It begins with an immediate dip in the pool of cinematic immersion and ends in non-definitive terms. That would be the long story short way to describe Denis Villeneuve’s mindset on adapting Frank Herbert’s famed novel Dune for a modern audience. One who can best appreciate a dense plot going full-on organic, without lacking in faithfulness to the source material. And even if its endpoint comes without slugs denting the sophisticated space engine, nothing can stop its effortless, spatial progression. Not too shabby for a film subtitled as “Part One” of a possible two, its final act slowdown unjustifiable otherwise.
The beginning of Dune is considerably more exciting than where it lands at that indefinite intermission. Villeneuve wastes no time whisking us into the dry and desolate wastelands of the planet Arrakis. In no small terms, there’s a lot of sand. It’s coarse, it gets everywhere, and it wraps around the frame. Leave it to the youthful Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), a soldier brave, or dumb, enough to conquer this arid wilderness as part of an army conclave. The goal for House Atreides is simple: play along with the way of this sand as they take over mining operations for the rare spice melange, mingling along the desert flats. A contract job handed to them by their noble Emperor Shaddam, to the full disdain of territorial owner and dark rival Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skårsgard) of House Harkonnen. His camp had maintained control of Arrakis for the longest time, holding a profitable monopoly for the spice. Without any fear, this shift in rights ownership leads to the early seeds of an all-out war, which Paul’s father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is prepared to wage.
Paul, on the other hand, is overly eager to make a name for himself under his parents’ tutelage. Between an army captain dad and a mother with combat skills beyond the realm of existence, his training leaves him overqualified to take the eventual leadership role. Here, in this friendly fire situation, training closely with mom Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), he’s given a welcome, capable test. He is not immune to distractions, however. First, by the haunting beauty of the outside world. Secondly, by the less civilized nomads wandering around, known as the Fremen. Call it a mix between serious battle, soul searching trip, and psychedelic walk amid barren fields.
While no single director could successfully claim to break the complex code on adapting Dune for the big screen, Villeneuve, co-writing with Jon Spaihts (Passengers) and Eric Roth (A Star is Born), has perhaps pushed the closest, allowing Herbert’s manuscript more than the necessary breathing room. No offense to David Lynch’s spin on the source material; for its high marks on its fantasy imagery, any level of cohesion on merit of the plot was tossed out by its tight compression.
Around these parts, well supported by shooting within the elements of rural Jordan, no more must we contend with a morbid, near-steampunk conniption involving trade wars and sandworms. The aesthetic elements make a significant difference as events play out, grounded, and with an added mental acuity. Villeneuve has designed his advantageous effort to tickle and tease all five senses, not just the eyes and ears. Granted, yes, the talents of DP Greig Fraser (Vice), sound designer Theo Green, and composer Hans Zimmer promote high sensory engulfment, to the point of deep quivering. A bombastic tribal army drum corps can possess that effect on a viewer.
Just what are these events that occur in the lush, unforgiving landscape Denis is attempting to populate? Much of it feels very much in the mind, and the longevity of physicality is more of a second nature byproduct. Success falls square on brainpower, sharpness achieved by years of training. Clearly, the fighters of House Atreides are well versed to play the cat and mouse angle and remain one step ahead of their Harkonnen enemies, unwilling to relinquish their control. Duke Leto is almost giddy to take over, save for the shift in operations to the dangerous melange hub. His presence as both a commander and father equal to a mildly complex web fueled by issues in leadership. Isaac remains virtuous, unwavering, opening the door for Chalamet to trod deeper in those footsteps.
Paul’s very presence in secondary command requires heavy psychological fortitude. A quizzical authoritarian plight only he could rise to, best assisted by his mother, a student in the Bene Gesserit study of mind control. And by charismatic Atreides soldiers like Duncan Idaho (a captivating Jason Momoa), senior recruit Gurney (an energetic Josh Brolin), and wise sage Thufir (Stephen McKinley Henderson), bridging the gaps between work and fractured family life. Chalamet wins by playing to his support squad, learning from them to gain the upper hand on Skårsgard’s blob-like antagonistic force (near eye candy on the makeup front). His character focus proves more meaningful on his own, running about the unbearable Arrakian mountains.
When the visual stickiness, the glow from those vast shots of giant ships and related imagery wears off, it’s Chalamet who keeps the film rolling, answering without fail. Even if Paul’s mind is clouded by doubt, mystery, and flirtations with romance. His mild infatuation with Fremen leader Chani (Zendaya), whose very face boggles his otherwise clean focus. For my money, that’s where the otherwise adventurous attitude of this Villeneuveian endeavor reaches a screeching halt, arriving at that inevitable cut-to-black 20 minutes late as Paul quietly makes friends with the Fremen as associates in war, branching out his identity as a leader, and to some as a wayward prophet. The interpretation could perhaps best be left to the viewer, wondering the scope of Paul’s outreach if the mind isn’t completely taxed on exposition.
But that’s nothing less of an inherent flaw, Villeneuve struggling to find the right seam in Herbert’s novel and split it in half. He finds it, nonetheless, going as big as possible to envelop the viewer into an ideally unfamiliar world. Possibly going farther to include a state of mind not considered fathomable. That must’ve been the effect Herbert carried to readers in the 60s, and the same can very much be said of this Dune, again apart from its disjointed lack of an ending. Before then, we still achieve a sense of clarity into the psychosis of a leader uncertain of his role in life, engulfed by the sights and sounds of a very weird, unpredictable future. It’s loud, dirty, faded, occasionally vivid, persistently engaging until the last shot.
Whatever result was aimed for will be surpassed, but it requires the most optimal conditions to be its most special. There’s no doubt, no hindrance in Denis’ approach to this space story. In the realm of Dune. It all takes place under these circumstances for a valid reason. One that I hope can be resolved in the eventual sequel, wherever and whenever it pops up. Until then, just know this first experience is best taken big, and sober. It’s all just designed that way. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Dune arrives in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend (officially Thursday at 6 PM EST); rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing sequences, and suggestive material; 155 minutes.