Word coming out of the Venice Film Festival is that Dune is a visionary sci-fi masterpiece. Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel landed with a rapturous response at the 78th instalment of La Biennale; reviewers have been swift to praise the movie's jaw-dropping sense of scale, comparing it with landmarks such as Lord of the Rings.
Timothée Chalamet leads the cast as Paul Atreides, whose royal family has been appointed stewardship of the desert planet of Arrakis. The desolate lump of rock is at the centre of a brewing political storm owing to its depository of spice, the most coveted substance in the entire universe that's capable of powering intergalactic flight.
When the Atreides clan is betrayed by the vengeful Harkonnens, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the 'Bene Gesserit' collective, must flee into the desert to play their counter-attack. The 'Bene Gesserit', essentially a collective of seers and witches, are predicting the rise of the chosen one known as the 'Kwisatz Haderach', an individual who will bring great change to the universe.
As one can see, the mythology of Herbert's source material is complex and multistranded. And we haven't even mentioned the indigenous peoples of Arrakis, the Fremen, whose destiny aligns with that of Paul, namely Chani (Zendaya). The Fremen are witness to the exploitation of their planet and are able to co-exist with the monstrous sandworms that burrow beneath the planet's surface.
It's richly heady stuff, and critics say that Villeneuve, no stranger to complex landscapes or characters (he helmed Blade Runner 2049) has done the novel justice. Back in 1984, the novel proved too much for director David Lynch whose vision was panned as inscrutable and langorous. Critics also stress one thing absolutely: Dune must be seen on the biggest screen possible.
"Dune reminds us what a Hollywood blockbuster can be," writes Xan Brooks for The Guardian. "Implicitly, its message written again and again in the sand, Denis Villeneuve’s fantasy epic tells us that big-budget spectaculars don’t have to be dumb or hyperactive, that it’s possible to allow the odd quiet passage amid the explosions. Adapted from Frank Herbert’s 60s opus, Dune is dense, moody and quite often sublime – the missing link bridging the multiplex and the arthouse."
Empire's Ben Travis lauds the movie with a five-star review, stating: "Across a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Villeneuve luxuriates in establishing Herbert’s vision of a stark galactic empire in which simmering political tensions threaten to boil over, mystical theologies intersect with powerful institutions and industrial interests, and humanity is humbled by the vast power of nature... A near-constant jaw-on-the-floor awe. The sense of scale conjured up is, from moment to moment, frequently astonishing."
Writes Tim Grierson for Screen Daily: "Villeneuve has conceived Herbert’s saga on a massive scale, which more than justifies seeing Dune in a theatre. And that’s not simply because of Patrice Vermette’s bold, minimalist production design or cinematographer Greig Fraser’s operatic images – viewers will want to appreciate the grandiose electronic score cooked up by Hans Zimmer on as sophisticated a sound system as possible. Villeneuve’s collaborators give the film a legitimately otherworldly feel, although his insistence on treating the story’s sci-fi/fantasy elements in a realistic manner helps ground the narrative."
"Villeneuve’s Dune is the sandworm exploding out from the darkness below," writes Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. "It is a film of such literal and emotional largeness that it overwhelms the senses. If all goes well, it should reinvigorate the book’s legacy in the same way Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy did for JRR Tolkien’s work."
Stephanie Zacharek lauds the design of the sandworms in her review for Time Magazine: "Villeneuve lays it out before us without smirking or winking; his go-for-broke earnestness feels honest and clean. And the effects, while lavish, also have a tasteful, polished quality. Particularly impressive is the massive Arrakis predator known as the sandworm, a fearsome creature that first makes its presence known as a giant ripple of action beneath the sand, before poking its lamprey-like head aboveground to sweep its prey—machinery, people, whatever—into its toothy gob. The sandworm is the stuff of nightmares, but Villeneuve’s vision of it has a shivery elegance."
Nevertheless, it's not a slam-dunk of positives. Several critics have pointed out the way in which Villeneuve has split Herbert's first Dune book in half; this initial movie adapts the first half of the novel while a second movie, yet to be shot, will resolve the wider narrative. Many feel this results in an unsatisfying, unfulfilled experience, despite the movie's spectacular nature.
Writes Leah Greenblatt for Entertainment Weekly: "The sheer awesomeness of Villeneuve’s execution — there might not be another film this year, or ever, that turns one character asking another for a glass of water into a kind of walloping psychedelic performance art — often obscures the fact that the plot is mostly prologue: a sprawling origin story with no fixed beginning or end."
Other appraisals are altogether more critical, indicating that the movie is a visual feast but not an emotional one. Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson is one of those critics: "Maybe the source material, with its unending glossary of terms describing places, peoples, religious traditions, and political systems, is just too dense to hone into something cinematically agile. Villeneuve’s film is somehow plodding and hurried at once, flurries of exposition and table-setting ringing around set-piece monoliths.”
Given the obfuscating nature of Herbert's novel, it was, perhaps, inevitable that Dune would polarize the critics. Is it, in fact, a novel that's impossible to adapt? You can make your own mind up when Dune arrives in Cineworld cinemas on 22nd October.