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‘Dune’ review: A hero in the making, on shifting sands

Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica in “Dune.” Paul is considerably less complicated and conflicted onscreen than he is on the page, our critic writes.

By Manohla Dargis

In a galaxy far, far away, a young man in a sea of sand faces a foreboding destiny. The threat of war hangs in the air. At the brink of a crisis, he navigates a feudalistic world with an evil emperor, noble houses and subjugated peoples, a tale right out of mythology and right at home in George Lucas’ brainpan. But this is “Dune,” baby, Frank Herbert’s science-fiction opus, which is making another run at global box-office domination even as it heads toward controversy about what it and its messianic protagonist signify.

The movie is a herculean endeavor from the director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”), a starry, sumptuous take on the novel’s first half. Published in 1965, Herbert’s book is a beautiful behemoth (my copy runs almost 900 pages) crowded with rulers and rebels, witches and warriors. Herbert had a lot to say — about religion, ecology, the fate of humanity — and drew from an astonishment of sources, from Greek mythology to Indigenous cultures. Inspired by government efforts to keep sand dunes at bay, he dreamed up a desert planet where water was the new petroleum. The result is a future-shock epic that reads like a cautionary tale for our environmentally ravaged world.

Villeneuve likes to work on a large scale, but has a miniaturist’s attention to fine-grained detail, which fits for a story as equally sweeping and intricate as “Dune.” Like the novel, the movie is set thousands of years in the future and centers on Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the scion of a noble family. With his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Paul is about to depart for his new home on a desert planet called Arrakis, aka Dune. The Duke, on orders from the Emperor, is to take charge of the planet, which is home to monstrous sandworms, enigmatic Bedouin-like inhabitants and an addictive, highly valuable resource called spice.

Much ensues. There are complicated intrigues along with sword fights, heroic deaths and many inserts of a mystery woman (Zendaya) throwing come-hither glances at the camera, a Malickian vision in flowing robes and liquid slow motion. She’s one piece of the multifaceted puzzle of Paul’s destiny, as is a mystical sisterhood (led by Charlotte Rampling in severe mistress mode) of psychic power brokers who share a collective consciousness. They’re playing the long game while the story’s most flamboyant villain, the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), schemes and slays, floating above terrified minions and enemies like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon devised by Clive Barker.

Not long after he lands on Dune, Paul is ushered into the new world of its tribal people, the Fremen, a transitional passage leading from dark rooms to bright desert, from heavy machinery and vaulted spaces with friezes to gauzy robes and the meringue peaks of the dunes. Paul is on a journey filled with heavy deeds and thoughts, but en route he can seem caught in all this beauty, like a fly in fast-hardening sap.

Chalamet looks young enough for the role (Paul is 15 when the novel opens) and can certainly strike a Byronic pose, complete with black coat and anguished hair. The actor has his moments in “Dune,” including in an early scene with Rampling’s Reverend Mother, who puts Paul through a painful test; Chalamet excels at imparting a sense of confused woundedness, psychic and physical. But he doesn’t move with the coiled grace of the warrior that Paul is meant to be, which undermines both his training sessions with the family “warmaster” (Josh Brolin) and in his later role as a messianic figure, one who is considerably less complicated and conflicted on screen than he is on the page.

The trickiest challenge is presented by the movie’s commercial imperatives and, by extension, the entire historical thrust of Hollywood with its demand for heroes and happy endings. This presents a problem that Villeneuve can’t or won’t solve. Paul is burdened by prophetic visions he doesn’t yet fully understand, and while he’s an appealing figure in the novel, he is also menacing. Herbert was interested in problematizing the figure of the classic champion, including the superhero, and he weaves his critique into the very fabric of his multilayered tale. “No more terrible disaster could befall your people,” a character warns, “than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

There’s little overt menace to this Paul, who mostly registers as a sincere, sensitive, if callow hero-in-the-making. Mostly, the danger he telegraphs exists on a representational level and the dubiously romanticized image presented by a pale, white noble who’s hailed as a messiah by the planet’s darker-complexioned native population.

Herbert wrote five sequels, and Duneworld continued to expand after his death; if the movie hits the box-office sweet spot, the story can presumably continue, which would be a gift for a franchise-hungry industry. Whether it will become the kind of gift that keeps on giving is up to the audience. Villeneuve has made a serious, stately opus, and while he doesn’t have a pop bone in his body, he knows how to put on a show as he fans a timely argument about who gets to play the hero now.

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