‘Dune’ – a visually overwhelming sci-fi movie best seen in theaters
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Dune” didn’t do it for me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t do it for you.
Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited take on Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic is very much its own thing – operatically ambitious and visually overwhelming. Even if it fails you, as it did me, you’ll still know you’ve been to the movies.
And that’s where you should see it – at the movies, as in the pre-pandemic meaning of the word, i.e., at a movie theater, preferably on the biggest screen you can find. Villeneuve takes Herbert’s book very seriously and that seriousness translates into a kind of intrinsic immensity that goes far beyond mere production design.
The plot is simultaneously very simple and very complicated. The complicated part mostly has to do with visions and ancient prophecies concerning, well, The One (sorry “Matrix” fans), i.e., a long-destined messianic figure. Villeneuve doesn’t get into this too deeply because his movie, long as it is (155 minutes), is actually titled “Dune: Part One.”
Translation: it’s an adaptation of only the first half of Herbert’s book.
The simpler part concerns a power struggle among various factions known as Houses. Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), leader of House Atreides, has just been given a dubious promotion: he is the new ruler of Arrakis, a desert planet mostly populated by an indigenous people known as the Fremen and deadly underground monsters known as sandworms (yes, think “Tremors” – or maybe try not to).
Yet, Arrakis is also a powerful fiefdom because it’s the only place you can find spice, a miraculous substance that can do everything from fueling space travel to fueling life. Naturally, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), head of House Harkonnen, which previously ruled Arrakis, isn’t happy to be replaced. So, he plots the downfall of everything Atreides.
Which includes: Leto’s well-connected consort, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson); his right-hand men, hot-shot pilot Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and veteran warrior Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin); and, most importantly, Leto and Jessica’s son, Paul (Timothee Chalomet). Paul is the hero of “Dune,” the one who may be The One.
To their credit, the actors aren’t intimidated by the vastness of the production. In the film’s few quiet moments, they are actually quite good, especially Chalomet, who’s burdened with carrying the movie’s through line (and therefore setting up “Dune Two,” if there is one; it’s been discussed but not greenlit).
So, as a fan of the original novel and even an admirer – albeit in an ironic way – of David Lynch’s doomed 1984 version, why wasn’t I more taken with Villeneuve’s earnest effort?
Part of it was the unrelieved, well, earnestness. On the one hand, it’s a relief not to have to deal with the incessant quip-i-ness of the Marvel epics and, to an extent, the “Star Wars” reboots. On the other, you sometimes want to scream, lighten up.
Further, while Villeneuve has a firm grasp on “Dune’s” mythic elements, he’s less assured when it comes to things like characterization. He doesn’t give his cast much breathing room, and it’s to their credit that the actors find as many moments as they do.
Still, they can’t generate an emotional investment that simply isn’t there. When Chalomet strides across the endless desert sands, you admire him. When Peter O’Toole does the same thing in “Lawrence of Arabia,” it’s different. You know you’d follow him anywhere.
“Dune’s” is currently playing in movie theaters and is available for viewing on HBO Max.