Dune review: Timothée Chalamet is magnificent in this surreal sci-fi epic - fingers crossed for a sequel

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 (Warner Bros)
(Warner Bros)

This beginning has no end. Which may sound gnomic, but is simply the God’s honest truth. Director Denis Villeneuve, attempting to create what some say is impossible, (a popular film that does justice to Frank Herbert’s sprawling yet intricate sci-fi saga), decided the 1965 classic could not be contained by a single movie and has plans to shoot a Dune Part 2. But Warners have yet to greenlight that project. If enough people go to see Dune, it’ll happen. Think of this as an interactive endeavour. We, the audience, are about to be woven into the myth.

Villeneuve, (who, back in 2016, made Arrival, one of the most tender and jolting sci-fis ever) knew from the start he wanted Timothée Chalamet to play the part of high-born, idealistic teen, Paul Atreides. The film, amongst other things, is an ode to Chalamet’s subtle charisma. And, aside from one bout of uncalled-for nostril flaring, the 25-year-old actor is magnificent. Androgyny is his thing and, in many of the tight close-ups, he’s as pretty as the young Elizabeth Taylor. Decked out in a long coat and boots, he also resembles a willowy, raven-haired version of Saint Exupery’s Little Prince. If you adore tenacious girly-boys (and what sensible person doesn’t?), your heart, while you watch Dune, will never stop skipping.

As the film begins, Paul’s father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac; ace), is handed a poisoned chalice. He’s put in charge of a sandy planet, Arrakis aka Dune, that’s rich in a coveted, hallucinogenic substance known as Spice melange. Arrakis was once controlled by Leto’s rival, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard). The Emperor, a “dangerous, jealous man”, is playing games with his powerful subordinates. By the time Leto, Paul and Paul’s mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson; brittle, angsty and SO sexy) arrive on Arrakis, it’s clear forces are at work to undermine the house of Atreides. Paul - who has inherited supernatural gifts from his mum - has dreams that foreshadow death and destruction, but also hope, in the form of cool young rebel, Chani (Zendaya; scrumptiously defiant). She’s a member of a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Arrakis tribe, called the Fremens. Might an alliance between Paul and the Fremens be in the offing?

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica (Warner Bros)
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica (Warner Bros)

David Lynch’s 1984 take on Herbert’s book was famously full of information dumps. And the lead characters all looked like they’d just stepped out of a salon. Here, by contrast, the dialogue feels light and airy and the harried humans are perfectly in sync with the surreal sandscapes.

Every voluptuous dune has substance as well as style. Villeneuve and his cinematographer use all sorts of fancy aspect ratios. What this means is that your eyes constantly feel as if they’re being stretched in crazy directions. It’s far out, even before Paul, in a helicopter, reacting to air-borne Spice, hears voices telling him to go with the flow and experiences an ecstatic kind of free-fall that some will view as spiritually transcendent and I’d call “well druggy”.

A matador motif also works beautifully. At one point, a major character, whose father was a fan of the red cape, sits draped in a chair, looking like a dying bull. He’s naked (only a table corner spares us the sight of his crotch) and, once seen, this bizarre image is hard to shift. Cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who once tried to turn Herbert’s book into a 14-hours of mind-blowing footage, would surely approve.

Zendaya, left, as Chani (Warner Bros)
Zendaya, left, as Chani (Warner Bros)

This movie, in case you can’t tell, was made for the big screen. Watching it on a small screen would be like eating ice-cream in a sauna.

Does Dune work as a family movie? Kids raised on Star Wars may be frustrated by the fact that the plentiful fight scenes mostly take place on solid ground. George Lucas and J.J. Abrams had fun with the dark spaces between planets. Here, the liveliest encounters take place in Arrakis, in the blazing sunshine.

Still, young’uns will appreciate the fact that when warriors get hit, their limbs light up like arcade machines. They’ll also enjoy twinkly-eyed, super-loyal Atreides aide Duncan (Jason Momoa; entrusted with the film’s best quips), along with tantalising shots of sandworms (think elephant trunks, crossed with field mushrooms) and an adorably big-eared desert mouse.

Purists will want to know if Villeneuve has taken liberties with the text. The answer is: just a few. Jessica was always powerful - she’s big mates with a group of frosty, psychic nuns. But, here, she gets to engage in her own bit of ritual combat.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul (Warner Bros)
Timothée Chalamet as Paul (Warner Bros)

Another change: planetologist Kynes, a man and part of the colonial mission, in the novel, now has a deliciously sly smile and a powerful fist. As brought to life by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Kynes is one of Dune’s highlights.

Peter Jackson was wrong to divide The Hobbit into three parts. Villeneuve was quite right to break up Dune, though it does cause a few problems. Herbert didn’t buy into the superman myth, quite the opposite, and the novel ends on the most ambiguous of notes. But the first half of the book definitely encourages us to view Paul as a great hope. As a result, what we see, in these 155 minutes, is somewhat low on twists and (if you know nothing about the book) actively misleading.

Viewers thinking, “Sod Paul! I’d rather be watching RuPaul!”, should hold tight. The really subversive stuff is all to come.

Villeneuve describes Herbert’s novel as his “bible” and Villeneuve, himself, as far as many sci-fi fans are concerned, walks on water. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I think it’s too soon to declare this enterprise divine. But I was gripped, throughout, and I definitely want there to be a Part 2.

We don’t need a miracle. We just need audiences to say: let there be light. A green light.

Dune screens this evening at the Venice Film Festival and is released in UK cinemas on October 21; 155 mins, certificate tbc

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