By Lynn Venhaus
As far as big-budget cosmic spectacles go, “Dune” is impressive at filling the screen with wonder.
Directed by visionary Denis Villeneuve, who frames everything with meticulous care, as he did with “Arrival,” his only Oscar nomination, and “Blade Runner 2049” – the film is a technical marvel, with visually stunning panoramas and innovative flying machines.
A mythic hero’s journey, “Dune” is the big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 bestseller about a feudal interstellar society in a galaxy far, far away, which is set in a distant future.
It’s the story of Paul Atreides, a gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding. As part of the noble house of Atreides, he must travel to Arrakis, the most dangerous planet in the universe for the future of his family and people.
The desert wasteland planet has an exclusive supply of “mélange,” aka “the spice,” a drug that extends life and enhances mental abilities. As it is the most precious resource in existence, malevolent forces are at work to prevent this, and only those who can conquer their fear will survive.
Yet are these characters engaging enough? How much do we care about what happens to these political dynasties? They prefer to whisper in cavernous spaces, and while mesmerizing Zendaya’s narration helps, the project’s mythology on such an epic scale tends to weigh it down with “importance.”
Our hero’s journey is a very long one and we spend 2 hours and 35 minutes leading up to a next chapter. This is only Part One. We are warned at the end, when one character says to Paul: “You’re just getting started.” The payoff isn’t quite there – so when is Part Two?
We have just invested time on an extended prologue. Oh dear. Will only fans of the book be able to appreciate this saga? And isn’t that the true test? As is always the case, those not familiar with the source material will be at a disadvantage trying to keep up with the warring factions.
Considered the best-selling science fiction novel of all-time, “Dune” is gigantic in scope, and the 1965 cult classic touches on themes involving politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, threading them all together in space.
The empire’s other planets want control of Arrakis for its spice, which is also necessary for space navigation because of its multidimensional awareness and foresight.
“Dune” is only the first in a series, followed by Herbert’s five sequels: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. After his death, others have kept the franchise going.
Its devoted fan base inspired filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to attempt a film adaptation in the 1970s but it was cancelled after three years in development. Along came David Lynch’s complex adaptation in 1984, which was a harshly received misguided mess, and there was a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries in 2000.
While light years ahead of the 37-year-old film, “Dune” does seem to have the same problem about adapting something so unwieldy – that the character development suffers.
It’s difficult to figure out the planetary relationships and who’s who among the different groups, even with a strong cast that attempts to make everything as lucid as possible.
This one does attempt to over-correct in a tedious way, with a screenplay by director Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange,” “Prometheus”) and Eric Roth, Oscar winner for “Forrest Gump,” that still is lacking in explanations.
Paul is played with youthful elan by Timothee Chalamet, who seems to be working non-stop. His character, burdened by birthright, is actually the least interesting of the massive ensemble – but the camera loves him, and he looks good standing in many shots of wind and blowing sands, contemplating.
Chalamet has genuine interactions with his father, an authoritative but loving Duke Leto Atreides, well-played by the always captivating Oscar Isaac. With warm fatherly advice, Isaac tells him: “A great man doesn’t seek to lead; he’s called to it.”
It’s not his fault that Paul is a blank slate. He is being groomed to take over, and while at times reluctant and confused, he ultimately accepts his duties. His mother, all-serious Lady Jessica, is a tough taskmaster, and subtly played by Rebecca Ferguson, they have a protective relationship.
Far more compelling is Jason Momoa as the fierce warrior Duncan Idaho. He brings some oomph to the fighter’s bravado and his fists of fury are legitimate. Momoa and Chalamet warmly convey a loyal long standing friendship.
Not given much to do is Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, the duke’s right-hand man, and Dave Bautista as antagonist Beast Rabben Harkonnen – along with Momoa, they are the recognizable fighters.
A barely there Javier Bardem is Stilgar, a leader of a desert tribe. An unrecognizable Stellen Skarsgard appears, Jabba the Hut-like, as the disgusting despot Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The Harkonnens are the evil not-to-be-trusted bad guys.
The first hour is full of awe. But why do movies about the future tend to mix medieval and “Star Wars” knock offs in production design and costumes, similar to the “Game of Thrones”? The color palette is deary shades of gray, beige and black.
While that gets wearisome, the cinematography of Greig Fraser is dazzling. An Emmy winner for “The Mandalorian” and Oscar nominee for “Lion,” he expresses the grandeur of the planets’ landscapes as well as the more intimate moments in various degrees of light.
He worked on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the upcoming “The Batman,” so tackling sandworms and spaceships is natural for him. His majestic work is one of the pleasures of seeing this in IMAX.
Hans Zimmer’s score is a stirring mix projecting danger and derring-do in dissonant chords, setting an urgent tone for action.
Despite its storytelling flaws, “Dune” is such a monumental example of state-of-the-art filmmaking that its cinematic universe deserves to be seen on the big screen.
“Dune” is a 2021 science-fiction action adventure directed by Denis Villeneuve. It stars Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, and Javier Bardem. Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material, its run time is 2 hours, 35 minutes. It opened in theaters Oct. 22 and is streaming on HBO Max for 31 days. Lynn’s Grade: B.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.