Denis Villeneuve’s film of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” looks exactly as it should on the big screen — epic in scale, baroque in design, fatalistic in outlook, grim in its life-or-death stakes.
But then the reason we know what it’s supposed to look and feel like from David Lynch’s flawed 1984 adaptation, if not the SyFy Channel’s malnourished dive into it. This dense, tense and Bedouin culture/feudalism-in-space piece of science fiction, first published on the heels of David Leans’ “Lawrence of Arabia” in the 1960s isn’t so much “unfilmmable” as a bit played out in terms of themes, action beats and plot points. Herbert stole from desert Arab culture. Everybody from George Lucas onward stole from Herbert.
So as faithful to the spirit of the novel as this adaptation is, as wonderfully as visionary Villeneuve cast it, as stunning as the “Arrival/Blade Runner 2049” director’s production design and art direction team makes it, this pretty picture often plays as ponderous.
And Villeneuve makes that conclusion entirely too easy. You don’t have to remember Lynch’s “Dune” to realize Villeneuve mimicked the earlier film’s pace. You don’t have to remember the story from the novel or earlier adaptations — also referenced in “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” the documentary about a third “visionary” who almost make a version of this desert planet saga back in the ’70s — to get impatient with Villeneuve’s many lingering shots of “Star Wars” sized military formations, gigantic worms, ginormous spaceships and the “Thopter,” the dragonfly-like ornithopter that flies over the planet Arrakis, coveted s for its hallucinogenic, interstellar-travel enabling “spice.”
“Dune” gives us the dreams of its hero, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), heir to the dukedom of House Atreides. Again and again, we’re teased with flash-forwards thanks to Paul, son of not just Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), but of his witchy spellbinger of the Bene Gesserit mother (Rebecca Ferguson). This “chosen one” has glimpses of a possible future, which creates impatience in the story as it plods through everything it takes to put our hero in those more-exciting-than-what-we-see-here dream-scenes from “Dune 2” and/or “3.”
Even though Villeneuve & Co. realized that Herbert’s book was going to take multiple films to cover, unlike David Lynch and his producer Dino DeLaurentis, by pacing this “Dune” exactly like Lynch’s — both films give us our first taste of the Sand Worms” one hour in — he all but ensures the slowest “origin story” franchise film in ages.
House Atreides, led by Duke Leto, has been given the “fief” of Arrakis, sending him and his vast armed clan to take over the spice mining on this forbidding desert planet whose natives, the Fremen, aren’t keen on “Outworlders” making a mess of things and giving them nothing in return.
The Duke, his concubine Jessica (Ferguson), his son Paul and most trusted lieutenants (Jason Mamoa, Josh Brolin and Stephen McKinley Henderson) and palace guards will take over from their bloodthirsty rivals, House Harkonnen, led by its bloated ogre of a Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) and his thuggish nephew (Dave Bautista).
“When is a gift not a gift?”
Arrakis is a poison pill for Atreides, a hellishly hot place infested with people-and-machinery-devouring sand worms, wracked by terrorist attacks from the Fremen. The Duke hopes to pacify the place by “negotiating” with the natives and fixing everything the Harkonnen messed up.
Javier Bardem plays a gloriously insolent leader of the Fremen, Zendaya is a native dominating Paul’s dreams of the planet and his future. Charlotte Rampling is the forbidding Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, who “tests” Paul, reminding him “You have more than one birthright, boy!”
“Dune” takes us from grand, oversized sets to striking Norwegian coastal cliffs and the stunning desert vistas of Abu Dhabi as it immerses us in this universe of intrigues and a Chosen One’s martial and ESP Bene Gesserit training from Mum.
“Use ‘The Voice!'”
And the film introduces us to an arid world where shade is a life-saving must just after sunrise, where water is so precious it has to be recycled in special suits and spitting isn’t the insult it is in much of our world, even though it’s just as gross.
Chalamet tends to overdo his many take-a-thoughtful-pause moments and Bautista seems woefully miscast in this ensemble of Oscar nominees and an Oscar winner.
But Mamoa and Brolin are macho delights, Ferguson soulful and scheming, Isaac and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (playing an Imperial ecologist) make strong impressions and Stellan Skarsgård, almost buried in (Digital?) prosthetics, tickles as an embittered, bloody-minded beast with little control of his “appetites.”
Hans Zimmer’s score leans heavily on the Arabic influences that inspired Herbert, whose novel gave much of the Western world its first taste of such words as “jihad” and The Mahdi.”
David Lynch was forced to suddenly squeeze in two thirds of the novel into the ruinously-rushed last 45 minutes of his “Dune,” and Villeneuve faces no such dilemma. But his take on the tale dawdles, pretty much from his opening scene to the anti-climactic finish.
There’s a trick to making first-film-in-a-franchise films, and while the sweep of this one is every bit the eye candy fans could hope for, Villeneuve, the screenwriters and I must add composer Zimmer don’t so much stick the landing as let their picture peter out.
Let’s hope “Dune 2” turns Villeneuve’s vision into more entertaining action epic.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Mamoa, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Javier Bardem, Chen Chang, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Dave Bautista and Stellan Skarsgård.
Credits: Directed by Denis Villeneuve, scripted by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth. based on the novel by Frank Herbert. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:35