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'Dune': A sweeping, spectacular spice-opera — half of one, anyway

Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) regard each other warily in DUNE.
Warner Bros.
Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) regard each other warily in DUNE.

Most of us who've read Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune have experienced it in the form of mass-market paperbacks so thick and dense they could double as wheel chocks for a Cessna. If you've made it all the way through even once, the spine on your personal copy will have been battered into submission such that it takes on the appearance of the Bonneville salt flats — rough, faded, riddled with spidery cracks.

This has less to do with any degree of ardor you may or may not have brought to your experience of reading the book, and everything to do with the sheer number of times you found yourself shuttling back and forth and back again between your current place in the proceedings and Herbert's extensive glossary in the back.

The world of Herbert's novel is made up of many worlds, many ruling galactic Houses, many competing infrastructural interests working to seize power through means both overt and skullduggerous, to say nothing of the thousands of years of interstellar intrigue and bloodshed that take place before the book opens.

And, of course, all of those planets, Houses, institutions and historical events have names — names that Herbert drops often and with a kind of blithe ferocity. Those drops soon become a firehose-torrent of exotic names, italicized terms and inscrutable acronyms. ("CHOAM!!??" I distinctly recall 10-year-old me thinking to himself in dismay, before resigning himself to yet another trip to the back of the book. "I was really making headway there for second, then boom: goddamn CHOAM.")

That density of reference and cross-reference is, of course, a contributing factor to the novel's enduring appeal — the sense that Herbert did the hard work to fully imagine both his characters and the forces that shape them, and place them into the deeply stratified society of the worlds he depicts. It's also a major reason why efforts to adapt the novel, and its sequels, have confounded directors from Alejandro Jodorowsky (whose aborted attempt is the subject of the excellent, if unimaginatively named,documentary Jodorowsky's Dune), to David Lynch (who actually made a deeply idiosyncratic and profoundly muddled film version in 1984), to John Harrison's straightforward yet undercooked 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries.

Spice World (2021)

Any successful adaptation of Dune must strike a fine balance, nodding toward Herbert's densely interwoven galactic network of competing and overlapping interests without letting all those voices subsume the surprisingly clear, even archetypal, reluctant-hero narrative at the work's center.

Any adaption attempted today must also deal with something no previous version has had to address as directly: our growing, long-overdue contemporary cultural skepticism towards Chosen One narratives, particularly those of the White Savior variety.

Make no mistake: Dune is a Chosen One narrative writ galactic — a White Savior story on an epic, sweeping scale. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, who spends much of the first hour or so of the film brooding Byronically in long frock coats on windswept promontories overlooking the sea) has been genetically engineered to be a leader known as the kwisatz haderach. (Yep, an italicized term already, in the first sentence of the premise description; if that concerns you at all, this movie will not be your jam.)

/ Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

His father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), have been tasked with taking over the desert planet Arrakis (aka Dune, keep up), the sole source of a mind-altering spice that makes interstellar travel possible. They are taking the planet over from the vile Harkonnens, a House led by an evil Baron named, it may not surprise you to learn, Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgard, getting a second use out of his Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again fat suit). During its reign over Arrakis, the House has cruelly dealt with the planet's indigenous population, known as the Fremen — humans perfectly adapted to harsh desert life.

Paul keeps having gauzy, prophetic dreams featuring a Fremen named Chani (Zendaya) that director Denis Villeneuve shoots as if they're the world's most arid Dior commercials. Over the course of the film, young Paul starts to come into his power, reluctantly realizing that he may in fact be the subject of not one but two prophecies — the powerful kwisatch haderach forseen by the shadowy space-witches known as the Bene Gesserit, and the religious savior called the Mahdi by the Fremen.

It will be useful, at this point, to divide this review into two parts, aimed at two different audiences. First up:

If you know nothing about Dune — you haven't read the books or seen any previous adaptation:

Hello! You, who don't know a Sardaukar from a Shai-hulud, who couldn't pick the Shadout Mapes out of lineup of Shadouts, are in for a treat. Villeneuve has made a grand, epic film that features the kind of action and spectacle you're likely expecting — but he hasn't let the sheer staggering scope of the endeavor sway him from his penchant for moody introspection. As he did in Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, he works in the genre of science fiction but lets his camera linger on his characters' expressions and body language, grounding viewers in the realm of human emotion even as massive spaceships explode and giant sandworms roar behind them.

His screenplay distills Herbert's hilariously dense network of galactic institutions down to the major players. You'll miss some nuance, maybe, but that's why God made wikis for you to consult on the way home from the theater. The film also, importantly, contemporizes the book's stilted dialogue, and in so doing willingly trades any sense of mythic portentousness for something looser and more alive.

You'll catch visual shout-outs to Apocalypse Now and Lawrence of Arabia, among many other films, and Greig Fraser's cinematography will dazzle you with its sense of immensity and emptiness. You'll think the film drags a bit in the middle, and that it ends on a weirdly anti-climactic note, and you'll wonder why the promotional material featured Zendaya so much, when she gets only a handful of lines at the very end. You'll be very right on all scores — this is only the first half of the story, after all.

Okay, that's done. Now for the rest of you.

If you've done Dune — you've read a book or six, and/or know and love David Lynch's hot mess of a film from 1984:

First and most important thing you should know: The film ends soon after Paul first meets up with Sietch Tabr.

Knowing that bit of information will save you a lot of concern and confusion, trust me. If you know the story in full, you'll watch each scene unfold, idly (and later on, not-so-idly) wondering how far this massive, stately ocean-liner of a film can possibly get before ending. That's because Villeneuve's pacing is never anything less than even and deliberate — you'll feel each story beat landing, one after the other, in unhurried succession.

You will likely admire the efficiency with which the screenplay trots out this or that bit of Herbertian lore. And while Villeneuve's judiciously steady, even-keel approach may make you may miss Lynch's idiosyncratic, subconscious, quasi-Jungian riffing on the source text ("The toooooooth!"), you certainly won't miss the 1984 film's relentless, inescapable voiceover.

Knowing in advance exactly where Villeneuve chooses to end Dune: Part One will help you relax into the storytelling and the spectacle of the thing. Yes, you'll maybe wince at those moments when the score busts out a call-to-prayer as Paul performs some quasi-mystical feat — a choice that seems at once unearned and on the nose. And even a filmmaker as drawn to emotional nuance as Villeneuve could do much to turn the book's villain — the cartoonishly eeeeevil Baron Harkonnen — into anything but the one-note baddie he is.

But in moments big (a sandworm attack) and small (a quiet conversation between Isaac's melancholy Duke and Chalamet's sullen Paul), Dune plays itself out with an assured confidence that encourages you to settle in for the long (2 hours and 35 minutes!) haul — and eagerly (!) await Part Two.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.