chance against Roger Deakins’ peerless frames in Blade Runner 2049).

The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, struggles to steer the complex somewhere with any sort of emotional resonance, aside from clear metaphors on the oppressed. Its perils and conflicts are exciting, but never worrisome, even with the threat of giant worms – man, the worm content is good.

After so much time setting up the universe, it seems we’ve barely rippled the water. Heavy hangs the film with Part One Syndrome; I’d happily watch a sequel, but it remains to be seen whether audiences fall under the spell of a blockbuster with so much passion in its filmmaking craft, yet one that’s rather cold, demands patience and a lot of curiosity for whatever comes next.

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In a word, Dune is epic – I just wish it struck a deeper, soulful connection in its mighty world-building and spectacular spectacle.

Dune hits cinemas on October 21.

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Cameron Frew

Entertainment Editor at UNILAD. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the best film ever made, and Warrior is better than Rocky. That's all you need to know.

Topics: Featured, Dune, Film and TV, Now