156 minutes, opens on Sept 16
Take one multi-book fantasy and add one film-maker with a cult following. The result, 20 years ago, produced the massively popular The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001 to 2003).
That recipe is again tested in this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s space fantasy novels from the 1960s to 1970s about warring families, giant worms and a drug that sounds like space opium – all operating within a galactic empire.
This movie, the first of a planned franchise, performs the key task of world-building with stylish efficiency. Much of its 150-minute-plus run time is spent on a show-and-tell of the massive chess board and its pieces.
It is a daunting job. Not only is there a need to explain who is who in each feuding aristocratic family, the disposition of their military and their religious beliefs – which include a Chosen One doctrine and the order of priestesses that uphold it – but there is also a rundown of the ecology and human cultures found on the key locale, the sand-strewn planet of Arrakis.
French Canadian director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve gets the job done without resorting to voice-over or text crawls, nor getting bogged down in self-indulgent minutiae. The elegance of his potted socio-economic overview makes the exposition behind Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) look as clear as mud.
Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson),is visited by strange dreams.
His clan, on the emperor’s orders, is about to take over stewardship of Arrakis, the only source of spice, the stuff that prolongs life and makes faster-than-light travel possible. House Harkonnen, the former stewards, are unwilling to take their hands off the money faucet that is spice. The film ends inconclusively, with sequels expected to pick up the pieces.
Villeneuve, known for “big ideas” science fiction – he directed 2016’s alien-contact movie Arrival and 2017’s android-Pinocchio story Blade Runner 2049 – adapts Herbert’s sand-and-spaceships fantasy with his trademark minimalist approach.
For example, supporting characters, such as Taiwanese actor Chang Chen’s Dr Wellington Yueh, a healer in House Atreides, have had their stories pared to the bone.
Another director might delight in spaceships zipping across star fields, pew-pew battles or weird household pets.
Villeneuve prefers that his ships move at a stately parade speed, or not at all. In colour and texture, the craft, largely unlit and windowless, look as if they were carved from granite. Instead of bizarre pets or fish-headed officers, he believes, correctly, that there is enough otherworldly visual stimulation in the grotesque visage of Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard). The sandworms, meanwhile, get a whole Jaws-style entrance.
Paul’s Chosen One coming-of-age journey is the dullest section of the film, largely because it is today impossible to find a fresh way to flog this dead horse of a young-adult genre story thread.
Villeneuve, to his credit, deals with it by being brisk – what might have been Paul’s tedious process of denial, grief and acceptance has been skimmed.
This reviewer is eager to find out what happens next.