There are waves in the sand, and they're moving. Your mind is not playing tricks on you, though the thought might pop into your head while you're immersed in the engulfing landscapes of “Dune,” Denis Villeneuve's transporting, richly textured adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal 1965 sci-fi novel about political intrigue, what it means to be a leader, and things that go bump in the sand.
Any concerns this reviewer might have had about the “Sicario” auteur's ability to tackle the source material's dense and complex meditation on lust for power and violent backstabbings were promptly allayed by the confident mise en scene and effortless worldbuilding. It bears the French Canadian director's trademark gravity, but not in a way that it becomes overbearing or numbing as it sometimes has been. There are even moments of levity. Could this possibly be the same storyteller known for his pessimistic worldview? Believe it. The 54-year-old filmmaker reportedly wanted to make a piece of pop entertainment that both cinephiles and Joe Moviegoer could dig. Mission accomplished.
At least for now. Let's call this massive movie ride by its original, and more honest, title: “Dune: Part One.” Villeneuve, working from a screenplay credited to him, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, has opted to cover roughly the first half of the book, delivering a final cut that clocks in at 155 minutes. It feels just right to this sci-fi nerd, but more on that later.
There's an inevitable sense of déjà vu that comes with seeing the story of young, gifted, troubled Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and the baptism by fire that might just make a leader out of him. After all, David Lynch had a go at it in the 1980s. While the results there were far messier and more erratic, I still have a soft spot for his gaudy vision. Blame Kyle MacLachlan's Pisces energy and Sting's scenery chewing. Temptation was purposely resisted to revisit the 1984 film prior to seeing the 2021 production.
What's most striking about Villeneuve's more reined-in reimagining is that despite the distant future setting, and all the thrillingly rendered technology that goes with it, this “Dune” feels thoroughly old-fashioned. It often plays like an early CinemaScope sword-and-sandal epic in space opera drag. There's no attempt to 'roid things up to appeal to a younger demographic. This filmmaking team has astutely intuited that if you assemble this machine right, people will be drawn in regardless of aesthetic preferences.
You won't need a glossary to guide you along. Everything is laid out with the kind of clarity that is too often taken for granted. Paul's dad, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, rocking some mighty facial hair), accepts the stewardship of Arrakis, a desert planet known as a sparsely populated wasteland. It is also the source of “the spice,” a photogenic grain with manifold qualities, including making space navigation possible. The drug also enhances mental abilities in a way that makes real-world hallucinogens feel like Tylenol.
A family of noble lineage, with plenty of enemies, is tasked with overseeing the celestial body that houses the most coveted substance in this interplanetary empire. What could possibly go wrong?
The film alternates between scenes showing Paul —withdrawn, brooding, haunted by visions that look uncannily like Arrakis — interacting with his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), his devoted father and those in their immediate orbit, and those that introduce us to the miscreants plotting to swoop in and ruin the Atreides clan's ambitious plans. That would be Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, bearing a possibly coincidental resemblance to a certain political figure) and his nephew, Beast Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista).
Thrown into the mix is Reverend Mother Mohiam (a shrewdly cast Charlotte Rampling), member of an exclusive sisterhood trained to hone abilities that some look down upon as witchcraft, but whose gift for backdoor wheeling and dealing can turn the tide in the minefield that the Atreides family is about to enter. Mohiam, still miffed at Jessica for reasons revolving around Paul and Leto, is unsure as to how Paul fits into her plans. In a squirm-inducing scene, she tests his ability to withstand pain.
Leto has big plans for his son, as does his mother, but as the attractive household leaves their ocean-rich planet for the arid sands of Arrakis, it becomes clear Paul might be destined for even greater things. The iconography in the desert planet, with its tribal culture and territorial disputes, brings to mind the Arab world, both during the time of T.E. Lawrence and its contemporary unrest. Add the way Paul is regarded by the native residents, or Fremen, as a messianic figure who would fulfill a prophecy, and that could make some viewers look at Chalamet's scrawny aristocrat as a white savior. But it's clear Villeneuve aims to highlight the character's insecurity, his trepidation that he might fall short of the duties that will be asked of him.
When the other shoe drops narrative-wise, there's a controlled grandeur to the chaos. There are few surprises from a storytelling viewpoint, but it's all executed with such airtight precision that we can't help but be swept along. There's an adolescent earnestness that, coupled with the prowess behind the camera, results in a viewing experience that is at once comforting and oddly endearing. Also, those sandworms are about as spectacular as promised. (Man, they're big.) Kudos to cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette for sustaining a chiaroscuro look that makes every surface so tactile. This is sci-fi made with chops and conviction, and as such, it never comes across as filmmaking by committee the way other franchises frequently do.
Villeneuve also knows it's best to refrain from biting off more than one can chew, and he leaves Paul's journey at a point that some viewers might find unsatisfying, inconclusive or, that oft-used word, anticlimactic. It is none of those things. Rather, he chose the ideal spot where to hit pause, hopefully to pick up where he left off in the not-too-distant future. An arc has been completed, and the sense of great promise it exudes is nothing short of inspiring. This is my cue to remind the dissenters that Herbert's novel was originally published in a magazine in two parts. (Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff has reportedly hinted that “Dune: Part Two” is very likely a go, though a formal announcement has yet to be made.)
Mature yet juvenile, otherworldly yet pleasingly familiar, “Dune” demands to be experienced on the biggest screen you can find (sandworms!). Yes, I'm aware it's on HBO Max for a limited time, but if you have resumed going to the theaters, take the plunge. After all, personal filmmaking on such a massive scale only comes across once in a blue moon. (Isn't that so, Peter Jackson?) That big, fat grin I had plastered on my face never faded.
Denis Villeneuve's “Dune” is now playing in wide release, including IMAX engagements at AMC Aventura Mall, AMC Sunset Place, Regal Cinemas South Beach, and the granddaddy of them all, AutoNation IMAX at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale. It is also available to stream on HBO Max for the next 30 days, but it's so much better on the big screen.