‘Dune’ is sterile space opera of seismic proportions

Illustration of scenes from the film Dune
Betsy Siegal/Staff

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel “Dune” finds itself in a unique position: It’s cited by many as the greatest piece of science fiction literature of all time, yet, to this day, has never been adapted in a way that has managed to do the story justice.

Many have — famously — tried and failed. Directors such as David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky both attempted to leave their own marks on the material with their ideal versions. Lynch’s “Dune” (1984) was wonderfully fantastical yet utterly incoherent, and Jodorowsky’s version never even managed to see the light of day.

Now, director Denis Villeneuve is stepping up to the plate for his highly-anticipated turn at bat. Starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya alongside a slew of some of the best talent Hollywood has to offer, the latest version of “Dune” aims to introduce new audiences to the beloved story of Paul Atreides (Chalamet) and his family’s struggle to survive the complex political plots surrounding their stewardship of the planet Arrakis.

Equipped with the size, scale and budget that previous adaptations could only dream of, Villeneuve’s epic desperately wants “Dune” to be the next “Star Wars” as much as it does the next “Lawrence of Arabia.” Unfortunately, it lives up to neither.

On paper, “Dune” is a blockbuster of the highest caliber. The film’s all-star roster extends far beyond its ensemble cast (including Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin and Stellan Skarsgård to name a few) — other notable features include stylish sets from production designer Patrice Vermette and a thunderous, operatic and distinctly alien score from legendary composer Hans Zimmer.

With the talents of cinematographer Greig Fraser, Villeneuve makes convincing new worlds out of the film’s scenic locations. His camera transforms the Jordan desert into the spice-flowing landscapes of Arrakis, and the lush Norwegian peninsula into the oceanic coasts of the planet Caladan. Match all that with top-dollar visual effects rendering spaceships so large that they make even the largest bodies of water feel like kitchen sinks, and you have a film that, in every sense, is too big to fail.

And yet, it’s ultimately the characters at the heart of the story that are flattened under the weight of it all. Villeneuve’s “Dune” feels oddly sterile, a literal, hyper-serious translation of the source material. It’s more determined to insist that you’re watching the science fiction equivalent of the Old Testament rather than investigate the emotional, cultural and political nuances that earned the story that distinction in the first place.

This means the talents of the film’s assorted cast members such as Javier Bardem and Chang Chen (not to mention the almost criminal lack of Zendaya) are reduced to what amounts to little more than cameos. The nuances of characters and their relationships, such as the bond between Chalamet’s Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (Ferguson), are left to fend for themselves in the desert while the spectacle reigns supreme, adding up to a viewing experience that is as drawn-out and ill-advised as the idea to split the story into two films. It really should’ve been a series instead.

Fans will be quick to champion the size, scope and scale of “Dune,” which leads to occasional successful moments. As Paul’s mentor and friend Duncan Idaho, the ever-charismatic Jason Momoa serves up some of the film’s desperately needed comedic relief in addition to playing a part in some of the few engaging action setpieces. And one particular scene featuring the novel’s iconic sandworms manages to feel like the film’s monumental vision is fully realized — unfortunately, these moments are far and few between.

Like its source material, this version of “Dune” is in a unique position. Villeneuve and company have created a film that will be celebrated for heralding a return to the good ol’ fashioned silver screen, one that achieves on technical fronts but that bafflingly fails to resonate. There’s no emotional impact, no clear pace, no physicality to this movie. For all its gargantuan dimensions and gravitas, why does this “Dune” feel so weightless?

It’s a shame that, despite all the passion involved, the resulting rendition of “Dune” is so plain and literal, squandering its opportunity to leave a lasting impression and wasting its “desert power” and star power alike. Alas, the unadaptable story still remains.

Vincent Tran is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].