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‘Dune’ a dense-but-incomplete visual spectacle

by TYLER WILSON/Coeur Voice contributor
| October 27, 2021 1:00 AM

Know this going into Denis Villeneuve’s immaculately-made science fiction spectacle: The title card reads, “Dune Part One.”

Villeneuve, the director behind recent brainy sci-fi like “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” approaches Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel by attempting to make its complicated plot mechanizations and numerous character arcs accessible and narratively compelling in visual form. Given the source material, that goal takes time.

The result is a two-and-a-half hour movie that covers roughly half the original book. That’s the biggest strike against this version of “Dune.” It ends before the ending. At least a sequel is more likely than not after a solid launch in theaters and on HBO Max last week.

Even by taking its time with the characters and simplifying some of the novel’s world-building, “Dune” likely appeals more to fans of dense science-fiction and fantasy. Don’t expect a series of bombastic, “Star Wars”-level action sequences here. Villeneuve, however, remains one of the most detail-oriented directors working today, and so the production design and sprawling cinematography is predictably spectacular throughout.

Set in the distant future where planets are managed under a feudal system, the core of “Dune” focuses on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of the Duke of House Atreides (Oscar Isaac). At the start of the film, House Atreides has been tasked with managing the desert planet of Arrakis, where a rare “spice” that enables space travel is harvested, but a rival house, and the empire at large, seem to be setting Atreides up for violence.

Paul also lives with budding mystical powers courtesy of his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Hall). She’s part of the Bene Gesserit (basically “space witches”), and some believe Paul will be some sort of Messiah. Paul, meanwhile, keeps seeing vivid visions of future events, including interactions with Arrakis’ native people (Fremen), and especially with one named Chani (played by Zendaya).

Look, it would take many more paragraphs to fully explain what’s going on here, but credit to Villeneuve and his writing team for unspooling this information in visually interesting ways without getting too bogged down in all the weirdness. It also helps to employ an A-list cast, which includes Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Jason Mamoa in key roles.

Focusing on the film’s central trio of Paul, Lady Jessica and the Duke helps to ground the complicated web of space politics at play here. Isaac does some nice work to dramatize the anguish of essentially walking into a war-inciting trap, and Ferguson brings ample humanity to a purposefully mysterious character.

Chalamet works well here too; Paul begins the film as a passive bystander unsure of himself and his future, and while that story remains incomplete, “Dune” does offer opportunity for Chalamet to wrestle with the consequences of the man Paul is supposed to become.

Plus you get giant space worms and spaceships that look like dragonflies. Villeneuve operates on a huge canvas, so if you aren’t going to the theater to see “Dune,” at least sit real close to your television.

The ending of this “Dune,” however, can’t help but feel abrupt, and the climactic moments feel unsatisfying in a way you don’t necessarily get from other “single chapter” films like “Lord of the Rings” or even “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I.” While it may have been the natural place to split the novel in half, “Dune” as a film experience seems incomplete. There are narrative choices here that can’t really be judged until we see the payoff.

In all likelihood, Villeneuve should be able to deliver on those moments in a Part II. That won’t make the waiting any easier.

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Tyler Wilson has been writing about movies for Inland Northwest publications since 2000, including a regular film column in The Press since 2006. He can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.

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