“Dune” may not be the masterpiece its legions of fans hoped for, but neither is it the disappointment some critics have claimed. Adapted from Frank Herbert’s classic ecological sci-fi fantasy novel and directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoner,” “Blade Runner 2049”), a filmmaker gifted in blending epic scope with intimate feeling, this new allegory of interplanetary war is still unfilmable. To his credit, Villeneuve discards the freakshow mysticism David Lynch brought to his “Dune” (1984) and created a work of both visionary beauty and surprisingly stripped-down adventure. The picture runs 2 hours and 35 minutes and its pacing is deliberate, but audiences shouldn’t be put off. This “Dune” is elegant and intelligent.
The movie opens in the year 10191. The principal setting is the planet Arrakis, a scorching desert wasteland where spice is harvested. Spice sustains life and makes interstellar travel possible — but it is addictive, turns the whites of the eyes blue and produces mutations. Its production has turned Arrakis’s exploited indigenous people, the Fremen, into a resistance movement. Into this powderkeg enters Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), who has been ordered to take over the spice harvesting operation. Slowly, Paul begins to assume his predestined role as the Fremen’s messiah.
The first section of “Dune” serves as exposition to weave together the various plot threads, so the political and ecological meaning of the novel’s concept tends to diminish. Still, for all its heft (realized in the shimmering images by cinematographer Greig Fraser), the movie retains its intensely personal focus. Villeneuve emphasizes character development rather than special effects to lend his storytelling a precise lucidity.
There are notable virtues. Villeneuve directs his large, all-star cast in a realistic style that understates the novel’s portentous mythology and his staging of the big action sequences teems with excitement, heightened by Hans Zimmer’s synthesized music score and some of the best special effects money can buy — including the dragonfly-like aircraft that ominously hum and buzz in the skies above Arrakis. But the picture lacks the abstract visual quality of Lynch’s imagery and his obsession with textures. This “Dune” is an intense but straightforward adventure film, not the tactile experience of Lynch’s work.
The movie works best at its most restrained, when Villeneuve’s disciplined rhythms evoke memorable turns from Stellan Skaarsgard as the blubbery, malevolent Baron Harkonnen, who floats menacingly over his victims, and Jason Momoa as Duncan, the Duke’s rumbling-voiced lieutenant and Paul’s guardian angel. Villeneuve is less successful with Chalamet, who looks uncomfortable and almost vampiric as Paul the Chosen One, and a wan Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s telepathic mother. The supporting cast features an excellent Charlotte Rampling as the powerful Reverend Mother and equally good Javier Bardem as the fierce Fremen leader.
Contributing to the film’s otherworldly vision are expansive sets from production designer Patrice Vermette, the sleek and ravaged costumes by Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West and the monster makers behind Arrakis’s ubiquitous sandworms that are all the more ominous for their suggestive presence. Villeneuve lends grandeur to this incomplete — the director insisted on making the film in two parts — but resonant “Dune.”