Dune is the first half of a monumental sci-fi masterpiece

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Streamer: Aussie cinemas from December 2

Length: 156 minutes

Score: 4.5/5

Dune by Frank Herbert is a much-loved science fiction novel first published back in 1965. Long considered unfilmable, that hasn’t stopped people from having a red hot go. Director David Lynch delivered a stylish but borderline incoherent attempt in 1984.

The SyFy channel crafted a more faithful rendition in 2000, but ultimately it was a bit average (although it did well enough to spawn Children of Dune in 2003).

A nice day out with your mum becomes a much more complicated proposition on the deadly, worm-infested sands of Arrakis in Dune. Picture: Universal Pictures
A nice day out with your mum becomes a much more complicated proposition on the deadly, worm-infested sands of Arrakis in Dune. Picture: Universal Pictures

That brings us to the present day and Denis Villeneuve’s brand spanking new version. Somehow, against all odds, the French Canadian director has created an absolutely superb science fiction adaptation. More impressive? He makes it look easy.

In the briefest possible terms, Dune is the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) the ducal heir of House Atreides - and son to Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

House Atreides has been given the great honour of taking over the production of Spice (a psychoactive substance that aids interstellar travel) on the desert planet Arrakis aka Dune. However, this is not quite the honour it might appear.

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Arakkis is a harsh world where the hot sun can literally kill you within hours. Plus there are the mysterious Fremen (nomadic locals who live somewhere in the scorched wastes) and giant freaking sandworms that like to mung anything lobbing about on the surface.

Add to this the Harkonnens lead by evil dirigible Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) and his keen, vicious nephew Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) who have a very personal beef with the Atreides clan.

Zendaya in Dune
Chani (Zendaya) makes a big impact in a role that will have increasing importance as the Dune saga continues. Picture: Universal Pictures

Oh, and there’s Chani (Zendaya), the young Fremen woman who Paul keeps dreaming about. Not to mention the fact that Paul himself may well be Kwisatz Haderach, a supernaturally gifted saviour of the people of Arrakis, if he can live long enough to fulfil his destiny.

To say there’s a lot going on in Dune is a massive understatement. The rich story, dense lore and competing agendas are dizzying in a beefy tome just under 900 pages, but in a feature film of 156 minutes, sacrifices have to be made.

The biggest and most notable one, of course, is the fact that Dune is actually Dune: Part One. Happily, the second part has been green lit and will release sometime late in 2023, but you should know going in, this isn’t a finished story.

What's here, however, is marvellous.

Although based on wildly imaginative source material, Dune is actually pretty grounded. The technology seems feasible, something that might exist in humanity’s distant future and it makes the stakes of the story tangible.

The acting, too, is a far cry from the campier early attempts at Herbert’s beloved yarn. With Timothée Chalamet offering a nuanced turn as Paul and Oscar Isaac just lovely as his proud but supportive father.

Jason Momoa  in Dune
Jason Momoa gets to flex his acting chops as well as his absurdly jacked muscles as Duncan Idaho in Dune. Picture: Universal Pictures

Big props to Jason Momoa too, who brings a surprising amount of pathos to Duncan Idaho and although we don’t see him a great deal, Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen is superb and feels genuinely threatening.

However, the undisputed MVP of Dune is director/co-writer Denis Villeneuve. This bloke has managed to take one of the densest, most complex and exposition-heavy sci-fi yarns of all time and made it feel lived in, even realistic.

dune on Universal Pictures
While Dune is a smarter than usual sci-fi with loads of intelligent character moments and nuance, there's also quite a bit of pew pew and stuff exploding as well. Picture: Universal Pictures

He seems to know when to bring the wow factor and when to pull back in quiet character moments, and paired with a stunning score from Hans Zimmer and gorgeous cinematography by Greig Fraser, has delivered something close to a masterpiece.

So, yeah, it’s a bummer that we have to wait until 2023 to see how this story concludes. But in the meantime, how great is it that we have an awesome science fiction movie (for adults!) that doesn’t feel like a three-hour commercial for action figures?

And hey, if you’re super keen to know what happens next? The book’s right there. Why not have a squiz?

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