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Sci-Fi epic 'Dune' is an immersive but incomplete experience

Timothée Chalamet is a royal heir, and Rebecca Ferguson is his mother in <em>Dune</em>.
Chiabella James
Warner Bros. Pictures
Timothée Chalamet is a royal heir, and Rebecca Ferguson is his mother in Dune.

Dune may not be the best new movie you'll see this year, but it's easily the most new movie you'll see this year. I left the theater feeling overwhelmed and a little parched, as though I'd spent two hours and 35 minutes being pummeled by hot desert winds and blinding sandstorms. The world of Frank Herbert's novel feels big and immersive here in a way it never has on-screen, with its futuristic spacecraft, cavernous fortresses and, of course, terrifying sand worms.

I've never been a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve's technically stupendous but oddly soulless movies, like Prisoners and Incendies, or bought into the notion that he's some kind of second coming of Stanley Kubrick. Still, there's no question that he's well prepared for this assignment as the director of moodily ambitious science fiction like Arrival, probably his best film, and Blade Runner 2049.

With Dune, Villeneuve and his co-writers, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, have made a lucid adaptation of a book that's long been deemed unfilmable: The Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously abandoned his Dune movie in the '70s, and David Lynch's 1984 version was deemed such a disaster that Lynch himself disowned it. There was also a bland 2000 miniseries that at least understood that the book might be too dense to squeeze into a single film.

That may be why Villeneuve opted to split Dune into two movies. This first installment is a largely faithful retelling of a complicated story. Many millennia into the future, the universe has become a vast feudal society — a sort of interstellar Game of Thrones — in which noble houses control different planets. The most coveted is the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, the source of a powerful, life-extending substance called spice.

As the story opens, there's been an imperial decree that control of Arrakis will be taken away from the treacherous House Harkonnen and handed over to its longtime rival, House Atreides. It's a triumph for the good Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), though he and his advisers, played by actors including Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin, suspect they may be walking into a trap.

Timothée Chalamet is a great choice for the duke's son Paul, a coddled royal heir who could be the "Kwisatz Haderach" — that's Dune-speak for messiah figure or superbeing. For the most part, the movie keeps Herbert's made-up languages to a minimum.

Villeneuve wants even novices to be able to follow along. He plays up the book's ever-resonant subtexts of colonial oppression and ecological disaster. And he's cast even the smaller roles with magnetic actors, like Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgard, who keep you watching even when the plot begins to tilt into abstraction. Rebecca Ferguson brings a welcome warmth to Lady Jessica, Paul's mother, with whom he flees into the desert when House Atreides comes under attack. And Zendaya and Javier Bardemturn up among the Fremen, the brutally oppressed Indigenous people of Arrakis, who will play a larger role in part two.

For sheer seat-rattling spectacle, Dune is undeniably staggering. The attack on House Atreides is staged with a brooding, quasi-Shakespearean grandeur. And then there are those giant sand worms winding their way through the story, so mysterious and mesmerizing to behold that you almost wouldn't mind being eaten by one, just to see what it's like.

But there's also something crucial missing. Much of the plot is advanced through elements of mind reading and mind control, so it's a shame that the movie never really gets inside its characters' heads. As with so many of Villeneuve's films, the visuals are stunning but the storytelling feels rudimentary; you get the sense that he's managed his source material without fully mastering it. In some ways, Lynch's Dune actually got closer to the mind-bending strangeness of Herbert's novel; it had a touch of visionary madness that this movie could use a little more of.

Even though Villeneuve's Dune is incomplete by design, there's something odd and unsatisfying about the point at which it slams to a halt. Still, it duly whets your appetite for part two, assuming it gets made; that will depend on whether part one does well enough at the box office. I hope Villeneuve gets the chance to finish what he started. This first Dune may not be a great movie — or even half a great movie — but Dune the planet is gorgeous enough that I wouldn't mind a return visit.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.