May 20, 2024


Science It Works

science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling and enveloping

  • Cert tbc, 155 min. Dir: Denis Villeneuve

An adult human body is 60 per cent water. But the audience leaving Friday morning’s Venice Film Festival screening of Dune were, by this critic’s reckoning, around 90 per cent goosebump. This new adaptation of the 1965 Frank Herbert novel from Denis Villeneuve, the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is science-fiction at its most majestic, unsettling and enveloping. Watching it feels like wandering through some enormous, otherworldly structure built in honour of higher powers you’ve never heard of – and, from the look of the place, rather hope don’t actually exist. 

The first panel of a proposed epic diptych, it concludes almost exactly halfway through the plot of Herbert’s novel – though by its end, seeing the story completed feels less urgent than the prospect of just spending even more time in the extraordinary world created by Villeneuve and his collaborators. Every detail feels threateningly alien, but also enticing, even addictive. The costumes by Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan are like occult-fascist regalia. The sets ring with the desolate grandeur of ancient ruins.

The giant sandworms, the novel’s signature monster, look like two Freudian nightmares combined: gargantuan phallic symbols with a touch of vagina dentata thrown in to cover all bases. (The shockwaves that ripple over the desert’s surface as the worms approach are one of the few details to be carried over more or less intact from David Lynch’s valiant dog’s dinner of an adaptation from 1984.) As for Hans Zimmer’s planetary earthquake of a score – reader, when he struck up the electro-bagpipes, I gasped.

Timothée Chalamet is ideally cast as Paul, sullen heir of the noble House Atreides, which is charged by the Emperor with overseeing the mining operation on the hostile desert planet of Arrakis. The job is of supreme strategic importance, since the substance being mined is spice, a rare and valuable compound necessary for interstellar travel. Until recently, this task was entrusted to House Harkonnen, Atreides’ bitter rivals, and their leader Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), a pallid, tumorous horror who doesn’t walk but glides unnaturally above the ground. Herbert’s novel explains that this is possible due to an anti-gravity device known as a suspensor – though Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve and Eric Roth’s lean, efficient script explains away nothing, and prioritises amazement over the kind of deadening exposition designed to appease pedantic YouTubers.

Much Jacobean scheming ensues, as House Atreides arrives on Arrakis and attempts to execute the Emperor’s orders while the Harkonnens lurk in the shadows, waiting for their moment to strike. But the Atreides have their own secret weapon in the form of Paul himself, who has been groomed since birth by his mother Jessica (a tremendous, melodramatically on-target Rebecca Ferguson) for her religious order’s own mysterious cause.