“Dune” has the vast scope, large-scale effects and spectacular visuals of an installation that takes up a couple floors of a museum. It also has about as much narrative momentum.
Director Denis Villeneuve, whose last epic was the similarly story-challenged and humorless “Blade Runner 2049,” knows how to suck us into cinematic worlds where every detail convinces us we’re in a new dimension. (Although I suspect this will not work as well if you choose to watch “Dune” at home instead of on the huge screens for which it was created.)
The look of “Dune” owes a bit to the “Star Wars” movies, on which “Dune” novelist Frank Herbert was obviously an influence, and to the dusty “Road Warrior” movies. But it still feels like its own thing, with Brutalist spacecraft and helicopters whose wings flutter like dragonflies, images that help situate us in the war-torn year of 10191.
Timothee Chalamet is at the center of the action as Paul, who may be “The One” to save his people from destroying one another in an already ravaged world. The scion of the house of Atreides (there’s a whiff of Greek tragedy here), Paul is learning to harness a power called “the way.” Yep, it’s kinda like “the force.” It could help him broker peace between warring houses, especially since Paul’s mysteriously gifted mother (Rebecca Ferguson) believes he possesses “a mind powerful enough to bridge space and time, past and future.”
There’s a lot happening in “Dune,” which also finds a little room for Javier Bardem as a menacing possible ally for Paul and Zendaya as a warrior who’s too gorgeous not to be a Paul love interest if future “Dune” movies get made.
Villeneuve, who has said he hopes to make a sequel, tries to cram so many tantalizing bits into the movie that it feels like a precis of itself, with characters popping in and out so quickly that they barely have time to make an impact.
I’m thinking in particular of Charlotte Rampling as a compassionless mentor who helps start Paul’s heroic journey. But then I’d argue that every movie needs more Charlotte Rampling than it has.
The result is a movie that seems to move both too quickly (Wait. What are the ramifications of that last conflict?) and too slowly (When are we going to get to the why of all of this?). With so much at stake and so many potentially intriguing diversions, “Dune” probably would have worked better as a big, expensive miniseries like “Game of Thrones,” where we’d have time to know the enormous cast and explore many worlds.
Although there’s clearly more story to tell, the good news is that “Dune” does feel like a whole movie. Unlike, say, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I,” it has an ending, even if it’s one that makes you suspect that when a character shouts, “I thought we had more time,” he’s speaking for his director, too.
2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence)
Running time: 2:35
Where to watch: In theaters Friday and streaming on HBO Max