Dune

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It was a big risk for Denis Villeneuve to make Dune. The movie is based on Frank Herbert's classic science-fiction novel, a book so dense that it comes with its own glossary. The nature of the material is complex enough that many people can't get through it. Then there's the fact that David Lynch already adapted Herbert's work in 1984. His picture didn't exactly light the world on fire. A TV miniseries also exists. Despite all these factors, Villeneuve persevered with a new Dune, and I can't remember the last time a movie so thoroughly bored me.

Describing the plot is futile, except to say it involves the fight over valuable spices on a futuristic planet. Timothee Chalamet is Paul, a young man assigned to protect those spices. Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson are his royal parents, Zendaya is the mystery girl he keeps dreaming about, and Jason Momoa is a loyal soldier he's friends with. Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, and Javier Bardem are here, too.

Herbert's story is complicated to begin with, but Villeneuve's telling of it compounds the issue. One character after another is introduced in the first hour, often without making it clear who they are or how they're connected. Those fundamentals are quickly glossed over in favor of showing off fancy sets and exquisite outdoor locations, or pointless bits designed to create a moody vibe. Similarly, there's precious little development of the spice planet and why it's vital to so many. Without a deeper core understanding of why we're supposed to care about these people and their situation, there's nowhere to go but down.

What we do get is a rambling narrative full of scenes that don't add up. Dune runs 155 minutes, yet the sequences that comprise those minutes rarely feel like they fit together. Chalamet is in a coming-of-age tale about a kid working to be worthy of his father's legacy, Momoa is in an action movie, Ferguson is in a family drama, etc. If you look at the director's previous sci-fi movies, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, they had the combination of artistry and ambiance that he's going for here, but the individual scenes built on each other, allowing for the creation of suspense. Dune is much more haphazard in its assembly, as though by trying to streamline the book's story, he and his screenwriters went too far in the opposite direction.

A great deal more effort has been put into production design, cinematography, and special effects. Although magnificent, they draw attention to how slipshod the storytelling is. With a world so visually extravagant, we expect thrilling, dramatic events to take place there. Instead, we bounce from one location to the next, perpetually trying to figure out what anything we're seeing has to do with anything else. Our eyes are engaged, our minds are not.

Of course, this is technically Dune: Part One. It only covers half of the book. A second part is planned. That may be the worst sin of all. What we get here is two-and-a-half hours of set-up for a payoff that won't arrive for at least a couple years. That includes a cliffhanger-ish ending. The obvious comparison is to IT. Based on Stephen King's equally massive book, the series benefitted from a structure that allowed Part One to be the story of the characters as kids and Part Two as adults. The first one could therefore stand on its own as a compelling tale.

Dune lacks that quality, ending with no sense of resolution or closure whatsoever, just a bunch of people heading out for what we're promised will be a grand adventure. Of course, as dull and meandering as the film is, many viewers may opt not to return to see what happens next. An effort to create a grand science-fiction epic has yielded something cold, something that fails to generate an emotional response.

Dune is a visually gorgeous, frustratingly sluggish dud.


out of four

Dune is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material. The running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes.