Denis Villeneuve directs a highly visual, empathy-challenged, almost too-faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert's 'Dune'
"Dune" - ★ ★ ½
Hey, at least this spectacular, fervidly anticipated adaptation of Frank Herbert's densely packed 1965 science-fiction novel "Dune" fares better than David Lynch's abortive 1984 version, an exposition-laden project so impenetrable and confusing that Mount Prospect's Randhurst Theaters printed up special cheat-sheets to help patrons understand the plot and characters.
No need for that with Denis Villeneuve's more inventive and less incoherent movie that die-hard fans deserve to experience on the big silver screen, not on HBO Max.
Where Lynch crammed the entirety of Herbert's book into a 137-minute yawn-fest, Villeneuve has smartly opted to follow Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" adaptation by presenting "Dune" in two parts, with a possible third film hinging on the success of its predecessors.
So, Part 1 becomes a 155-minute first act that constructs fascinating alien worlds where flying machines with three pairs of mechanical wings take off like flittering dragonflies, where monstrous sand worms burrow under the desert like gopher snakes, and where political battles between the house of Atreides and the house of Harkonnen set the stage for war involving a magical, life-affirming spice called mélange, more valuable than fossil fuels here on Earth.
Enticing stuff. But only for a short while.
After the initial flash and dazzle wanes, Part 1 hits two narrative speed bumps created by Villeneuve's noble intent to be as faithful to Herbert's work as directorially possible.
Most of Part 1 does little more than set up events and situations that will only pay off, hopefully, in Part 2. No cliffhangers here, as in "The Empire Strikes Back."
Not even a cliff. But lots of expositional sand.
More disappointing and surprising, given Villeneuve's track record for immersive dramas ("Prisoners," "Sicario," "Blade Runner 2049"), is how empathy-challenged his characters can be. They arrive, they deliver stilted dialogue, they fight, they die, and yet, they never touch us with who they are and why we should feel invested in their welfare.
An honors grad from the Perpetual Furrowed Brow School of Acting, "Star Wars" veteran Oscar Isaac plays Duke Leto Atreides, boss of his planet and father to young Paul Atreides (a thin, low-wattage Timothée Chalamet, his fixed, pensive face framed in curls).
The story sets up Paul to become a savior figure, instrumental in constructing an alliance with the Fremen, an Indigenous desert people on the planet Arrakis who can provide needed military assistance to the Atreides.
Paul possesses an annoying ability to be suddenly seized by interruptive glimpses from the future, most involving a shrouded mystery woman (Zendaya) who utters fortune-cookie lines such as "You need to face your fears!"
Paul apparently gets his ESP chops from his mom, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, providing the movie's most layered, charismatic performance), a member of the mysterious Bene Gesserit sect. She's a terrific telepathy trainer, too.
The always-watchable Jason Momoa pumps up an impressive supporting cast as the cheerfully combative soldier Duncan Idaho. Charlotte Rampling brings appropriate weirdness to Paul's tough-love aunt, Gaius Helen Mohiam, who insists he put his hand in a pain-inducing box and hold it there, otherwise she'll stab his neck with a poisoned needle.
A barely recognizable Stellan Skarsgård scores with the slimy, sensational villain Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a bloated Jabba the Hutt/Ernst Stavro Blofeld mashup compelled to kill everyone else in the movie.
On the topic of killing, the PG-13-rated violence in "Dune" feels self-consciously sanitized, as if Villeneuve envisioned it to have an appropriately harder, R-rated edge but was contractually obligated to make it kid-friendly.
Initially, Part 1 should rack up solid box office returns, fueled by Herbert fans and others anxious to see how Villeneuve's interpretation compares to Lynch's and to the Sci-Fi Channel's three-part miniseries released in 2000. But, lacking a satisfying story and connective characters might limit those crucial repeat viewings, causing the earnings to fall and plateau out.
Then Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures will determine if Villeneuve's next film will be Part 2 of "Dune." Or simply "Done."
• • •
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Other: A Warner Bros. release. In theaters and on HBO Max. Rated PG-13 for violence. 155 minutes