Part two of director Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has been given the go ahead. That’s good, as most of his first part was moving and majestic. Exquisite production design draws on medieval and military sources amongst others, grounded further by the cool palette of Greig Fraser’s photography and a rich, powerful score by Hans Zimmer. Freed from the need to worry about the plot too much thanks to familiarity with David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation (though I couldn’t get on with or into the novel, I must admit), I found a lot to enjoy.
“Dreams are messages from the depths,” we are told at the start of a screenplay written by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth as we dive into the oceanic world of Caladan and the Atreides family. Windswept hills, crashing coves and elemental materials – wood, stone, cloth – mark this world and help ground the drama before those dream states emerge. Despite an ultra-realistic look, achieved by intimate framing, low-key lighting and aerial perspective, everything is fabulously present, aided by IMAX-certified digital cinematography projected at a ‘genuine’ IMAX venue.
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides made little impression, thrashing through various flashforwards, though Oscar Isaac brought grit to the role of Duke Leto. It’s clear very quickly though that a superb performance from Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica centres the film’s competing elements of politics, parenthood and duty even as Leto briefs Paul and the latter practises his knife skills. Other cast members such as Josh Brolin struggle slightly to displace memories of their predecessors from Lynch’s version.
Handed the planned poisoned chalice that is custodianship of the desert planet Arrakis by Emperor Harkonen, the stage is set – quite literally – for a majestic and surprisingly emotional ceremony in which the Emperor’s representative intones that honour before the stiffly nervous duke and his family. A wondrously impressive sequence in which ‘flagships’ – vast, wedge-shaped vessels that navigate beneath the sea and in the air – depart Caladan carry a real charge too.
The capital city of the Atreides’ new homeworld channels Brutalist architecture and Berber culture, its defensively squat buildings detailed with iron and bronze. Warmth here comes from impressive touches such as the fish and sandworm murals in the staterooms, the former at least designed artist Martine Bertrand, wife of the production’s head decorator Patrice Vermette. The beating insect-like wings of the distinctive ornithopter aircraft are well-realised even if mismatched to clunky landing gear; curiously, too, the desert survival stillsuit, that other piece of equipment unique to Arrakis, is seemingly assembled from contemporary sports clothing and very inferior to Bob Ringwood’s crafted, organic equivalent from 1984.
The inevitable betrayal comes rather too fast for me, with little time seeming to have elapsed for the Atreides to (not) settle in. It is spectacular, with the combined forces of House Harkonnen and their mercenary Sardaukar bombarding landing fields at night, though the imagery for this is clearly inspired from the 2003 Iraq War and feels a little distant visually, perhaps due to compositing decisions. Hand-to-hand fighting with a selection of blades feels more visceral even if the wounds inflicted are often obscured. Ironically those participating are quite visible since the unambitious visual effect chosen to depict the Atreides’ personal force shield is another disappointment when compared to that in the Lynch film (which needed a laborious effort of hand animation to produce given the technology of the day).
Escaping into the desert, Paul and Jessica begin the next phase of their journey. Tighter editing here and fewer sequences illustrating those dreams from the depths would have usefully shortened the repetitive final third of the film and focussed us on his destiny, and Javier Bardem as Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen tribe, generally gets by with grunts in this first part but the overall effect is of a handsome, absorbing journey into a rounded and well-realised world. Critic Xan Brooks surely has it right in terming this film ‘the missing link bridging the multiplex and the arthouse.’