“Dune,” the latest cinematic take on the Frank Herbert 1965 classic, now playing in theatres, is part one of the planned two-part series. So be forewarned, the two-and-a-half-hour movie doesn’t wrap things up with a tidy bow. For some, the film’s last line, “This is only the beginning,” will be a promise of more interesting movies ahead, for others, who prefer tighter storytelling and a clear-cut finale, it may come off as a threat.
Director and co-writer Denis Villeneuve benefits from the parceled-out storytelling. Where David Lynch’s ill-fated 1984 version attempted to cover the complexity of the entire book, Villeneuve is given the time for world building, to explain the various and complex spiritual sci-fi elements that make up the story.
Here are the Cole’s Notes.
Set 8,000 years in the future, the story focusses on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of an aristocratic family and possibly, just maybe, a prophet. His father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), has been bestowed stewardship of Arrakis, the desert planet also known as Dune. His mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is part of the Bene Gesserit, a social, religious, and political alliance who can magically control enemies by modulating their vocal tones.
Their new domain, Arrakis, is a desolate, almost inhabitable place that is home to the Fremen, a group of people who have lived on the planet for thousands of years. It is also the universe’s only source of mélange, also known as “spice.” It’s a drug with the power to extend human life, facilitate superhuman planes of thought and can even make faster-than-light travel possible. It is the most valuable commodity in the universe and those who control it, control everything.
When Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård doing his best impression of Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”), the former steward of Arrakis, double crosses the Atreides clan, Paul and his mother are left in the desert to die. If they are to survive it will be with the help of the Fremen—including Chani (Zendaya) and Stilgar (Javier Bardem)—who call Paul “The Chosen One” and believe he has the power to bring peace to their world.
There’s more. Lots more, but that’s the non-spoilerific version.
Villeneuve lays out the information methodically, allowing the various story points and character motivations to seep into the fabric of the film and make an impact before moving on. There’s a lot to get through, but it doesn’t feel onerous like so many origin stories do.
Also effective are the large scale, and I mean large as in you need three or four eyes to take it all in, action scenes. The entire movie is big. So big it makes even the giant humans Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista, who play swordmaster Duncan Idaho and warrior Glossu Rabban respectively, look puny by comparison. As for the action, Villeneuve pulls out all the stops, staging world ending battles with elegance. Often major battle sequences can be muddled, a blur of colours and glints of metal, but Villeneuve delivers clear cut, tense sequences with a clarity that is unusual for modern action.
“Dune” is big and beautiful, with plentiful action and a really charismatic performance from Momoa. It is unquestionably well made, with thought provoking themes of exploitation of Indigenous peoples, environmentalism and colonialism.
So why didn’t I like it more than I did?
Partially because it’s an epic with no payoff. The cliffhanger nature of the story is frustrating after a two-and-a-half-hour wait. As good audience members we allow ourselves to be caught up in the world, humourless and bleak as it often is, to get to know the characters and then what? Wait for two years for the next movie? Apparently so, and the ending feels abrupt.
Nonetheless, “Dune” is formidable. It’s a grim, immersive movie that doesn’t shy away from the darkness that propels the story or the high-mindedness of the ideas contained within. Eventually, when we have a part two, it will feel like one piece, much like “The Lord of the Rings” franchise, but right now, despite its scope, it feels incomplete.