Long-awaited Dune is a visual splendor with a story that's stuck in sand
The current movie world is one in which IP — aka intellectual property — is king. If some past movie or TV show has good name recognition, chances are someone out there has plans to remake or reboot it for modern audiences. Dune definitely fits those parameters even though its source material, Frank Herbert’s novel, came out almost 60 years ago, and the most well-known adaptation, David Lynch’s 1984 movie, was considered a failure.
The new version, written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is probably one of the best-looking films of the year, but one whose complexity may leave audiences cold. In somewhat of a nutshell, the film centers on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), whose father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), leads a group that has been designated to overtake the caretaking of Arrakis, a planet rich with a powerful spice prized by many in this particular galaxy.
Not everyone approves of the House Atreides taking over the harvesting of the spice, especially the former caretakers, the House Harkonnen, led by the portly Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). The Atreides must also deal with the Fremen, the natives of Arrakis who only wish to be left in peace to live in the desert, as well as giant sandworms that roam the dunes and threaten to disrupt the spice harvesting.
Villeneuve, along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, does a great job of showing the epic nature of the story, but when it comes time to explain why it’s so grand, he comes up lacking. The mythology of the Dune world is clearly deep, but the film, despite its running time of two-and-a-half hours, takes little time to guide the audience through the intricacies of its competing factions or terminology. Instead, viewers are left on their own to understand each particular unfamiliar phrase, or most significantly, the magic powers that Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), seem to possess.
Also, anyone hoping to indulge in a bit of Chalamet-Zendaya shipping are out of luck because Zendaya’s character, Chani, is hardly in the film. Although the marketing doesn’t indicate as much, the film points out right away that this is merely Part 1 of the story. In this part, Paul seems to have a weird psychic connection to Chani, but she’s mostly shown in brief, wordless flashes, only getting a small amount of dialogue toward the end of the film.
One might think that a film that’s telling only half the story would have plenty of time to set up the character dynamics and stakes of the saga at large, but Villeneuve and his team struggle in this regard. They seem much more interested in portraying the scale — both literally and metaphorically — of everything in the film, forgetting that all of the grandiosity only matters if the audience cares about the people involved. Several significant characters meet their doom in the film, but their sacrifices and/or comeuppances have all the emotion of a business meeting.
The performances in the film are all strong enough to keep the characters interesting even when their stories are not. Chalamet, Ferguson, and Isaac make for a nice, if age-inappropriate, family, and Jason Momoa turns in one of his strongest roles to date as a soldier who has a personal investment in protecting them. Skarsgård gets to have fun in an unusual role for him, and Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem make the most of their relatively small roles.
Sci-fi lovers may revel in the idea that the vast worlds of Dune are finally getting the showcase they deserve, but anyone who wants to truly know what the story is about will either have to see the movie more than once or do some Internet research. Part 2 may hold the answers and emotion that this film does not, but it’s a curious approach to withhold even a hint of those things the first time around.
Dune opens in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22.