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Dune

Frank Herbert’s psychedelic sci-fi novel Dune has a long history with adaptation. The first attempt to put it on film was in 1975, when the Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky planned an absurdly ambitious ten-hour epic that included art by H.R. Giger and Mœbius, music by Pink Floyd, and starring roles for Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí.

Despite producing a lot of storyboards and concept art, that film never happened (Its story, however, is told in the informative if uncritical 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune). Instead, in 1984, we got David Lynch’s Dune, starring Kyle MacLachlan. Jodorowsky describes going to see Lynch’s film: “Like an ill person I came to the theatre … and step by step, step by step I became happy, because it was awful!”

It’s a judgement that Lynch himself apparently agrees with. Well - far be it from me to contradict these two great avant-gardistes, but I quite like it. It’s certainly clunky and inscrutable, but it’s also got a fascinating, baroque strangeness, all dingy sets and inhuman performances.

Now we have Denis Villeneuve’s version, a glossy blockbuster for the age of the superhero movie. It’s an unpromising prospect. The mystical novel of Oedipal complexes, feudal politics, mind-expansion and systems ecology makes sense for Jodorowsky or Lynch, but less so for the director of Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, all of which are good-looking but mediocre. So count me surprised and delighted that Villeneuve’s Dune is really good.

In Dune, humanity is scattered across a vast interstellar empire, ruled by an Emperor, but divided up between rival Great Houses that hold entire planets as personal fiefs. At the film’s opening, House Atreides has been granted control of the desert planet Arrakis, aka Dune, taking it over from the evil House Harkonnen. It’s a poison chalice: Arrakis is the only planet from which “spice” can be harvested, a mysterious hallucinogen that, alone, makes space travel possible. Fail to maintain the flow of spice and the Atreides will disgrace and destroy themselves. Knowing they enter a trap, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their preternaturally gifted son Paul (Timothée Chalamet), head to Arrakis. There, rumours spread among the indigenous population, called the Fremen, that Paul is the Messiah.

Religion, colonialism, space-oil: this is big and serious stuff, and this latest Dune excels in just how big and serious it can get. It’s all massive spaceships, brutalist palaces, a shouty Hans Zimmer score, and, of course, giant sandworms. There is none of the snideness or ambition-shrinking irony that plagues the Marvel films, making even their whole-universe battle scenes feel like playground scuffles.

Villeneuve could never be accused of being too ironic, but in Dune his earnestness finally works. Jodorowsky may have got the psychedelia of the novel, and Lynch does get the moribund evil of its imperium, but Villeneuve gets its sublimity.

He also understands the novel’s faith in the power of human psychology, and so amid all the spaceships and vistas there’s an unexpected focus on close-ups and on character interaction. Large chunks of the film take place entirely in Chalamet’s head, in the form of spice-assisted hallucinations, but he carries the burden well. His Paul is sincere and petulant, hardly unique among adolescents in believing himself the Chosen One.

A consequence of all this scale is that its opening feels languid, and its ending rushed and anticlimactic. This is “Part One,” and it cuts off about halfway through Herbert’s novel. The latter half of the novel is much weirder, and it’s worth wondering if Villeneuve can stick the landing in the recently-announced Part Two.

But this is a good start. Some might, understandably, find Dune too heavy, too portentous, too brown-and-grey. It is beautiful, especially its sets and costumes, but relentlessly grave. For me, though, gravity is what Dune needed.

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