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Denis Villeneuve delivers dynastic space drama in “Dune”

"Dune" follows the Atreides family as they tackle giant sand worms and galactic politics.
"Dune" follows the Atreides family as they tackle giant sand worms and galactic politics.

When I first read “Dune," it took me two tries.

Frank Herbert’s space opera defined a genre and changed science fiction forever, but I’m not kidding myself — it’s a dense book.

I loved it, though, and I love Denis Villeneuve. So when I heard the “Arrival” director would take on the famously unadaptable space worm drama (and with Hans Zimmer as the composer!), I was pumped.

Villeneuve didn’t disappoint.

The ungodly cast includes (deep breath) Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista and Javier Bardem, among others.

As my friend said, someone hot for everyone’s type.

The movie follows Paul Atreides (Chalamet) and his family as they move to the desert planet of Arrakis, AKA Dune, at the orders of the galactic emperor. There, they must avoid giant sand worms and mine melange, a magic spice that makes interstellar travel possible.

Oh, and Paul’s mom, Lady Jessica (Ferguson), is part of a order of priestesses who rely on the spice to heighten their senses, compel people to action with “the voice” and practice eugenics.

AND the Harkonnens, who previously controlled Arrakis, hate the Atreides family and want to take back control of the planet.

Reminder: The protagonist’s name of this high-concept sci-fi is Paul. His mom’s name is Jessica.

My main thought throughout the movie was the scale of everything. “Star Wars” has some big ships, sure, but the ships in that universe can always get bigger. In “Dune,” everything from the spacecraft to the buildings to the sandworms has hit terminal mass.

The visual effects are where this movie truly shines. The earth shakes beneath the characters’ feet when worms approach. Protective shields light up blue and red during battle scenes that feel more massive and grounded than the Marvel Cinematic Universe or “Star Wars.”

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Even the less massive effects, like Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen being lifted off the ground by devices embedded in his spine for mobility, came off as impressive and terrifying. What could have been a frail and repulsive character is instead imposing, a perfect match to the tone of the story.

Only Hans Zimmer could match the visuals with an equally impressive and weighty score. In fact, he wrote three albums worth of music for the project, relying on shrieking vocals mixed with his characteristic booming bass and, of all instruments, bagpipes.

Unfortunately, this is how we get to the movie’s first weakness.

I love Zimmer, and the score was overwhelming in exactly the right way, but it came at a cost. Pivotal moments of dialogue were whispered under blaring horns. If movie theaters would just suck it up and add subtitles to their movies already, this wouldn’t be a problem, but that simply isn’t the case yet.

As someone who already knows the story, I wasn’t too bothered by missing dialogue. “Fear is the mind killer,” blah, blah, blah, I know the rest.

My friends hadn’t read the book, though, and they spent large parts of the movie confused.

For me, this ranks in my top three cinematic experiences ever (hello, “1917” and “Avengers: Endgame”). But if I hadn’t known the characters and the story beforehand?

I’m not sure.

That uncertainty makes me uncomfortable recommending the movie to people who aren’t willing to put in a little light reading first.

Still, the movie features incredible cinematography, incredible visual effects, a stellar score and a cast any director would commit crimes for.

Oh, yeah, the cast.

Public relations stunts aside (no, Zendaya does not have more than 10 minutes of screentime), the cast really does stand out. Jason Momoa brings the right amount of energy to Duncan Idaho, and Rebecca Ferguson walks a careful line between a powerful and desperate Jessica.

Chalamet’s good, too, obviously, though I don’t think anyone who’s going to the movie specifically to see him really cares about his performance.

And Javier Bardem? Stole the show.

Even with such a large cast, some book characters still haven’t been introduced. It’ll be interesting to see how Dave Bautista and Zendaya especially step up in “Dune: Part Two” with more significant parts in the story.

Now that worldbuilding is out of the way, Villeneuve won’t have to do as much legwork in the follow-up. Here’s hoping that means an even more action-filled, high-drama sequel that’s at least a little bit easier to comprehend.

Rating: 8/10

scottsr2@miamioh.edu

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