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Stunning visuals propel lagging storyline in ultimately impressive ‘Dune’

Director Denis Villeneuve is a master at creating mind-boggling futuristic worlds, and he tops himself with the overwhelmingly striking imagery in “Dune.”

Timothée Chalamet stars as the multifaceted and mysterious Paul Atreides in “Dune.”
Timothée Chalamet stars as the multifaceted and mysterious Paul Atreides in “Dune.”
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

The jaw-dropping visuals and pulse-pounding sound editing in Denis Villeneuve’s stunningly gorgeous “Dune” are so awesome it makes up for the slow-moving and quite familiar storyline, which is basically the New Testament meets “Mad Max” meets “Star Wars.”

And, yes, I know Frank Herbert’s source material novel was published a dozen years before George Lucas’ cowboy space opera and no doubt influenced Lucas. But we’re talking about cinematic adaptations here so that’s my opener, and I’m sticking with it.

Herbert’s 1965 landmark novel is so dense and layered and enormously complex that many have long believed it was folly to even attempt a big-screen adaptation, and that was certainly borne out in David Lynch’s 1984 version, which even David Lynch didn’t like.

But Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049,” “Arrival”) is a master at creating mind-boggling futuristic worlds, and he tops himself with the overwhelmingly striking imagery in “Dune.” Whether we’re gazing in wonder at some of the most gigantic spacecrafts in movie history, the fashionably functional battle costumery, the helicopter-like ornithopters with multiple blades that make them zip about like menacing insects or the spectacularly vast and forbidding sand-and-spice desert planet of Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, this is a feast for the senses.

“Dune” is set in the year 10191 (none of that 30 years in the future nonsense here!), in which the Emperor of the Known Universe has decreed House Atreides should oversee the ongoing colonization of the desert planet of Arrakis, the source of the most valuable commodity in the world: a glimmering “spice” that is essentially a drug that can produce longer life spans, increased vigor and other powers. (In the original work, it’s clearly a metaphor for oil as well.)

Meet the key members of House Atreides, and this is a fantastically gifted cast:

  • Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is a wise and bearded and benevolent ruler who sincerely hopes to become partners with the Fremen, native inhabitants of Arrakis who have long been oppressed by foreign governments and armies.
  • Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is described as the Duke’s longtime concubine, but she is, for all intents and purposes, his wife and his equal — and she comes from a long line of women known as the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood. And let’s just say you don’t want to mess with these mysterious and powerful sisters.
Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) battle menacing forces for the planet Arrakis in “Dune.”  | Warner Bros.
Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) battle menacing forces for the planet Arrakis in “Dune.”
Warner Bros.
  • Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is the callow son of Leto and Jessica, who some believe is the Messiah. Paul is just learning to use his special gifts, including “The Voice,” a frightening and devastating form of mind control.
  • Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), the swashbuckling soldier who looks after Paul like he’s a little brother.
  • And Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), the obligatory stern taskmaster who teaches Paul about weapons and self-defense.

Once Duke Leto and his troops and his family are ensconced on Arrakis, they have to contend with not only the deeply distrustful Freman who are tucked away in the most forbidding trenches and corners of the planet but also with the villainous, grotesquely oversized, Jabba-the-Hutt-like Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), the former steward of Arrakis, who has been booted from the planet and will stop at nothing to exact his bloody revenge on House Atreides.

Thanks to the magnificently malevolent performance by the great Skarsgard and some Oscar-worthy makeup and special effects, Vladimir Harkonnen is one of the most memorable antagonists in recent film history.

As we continue to marvel at the color-coordinated battle gear, the stark and vast interiors and the beautiful yet daunting outside world of Arrakis, Chalamet’s Paul struggles to interpret his dreams, which often feature a beautiful Fremen warrior named Chani (Zendaya), who seems to hold the key to his fate.

Meanwhile, Paul’s almost apparition-like Aunt Gaius Helen Mohiam (it’s Charlotte Rampling beneath the veil) puts Paul to the test in harrowing fashion to determine if he is indeed the chosen one. And, oh, yes, there are some terrific battle sequences and some emotionally impactful deaths, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Javier Bardem acting as if he’s doing Shakespeare onstage as he plays Stilgar, the leader of a cunning and dangerous Fremen tribe.

They really should have called this “Dune, Part 1,” as the movie ends at the halfway point of the story, with one major character intoning, “This is just the beginning.”

It will quite likely be two or three years before we see Part 2, which is still in pre-production. But now that the stage has been set in such lavish and epic fashion, it’s not unreasonable to expect the remainder of the journey to be even more impressive.