In “Dune,” Denis Villeneuve’s droolingly anticipated, eye-bogglingly vast adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 cult sci-fi novel, the characters fly around in airplanes that have three sets of wings, all of which flap very fast. The planes look like insects, and the film suggests that’s one way that a flying machine, in another planetary sphere, might have evolved. On Earth, we styled our airplanes after birds. In “Dune,” they’re modeled on bugs, which gives them a fluttery malevolence.
“Dune,” a majestically somber and grand-scale sci-fi trance-out, is full of lavish hugger-mugger — clan wars, brute armies, a grotesque autocrat villain, a hero who may be the Messiah — that links it, in spirit and design, to the “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” films, though with a predatory ominousness all its own. The desert-planet architecture, which is bigger than huge, is sandstone Mayan. The spaceships are like floating rocks the size of cities. And the cinematic style is “Lawrence of Arabia” meets “Triumph of the Will” meets the most visionary cologne commercial that Ridley Scott never made. (The movie is more than a little enthralled with the clockwork imagery of fascism.) “Dune” is out to wow us, and sometimes succeeds, but it also wants to get under your skin like a hypnotically toxic mosquito. It does…until it doesn’t.
Here’s one useful definition of a great sci-fi fantasy film. It’s one in which the world-building is awesome but not more essential than the storytelling. In the first two “Star Wars” films, those dynamics were in perfect sync; they were, as well, in “The Dark Knight” and the “Mad Max” films. “Blade Runner,” in its way, is an amazing movie, but its world-building packs more punch than its transcendental neo-noir noodlings.
Viewed in that light, “Dune” is a movie that earns five stars for world-building and about two-and-a-half for storytelling. If you stack it up next to David Lynch’s disastrously confounding 1984 adaptation of “Dune,” it can look like a masterpiece. (Most of the story now makes sense.) And for an hour or so, the movie is rather mesmerizing, throwing off seductive glints of treachery as it presents the tale of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the gifted scion of the House Atreides, whose father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), is leading what looks to be an opportunity, though one that’s fraught with peril.
For 80 years, the forbidding desert planet of Arrakis has been presided over by the Harkonnen, who ruled with an iron fist as they controlled production of the valuable spice that’s embedded in the sand and the air. (In the book, the spice, called mélange, is a metaphor for oil and also for drugs. Here it’s a glittery abstraction.) Now, the emperor has ordered the Harkonnen to leave Arrakis and has placed the House Atreides in charge. They arrive like a newly occupying army. But they’re being set up as patsies.
Villeneuve works hard to to stay true to the conspiratorial sprawl of Herbert’s sand-planet dream, even as he streamlines the book down to its most playable scenes. Chalamet, tall and skinny, with a quizzical innocence under his cloud of curls, resembles a willowy version of Edward Scissorhands, and he plays Paul as an untested hero with abilities he scarcely understands. They’re inherited from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), an acolyte of the mystic matriarchal sect the Bene Gesserit, who wants to put him in touch with his inner cosmic savior.
There are good scenes like one in which Paul learns to speak to his mother telepathically; or receives a lesson from Isaac’s warmly protective but all-too-vulnerable Leto, who speaks to him about the human choices encoded within destiny; or gets put through a primal test by his aunt, Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) — those names! Yes, they’re as annoying as the ones in the George Lucas prequels — who asks him to place his hand in a box of pain and withstand it. (He’d better; if he fails, she’ll stab his neck with a lethal needle.) Stellan Skarsgård, nearly unrecognizable as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who’s like a floating homicidal Jabba the Hutt crossed with Henry VIII crossed with Fat Bastard, sets the plot in motion, reclaiming Arrakis by trying to kill off just about everyone in the movie who most holds our attention.
His success rate is a bit disarming. The hand-to-hand combat scenes in “Dune” have a flash of originality. Instead of lightsabers, the characters hit each with other weapons that reduce their bodies to electromagnetic freeze frames. It’s exciting to see Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa as the film’s sexy-loyal-bruiser Han Solo figure, take on a small army of enemies.
Yet where is all of this going? “Dune” keeps foreshadowing the moment when Paul will embed himself with the Fremen, the indigenous desert people of Arrakis who have a more organic relationship to the perilous landscape, and to the spice, than any of their rulers, but live in a state of ragged guerrilla oppression. They’re waiting for someone to liberate them, and Paul would seem to be that figure, since it’s prophesied by half a dozen interchangeable flash-forwards to his interface with Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen warrior-protector who is shot like some sort of desert princess.
“Dune” opens with a title that reads “Dune Part I,” and there’s a standard but rather presumptuous promise embedded in those words: that after 2 hours and 35 minutes, we’ll be so hooked by this saga that we’ll be hungry for Part II. That, in a way, is the promise of every franchise. But the trouble with “Dune” is that it feels, at different points, like just about every other franchise. Over the decades, more than a few movies have been sprung from the DNA of Herbert’s universe, like (for instance) the opening act of “Star Wars.” And there’s a reason it’s that film’s first part; the desert is an awfully barren setting for sci-fi. (“Star Wars” starts slow and arid on purpose, all to set up the revelation of its kinetic second half.) “Dune” is rich with “themes” and visual motifs, but it turns into a movie about Chalamet’s Paul piloting through sandstorms and hooking up with the rebels of the desert, who in this movie are a lot more noble than interesting.
It’s not just that the story loses its pulse. It loses any sense that we’re emotionally invested in it. The giant sandworms, who are protectors of the spice and burrow through the desert like a sinister underground tornado until they reveal themselves (they’re like monster nostrils that suck in everything in front of them), are good for a moment or two of old-fashioned creature-feature awe, but what, really, do they have to do with anything? “Dune” makes the worms, the dunes, the paramilitary spectacle, and the kid-savior-tests-his-mettle plot immersive — for a while. But then, as the movie begins to run out of tricks, it turns woozy and amorphous. Will Part II really be coming? It will if Part I is successful enough, and that isn’t foregone. It’s hard to build a cliffhanger on shifting sands.