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Dune review – sci-fi epic could be this decade’s defining blockbuster

Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of the classic novel crafts the most complete fantastical world since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings

It takes a borderline reckless level of confidence to attempt an adaptation of Dune. Frank Herbert’s iconic book bested both David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky and requires the sort of near-impossible elegance and breathing room that made Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy such a once-in-a-generation hit. The odds are stacked against you from the start, and yet Denis Villeneuve, the man behind one of the best-ever three year runs for any director – Sicario into Arrival into Blade Runner 2049 – has crafted a decade-defining blockbuster. This vision for Dune feels instantly definitive, a monumental tribute to one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.

Billed in the opening credits as Dune: Part One, Villeneuve has chosen to tackle only the first half of Herbert’s original novel in this film, gambling on a positive worldwide reception (that he seems to, so far, have garnered) to convince the studio to give him the funds for Part two and tell his story without rushing. As long as we do get Part Two, this choice proves to be ingenious, giving Villeneuve and his co-writers Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts plenty of time to settle us into this new world, without needing to get bogged down in expository dialogue.

Before we even get to the plot, Dune is dense, but never alienatingly so (for reference, I have not read the book, and was never lost). We are presented with intricate designs and rituals in this far future universe that, in time, speak for themselves the more we get used to them. It makes for a world that feels natural and lived in, even as we hurtle through interstellar travel and enter into feudal-style wars between galactic armies. Dune was a key inspiration for such cultural juggernauts as Star Wars, but Villeneuve’s commitment to letting us discover this universe at our own pace means it always manages to feel like we’re seeing something truly fresh.

The same goes for the main plot itself, which is a pretty typical sci-fi quest, but told with such staggeringly epic scale that it is rarely less than utterly thrilling. We follow Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, on perfectly pensive form), young heir to the throne of House Atreides and possible chosen one, as his family is turfed off their home planet of Caladan by the galactic Emperor to the richer but far more dangerous desert world of Arrakis to harvest “Spice.” Spice, a natural hallucinogen, is the key to interstellar travel, and so controlling it makes you incredibly wealthy, but also puts a galaxy-wide target on your back.

We get a few different introductions to each of the major players, from Paul’s parents Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and powerful psychic Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) to the grotesquely villainous former owner of Arrakis, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), to the native people of Arrakis, the Fremen, led by inscrutable warrior Stilgar (Javier Bardem). It’s a ridiculously stacked ensemble cast – the highlights of which may well be Josh Brolin’s Shakespearean quartermaster Gurney and Jason Momoa, a lightning bolt of charisma as hotshot pilot Duncan Idaho – but no-one is at risk of getting lost in the shuffle. Everyone gets at least one scene to really shine but, more importantly, they each have a distinct, identifying voice – so often not the case in identikit modern blockbusters – which makes the whole cast feel much more human.

As Paul’s messianic destiny draws inexorably closer, Villeneuve transports us to jaw-dropping locales, from the brutalist Arrakis capital Arrakeen to rain-soaked imperial barracks and desert canyons lit by sunsets. There’s nothing here quite as beautiful as the imagery from Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s last foray into beloved sci-fi, but the epic grandiosity more than makes up for it. We haven’t seen fantastical world-building on this scale since Mad Max: Fury Road or maybe even Lord of the Rings and Villeneuve and DOP Greig Fraser shoot it with true awe-inspiring majesty.

In the best possible way, Dune feels like everyone involved is, put simply, showing off. From the pitch-perfect casting to the scene-stealing performances, via some of the best set and costume design of the last few years, there isn’t a single department at play here not bringing their A-game. It’s so good that even the bits of the soundtrack where Hans Zimmer goes berserk on the bagpipes are brilliant (in fact, the whole score is his best work since Dunkirk).

Heartfelt, fiercely intelligent, spectacular, and just downright exhilarating, Dune is proof that there is still room to manoeuvre in the modern studio system. You can make something massive and expensive that is also distinctly adult (you’re not gonna get musings on the inevitability of fascism or quasi-Oedipal references in the MCU), as long as you’ve got the raw talent in the tank to make it stick. The sooner Villeneuve is given the green light to start on the second half of this story, the better.

Dune is in UK cinemas from 21 October.

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