If there can ever be a moment of triumph for a director, when the anxiety of influence is vanquished – for a bit, anyway – then Denis Villeneuve might have achieved it. This eerily vast and awe-inspiring epic, a cathedral of interplanetary strangeness, is better than the attempt a generation ago by an acknowledged master.
David Lynch’s Dune from 1984 was an interesting, rackety, flawed movie that attempted to cram the entirety of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel into its running time – the result was like Flash Gordon without the laughs. Villeneuve, with his co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, has used less than half the book (with a second episode to come) and allowed it room to grow: to breathe and drift through unimaginably vast reaches of fictional galaxies, with images of architecturally enormous spacecraft moving into view, or delicately lowering themselves on to alien landscapes of parched and austere beauty, particularly the ravishingly pure desert landmass of “Dune”, the contested planet itself. Star Wars’ debt to Dune, and now Dune’s debt to Star Wars, has been extensively discussed (amusingly, Dune gives us moving holograms rather like the one in which Princess Leia first begged Obi-Wan Kenobi for help). But this blockpulverising film feels more like TE Lawrence’s imperious version of The Phantom Menace. This is how it ought to have been.
Dune’s story takes place millennia into the future, in which the ruling class live like Renaissance Italian princes, occasionally impressing wax seals on documents with signet rings as if they have just arrived at Hampton Court by boat. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, son and heir to the distinguished Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), whose family has just been ordered by the emperor to take up the lucrative governorship of the desert planet Arrakis, or “Dune”. It is their task to suppress or appease its indigenous people, the Fremen, but get the sole commercial exploitation rights for the planet’s mineral, “Spice”, which, properly refined, gives the consumer superhuman mental powers (although oddly this transformation is never shown on screen). The previous masters, the Harkonnen, led by its obese baron (Stellan Skarsgård) are furious at their ejection, but understand that this is a political stratagem by the emperor, to undermine the overweeningly powerful Atreides family with an impossible colonial posting.
As for Paul, his most intense relationship is with his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is part of a Jedi-like sorceress cult called the Bene Gesserit, led by the glowering Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling). Paul is inheriting their mind-control powers and with them weird intuitions of destiny. He could be the messianic insurgent leader dreamed of by the embattled Fremen, and particularly the defiant young Fremen woman Chani (Zendaya), with whom Paul is fated to fall in love.
Villeneuve is superb at juxtaposing the colossal spectacle with the intimate encroachment of danger and a mysterious dramatic language that exalts the alienness of every texture and surface. Perhaps even more than in his previous film, Blade Runner 2049 (another audacious reinvention), the sound design and musical score of this film is compelling: it throbs, grinds and whispers through the cinema. There is a superb scene in which Paul realises that a tiny metal insect floating towards him in his private chamber is a hunter-seeker, a remote-controlled device intended to kill him. As this insidious little object with its sharp sting approaches, Paul remains still and calm until the very last heart-stopping split-second, knowing that any sudden moves will allow the device to locate his position.
The other disturbing predator to be evaded in Dune is the gigantic and bizarre sandworm that snakes under the planet surface, and occasionally surfaces, to reveal its huge … what? Mouth? Anus? Or some other aperture, like the tip of an elephant’s trunk. Either way, its appearance spells real trouble for those unlucky to be close enough to make out the ring of fine hairs around that massive orifice of doom.
As one character unselfconsciously says: “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” What Dune offers us is not quite that, more an unreality, a giant variant version of the universe, with its own culture, society, rituals, physics and chemistry. An experience is definitely what it is.
• Dune is released on 22 October in cinemas.