Operatic in production. Shakespearean in character. Timothée Chalamet heads the ensemble of the universe in this cerebral blockbuster of amazing space, sound and scope.

Direction:Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay:Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts
Cast:Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård,
Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista
Length:156 minutes
Rating:PG-13

Set in 10191 (or 8170 years in the future to save you doing the maths), Paul Atreides (Chalamet) is conflicted on multiple counts between his destiny as the next leader of the noble House of Atreides, as an individual that will unite worlds and religions and bring peace and prosperity and by a sense of inferiority that he can’t measure up to the expectations others have placed in him. No wonder. 

His mentor, Gurney Halleck, (a droll Brolin – “I am smiling” while clearly scowling), the weapons master of the House of Atreides, fights him verbally and physically in order to mould a battle-ready warrior leader (but how helpful this approach is in practise I’m not sure, for many reasons). On the one hand, it’s not very nice, but on the other war is coming – from the head of another House who is the very definition of a warrior leader. As I say, tricky. But more on that later.

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“You inherit too much power” threatens Gaius Helen Mohiam, a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother and the Emperor’s Truthsayer (an intimidating Rampling – in a scene-stealing performance on ice reprised, almost intact, from the 2018 film ‘Red Sparrow’). “Let us say, I suggest you may be human. Your awareness may be enough to control your instincts. Your instinct will be to remove your hand from the box. If you do so, you die,” she hisses as she subjects him to the gom jabbar (Google it). Gold! 

But even she is being played by the Emperor (whom we never see or hear from – maybe for the best, God help him) who has bestowed on Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides (a pensive Isaac) the burden of extracting melange (or spice, a priceless commodity that enables interstellar travel and prolongs human life) from the planet of Arrakis (where most of the action unfolds) at the expense of the native Fremen and attack from giant sandworms (a very well executed sequence, awesome in fact) that travel under the desert. Keeping up? 

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His hopes of uniting the Fremen with his House and in turn his House with the others (including that of Harkonnen – an enemy and former steward of Arrakis enriched and empowered beyond imagination by their decades of spice extraction) but Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (a venomous Skarsgård) has other plans. And so, it begins. An invasion sequence of apocalyptic magnitude strikes through the universe (and the hearts and minds of Paul and his Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica (a resourceful Ferguson – in a wonderfully diversified performance here) and by extension, us) like a bolt of lightning in the dead of night. 

And by day, many are by dead of night. Despite the supposed protection awarded to Paul and Jessica by Mohiam. She won’t be happy. In fact she’ll be pissed (off). As the fall of Atreides and rise of Harkonnen continues, Paul and Jessica journey further into the desert. It is here they encounter the Fremen (the luminous Zendaya, the worldly Javier Bardem – both equally wise yet disarmingly savage), friend (the clean-shaven Jason Momoa, no really) and foe (the terrifying Dave Bautista). If you’re still keeping up, well done you.

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Adapted with minimalist dialogue (show not tell) by its three screenwriters from the 1965 science fiction novel ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert, unsurprisingly ‘Dune: Part One’ (as titled onscreen) covers the events in the first half of the book. A smart move for multiple reasons; the film is two-and-a-half-hours in length already, the plot has a clear direction of travel despite various moving and interlocking parts but this allows us the time to absorb the visual spectacle that unfolds before us, like a volcanic eruption in slow-motion, which is given the space to breathe. Beware the encroaching pyroclastic flow. Outrun it if you can but confront it at your peril. You have been warned. At least I know what I’m talking about. Buy a bloody ticket!

A definitive break point in the story is also established; what we are witnessing here is the fall of the hero and rise of the villain (a power dynamic that will presumably be reversed in the second half). If so, this would follow the model set by ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ with its two-part adaptation of the seventh and final novel in the book series. 

Indeed, ‘Dune: Part One’ mirrors these films from ten years’ hence (yes, it was that long ago) in tone, pacing and scale, delivering a saga as rich as its source material, a testament to the masterful direction of Villeneuve. In this regard, David Hare (director of the second half of the Harry Potter film series – and first two instalments in the Fantastic Beasts film series) is a hard act to emulate. Not that Villeneuve is attempting to, of course. But I’m making a comparison where there probably isn’t one which suits me but nobody else. Moving on.

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Of the three adaptations of the book so far (a 1984 film by David Lynch received negative reviews but an Oscar nomination and a 2000 television miniseries by John Harrison accrued a mixed response but three Primetime Emmy nominations, winning two – as I say, tricky) ‘Dune: Part One’ has commanded critical acclaim, and rightly so. 

As with Harry Potter, Dune succeeds due to the subtlety of its (arthouse, character driven) performances which act as a counterbalance to the biblical weight of its (big budget, explosive) special effects grounding the entire piece. Yes, its technical wizardry is magical but its characters are more mythical. Maybe the technology is just where it needs to be now to deliver on what the imagination is conjuring. Advantage Villeneuve. 10 points!

By entering Arrakis’ atmosphere from this angle (under the radar, not too overblown), Villeneuve avoids a burn up of creative intention that transforms a great idea upon inception into carnage at the surface by creation. While style over substance does work, more often than not on a small scale, ‘Dune: Part One’ is the antithesis of small. It feels intimate and emotional because of the decision to place character over CGI. As a consequence, the CGI is more rewarding because it effects (by cataclysmic size) characters we are invested in. 

With four Oscar nominees and two Golden Globe winners in an ensemble cast to die for, it isn’t remotely surprising they came. I didn’t have any doubt, however, as Villeneuve is also the man that walked in the hallowed filmmaking footsteps of Sir Ridley Scott to deliver the sequel ‘Blade Runner: 2049’ four years ago.  It won two Oscars and two BAFTAs. Job done.

But unlike Harry Potter, the second half of Dune will be greenlit depending on box office performance, a process complicated (because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic) due to its international cinematic and streaming release – on Warner Bros. Pictures’ HBO Max – which has occurred within one week. HBO Max is unavailable in the UK due to an exclusive content deal between HBO and Sky Group signed in 2019 preventing its launch here before 2025 but which doesn’t include most HBO Max programming anyway – tricky, tricky, tricky. Whatever happens, the second part must happen! Run time be damned!

And so, we must conclude on a cliffhanger. For now. Always leave them wanting more, as they say.

To be continued…

“Dreams are messages from the deep.”

Dune: Part One is in cinemas now.