Director Denis Villeneuve has succeeded in wrestling Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic “Dune” to the big screen, and that’s an impressive feat all by itself. So when his film premiered on Friday at the Venice Film Festival, it’s no surprise that it showed what a movie version of “Dune” can be, but also why it’s been so difficult to get one onto the screen.
Villeneuve’s “Dune” is both dazzling and frustrating, often spectacular and often slow. It’s huge and loud and impressive but it can also be humorless and bleak – though on the whole, it tries valiantly to address the problems of taking on Herbert’s complex epic, which requires a director to spend lots of time setting things up and explaining the world before they can even get the damn thing off the ground.
The adventurous Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky could never quite pull it off: He spent years and millions in the 1970s planning an elaborate 10-hour version that would have included Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger in the cast, failing to actually make the movie but leaving enough notes and sketches behind to spur a fascinating 2013 documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune.” Another visionary director, David Lynch, was brought in by producer Dino De Laurentiis to make a version in 1984 – but almost nobody, including Lynch, was happy with the confusing and cheesy result.
Villeneuve, though, might be better suited to the material than wide-eyed auteurs like Jodorowsky and Lynch. Since his early, French-language films like “Polytechnique” and the Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” the Canadian director has gradually moved toward large-scale, muscular filmmaking, from the tense thriller “Prisoners” to the brutal “Sicario” to the sci-fi visions of “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049.”
The scale of his films has been increasing with each new project, and “Dune” is as big as he’s ever gotten. Of course, Herbert’s original novel was itself enormous, a 700-plus page saga of a young man, Paul Atreides, rising from exile to glory on the forbidding desert planet of Arrakis.
Set 8,000 years in the future and in no recognizable portion of the universe, “Dune” made points about humanity’s rape of the environment and its exploitation of indigenous peoples – points that may be even more timely today than in 1965 – but it was mostly a huge family epic of the noble Atreides clan trying to survive on an arid desert planet and in a universe of brutal, power-hungry despots.
(Think of it as “Game of Thrones” in space or “Star Wars” if it never got off Tatooine, with the Atreides family as the Starks, the vicious Harkonnens as the Lannisters, the evil emperor as, well, the evil emperor and the desert-dwelling Fremen as really big, tough and not hairy Ewoks – except that those comparisons do Herbert a disservice, since his saga came before and probably influenced those later sagas.)
There’s a lot more to the setup than that, and any director who tackles “Dune” knows it. Villeneuve has to spend a good 45 minutes of his film essentially laying the groundwork, using voiceover to describe the planet Arrakis, then finding a variety of ways to tell Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, and by extension the audience, what he’s getting himself in for. Characters like weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and warrior Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) drop lots of exposition into their conversations with Paul, who then goes to his bedroom where a holographic talking book fills him in on the ecology of Arrakis: it’s brutally hot, it’s mostly covered with sand under which gigantic sandworms travel and wreak havoc, and its deserts contain the most valuable substance in the universe, “spice.”
In other words, it’s a terrible place for Paul and his family to go – but the Emperor, for conniving reasons of his own, has sent the Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son to the planet to oversee the place, which has recently been vacated by the evil Harkonnens, who have grown rich taking a hefty cut of the mining of spice.
All of this exposition unfolds slowly, though the scale and the detail are staggering. Villeneuve recently suggested that watching “Dune” on a TV screen (where it’s not available, at least not yet) would be like driving a speedboat in a bathtub, and that’s because the world of “Dune” is huge: Caladan, the Atreides’ home planet, is wild and magnificent, while Arrakis is even wilder and more forbidding. Each room is bigger than the last, each landscape more jaw-dropping than the one before it, and Greig Fraser’s cameras find rich beauty and menace everywhere they turn.
Eventually there will be intimate moments, but the bedrock on which “Dune” is based is all grandeur and peril. Conversations are riddled with pregnant pauses and portentous glances; you can occasionally find playful moments if you look hard enough, but this is a dark meditation on power and greed, and it rarely lightens up.
It’s mostly a male world, but the women hold more power than they let on: Lady Jessica is part of the ancient Bene Gesserit order, which has been carefully crossing bloodlines for centuries to eventually produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a messiah-type figure with control over space and time.
Is Paul that figure? For the answer, you’ll have to read the book or wait for the sequel; unlike Lynch’s version, Villeneuve’s “Dune” only covers the first two-thirds of the book, ending on a note that’s more “to be continued” than “the end.”
Once the exposition gives way to action, the journey to that “to be continued” can be off-putting in its relentless brutality, but it can also be thrilling, with a series of dazzling set-pieces on the sands of Arrakis. It’s not a movie for subtle acting or casual conversation – everything is big, bold and shot through with portent and doom – but Chalamet and Ferguson make the most of what they’re given to do, and Villeneuve finds some dark poetry in the way he plays up the story’s mystical elements.
He has abundant help from the film’s designers, who make a tapestry out of shades of brown; its sound mixers and editors, who navigate from whispers to roars; and its visual effects artists, who must have found hundreds of new ways to render sand. Like “Blade Runner 2049,” “Dune” is a tour de force on every technical level, set to a towering Hans Zimmer score that matches the film’s scale and import from the opening moments.
The storyline, meanwhile, mostly follows the book, with changes to turn one character from male to female and to give more of a voice to the desert-dwelling Fremen, particularly their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and the tough but beguiling Chani (Zendaya). And because the film ends well before the book does, screenwriters Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth throw in a moment when Paul hints at his endgame far earlier than he does in the novel.
This version of “Dune” sometimes feels as if it aims to impress you more than entertain you; it’s grim on a staggering level, ditching most of the fun of sci-fi yarns in favor of a worldview that feels more like Villeneuve’s “Sicario” or “Prisoners” than his “Arrival.” But it’s also a formidable cinematic accomplishment, a giant mood piece that can be exhilarating in its dark beauty.