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Dune

Year: 2021
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Jon Spaihts/Denis Villeneuve/Eric Roth/Frank Herbert
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling

Effective big screen sci-fi is incredibly hard to get right and getting harder all the time. When the highest grossing films of all time are routinely sci-fi adventure romps (thanks to the comic book genre), we've seen it all – that as much as anything else led to the failure of John Carter.

And when you're adapting Frank Herbert's influential tome, you face even bigger challenges not only because of it being set on a desert planet (one of several iconic locations in the granddaddy of all cinematic sci-fi), but because the characters are basically human beings, their technology not being so alien from what we know today. There are no bizarre or exotic alien races, no mystical fields of magical energy and no swords made of light.

The only tools Denis Villeneuve has to work with are the text and his sensibility, and he still manages to show most sci-fi directors of the last decade how it's done without breaking a sweat.

Even if any of the sets or production design were the least bit familiar (which they're not), he and DP Greig Fraser casts it all in a blurry, muzzy light which showcases the sinister, brutalist architecture of Dune's world beautifully. Plenty of scenes are full of forbidding shadows and darkness and even the scenes set in the deserts of Arrakis have a soft, luminous glow.

Both the blue tinged eyes of the Fremen and the shots of clanking machinery and vehicles spread far across the floor of Arrakeen have a dreamlike quality that makes them seem (somewhat ironically) more realistic and in-situ than the technology you've seen in almost any other recent sci fi).

House Atreides is a royal family lineage in the political superstructure of the far future, where interstellar travel between planets is possible and most of the galaxy has been conquered and populated.

As well as being a critical part of the fuel source that makes space travel possible, spice – a substance found only in the deserts of the planet Arrakis – gives whoever ingests it expanded strength and consciousness bordering on telepathy and clairvoyance.

For aeons the Harkonnen family have ruled Arrakis and mined spice for the empire, but the story begins when the emperor orders them replaced by the Atreides family. Harkonnen, led by the fearsome Baron (an unrecognisable Stellan Skarsgård), is none too happy, its military commander (Dave Bautista) hungering for blood while The Baron is more strategic, knowing more than he lets on.

The inciting incident in the story (that's admittedly not too clear in the film) is that the emperor is feeling threatened by the Atreides' growing influence, so he's actually assigned them stewardship of Arrakis to give Harkonnen the means to re-invade and depose them, removing the threat.

But the members of the Atreides family have no idea. Led by the wise Duke (Oscar Isaac), they intend merely to carry out their duty. He's accompanied by his concubine (a wife in all but name), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who belongs to an order or mystics called the Bene Gesserit that have a shadowy hand in the political machinations of the galaxy.

Their son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is heir to the Atreidean throne, and while he trains with the master at arms Halleck (Josh Brolin) and hears all about the adventures of his friend, military commander Duncan (Jason Momoa), he's been having strange dreams that unsettle him.

The dreams are about a woman with striking blue eyes and some sort of breathing apparatus in her nose walking across a desert, smiling at him. Unbeknown to Paul she's actually real. Named Chani (Zendaya), she's one of the Fremen, the race of indigenous desert dwellers who live in the wastes of Arrakis, aren't very welcoming and present one of two challenges to any occupier – the other being the kilometres-long sandworms that burrow beneath the surface and consume anything they home in on.

As Paul gets closer to the spice – from which his visions and premonitions come – and tries to figure out what it all means, Harkonnen strikes and Arrakis is enveloped in war as they start to cut swatches through Atreidean forces.

The battle sees Paul and Jessica cast into the desert to fend for themselves with Fremen and sandworms heaven knows where, all gunning for them. But when the pair come across the Fremen his family has already encountered (Javier Bardem) as well as the woman he's been seeing in his dreams, Paul proves that he's more than just an ignorant outsider and that his destiny is bound up with Arrakis and the Fremen more than anyone ever knew.

I've never read the book, but I recognised several elements from the disastrous David Lynch version from 1984. One was The Voice, a Bene Gesserit talent where those who master it can manifest physical effects – most notably mind control – using a special voice. In Lynch's film it meant Sean Young and Kyle McLachlan riding sandworms and shouting silly noises while they fired laser guns. Here it's an ear splitting sound that shakes the cinema's speakers, like the voice has come booming up from hell.

Another is the Harkonnen bad guy, The Baron. Played for Lynch by Kenneth McMillan with one effective scene where he fetishises spitting on someone's face, he instead flies around on wires with a cheap sound effect like a toy helicopter taking off. For Villeneuve's Baron, Skarsgård also defies gravity, but he rises majestically into the air like a demon taking flight.

They're two examples of how Villeneuve has apparently been faithful to the novel, or the way we imagine certain elements in the popular imagination thanks to Lynch's version and given them real cinematic weight.

But there's one more huge plus to enjoy, and credit has to go to Herbert rather than Villeneuve. Because of the particular American fetishisation of the rebel on screen, you can bet that any story about a conspiracy or intrigue against the backdrop of a complicated hierarchical structure (a company, royal family, army, police force, etc), will reveal that it was the King/CEO/chief/general all along. It jibes with the American sensibilities against established structure, kicking arse and taking names and getting the job done no matter whose toes you tread on.

The thing is, every time a screenwriter spins up another of those the-corruption-goes-right-to-the-top tales they think they have us fooled, but it's such a common trope you expect it from the outset.

Just once (as I've been saying to myself for years), I'd like to see a story about a hierarchical organisation where the senior members are benevolent, smart, honest and wise, who love their subjects and in whom their subjects can believe and have faith, and for the story to be about the struggle of that organisation against an external threat.

Maybe Herbart understood that appeal, and with characters like top gun Duncan, soldier Halleck or the Duke's right-hand man Thufir (Stephen McKinley Henderson) all fighting on the same side for a common cause and forming a support network around the hero (Paul) it's actually a refreshing change in a movie.

Thrown in some of the most gorgeous and arresting visuals – wrangled with the same talent we saw in Blade Runner 2049 – and it's one of the year's best.

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