To anyone who remembers seeing David Lynch’s 1984 version of “Dune” and thinking, “OK, so that happened,” director Denis Villeneuve has conjured a far more coherent narrative filled with stunning images and massive machinery. He has also split the book into two films, leaving audiences to consume the less compelling first half before ending somewhat abruptly in the middle.
It’s a perfectly logical approach given the scope of the material (which also spawned a 2000 miniseries), but nevertheless an important disclaimer, since anyone seeing what’s labeled as “Part One” should understand that complete satisfaction requires committing to Part Two, even if the studio, Warner Bros. (like CNN, part of WarnerMedia), hasn’t quite taken that step yet.
As is, Villeneuve (whose credits include “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival”) enlists a high-voltage cast to bring to life Frank Herbert’s tale of warring houses, and the emergence of young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as the messianic heir to a “great destiny.”
The budding battle pits House Atreides against the merciless forces of the Harkonnen, overseen by the grotesque Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), for control of Arrakis and its precious spice, the key to space travel.
Paul comes along on the mission with his father the Duke (Oscar Isaac) and mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who has bequeathed him another birthright that will figure heavily in his future. Yet the fate of Arakis runs through its grizzled inhabitants the Fremen, who have suffered under Harkonnen rule and are understandably wary of outsiders.
Working from an adaptation he wrote with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, Villeneuve has gotten an enormous amount right, from the casting to the epic scale, including the absurdly giant worms that churn beneath the surface and occasionally erupt in spectacular fashion.
Still, much of the movie is devoted to Paul’s dawning abilities and visions, including those involving a member of the Fremen (Zendaya, whose role is largely limited thus far to those gauzy images).
On the plus side, Chalamet captures Paul’s gradual awakening, and there’s a clarity to the warring factions, geopolitics and betrayals that the earlier movie generally lacked. While Lynch’s vision was state of the art for its time, the visual effects also reflect how far we’ve come in the intervening decades.
Yet while it’s perhaps unavoidable upon committing to tell the story in its full flavor, it rankles to sit through a 155-minute movie that at times feels like the extended coming attraction for a more muscular sequel, to arrive who knows when.
Simply put, it’s a gamble essentially presenting a limited series narrative in a package that – even with a streaming option – cries out for a bigger screen than the one in your living room. (For his part, Villeneuve wrote an oped for Variety passionately arguing for the movie’s theatrical consumption.)
Zendaya is the most obvious casualty of that frontloading in terms of her limited role, but other members of the cast – which also includes Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin and Dave Bautista among those with superhero (or villain) credentials – receive modest screen time thanks to the sprawling nature of the story.
“Arakis has seen men like you come and go,” Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the Fremen leader, pointedly tells the Duke when they meet.
Plenty of franchises like “Dune” have come and gone too. “Part One” represents an admirable effort to do the material justice, and its release comes as a few movies delayed into October have exhibited promising life at the box office.
That said, its future feels as hazy as Paul’s visions. And it wouldn’t be the first expensive production imbued with an impressive legacy that winds up being lost to the sands of time.
“Dune” premieres Oct. 22 in US theaters and on HBO Max. It’s being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia.