Frank Herbert’s 1965 quasi-biblical space opera came to be known as a sci-fi novel that even those not into the genre could enjoy. But the sheer magnitude, complexity and transcendental nature of the story has for decades eluded some of Hollywood’s greatest visionaries’ attempts to bring it to the screen.
Most notable would be David Lynch’s spectacular 1984 misfire, a colossal slog that relied overmuch on voiceovers to tell the story. There followed a raft of “inspired by” TV shows and miniseries, spinoffs and ripoffs, and Dune remained, in the jargon, unfilmable.
Until now. Enter French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario), who goes for broke and, for the most part, gets it right. He has ironed out many of the book’s convolutions while maintaining its emotional impact and political observations, and most importantly, he remains focused on the storytelling.
I have neither the space nor the inclination to explain the plot, but before you go into the theater, I highly recommend doing some homework by (1) reading the book or at least the Wikipedia synopsis, and/or (2) watching Jodorowsky’s Dune, a slightly hagiographic documentary on why the great visionary’s shot at it was doomed by unreasonable, cheapskate studio suits who wouldn’t sign off on a 15-hour movie.
The film’s success is owed in no small part to its spot-on cast. Timothee Chalamet takes the lead, and is backed up by Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgard, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Dave Batista, Charlotte Rampling and Zendaya. Not a bad performance in the lot. The stunningly gorgeous SFX exist to support the story, and the sound design and editing are Oscar-worthy.
Vast in scale and ambition and immaculately crafted, call it an arthouse blockbuster with Mad Max overtones and a hint of Lawrence of Arabia. For two and a half hours, it entertains, excites and spellbinds, and then it hits the “pause” button. Because it turns out this is only the setup; half of the book. The second half (imaginatively titled Dune: Part Two) has yet to be greenlighted in these times of dismal box-office returns. Big screen, please; the biggest you can find. (155 min)