All movies hope to be successful, but hopes are high that “Dune” will be the start of something glorious. With its sci-fi roots and sweeping production, there are no doubt those who expect the property to be the next “Star Wars.” This film is the first in a franchise that is to include at least one sequel film and a prequel TV series. I’m sure we’ll get both. The film is already doing well enough in international markets that it will probably have already turned a profit by the time this article runs. The real question is, will audiences be excited for more “Dune” after this tepid first installment?
Timothee Chalamet stars as Paul Atreites, son of Duke Leto Atreites (Oscar Isaac). House Atreites has been assigned by an unseen Emperor to take over stewardship of spice-producing planet Arrakis. This does not sit well with oppressive former steward Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) or his nephew Glossu (Dave Bautista). The Duke knows the assignment is dangerous, but he can count on protection from loyal soldiers like Gurney (Josh Brolin) and Duncan (Jason Momoa). He is determined to both continue Arrakis’s spice production and repair relations with the native Fremen, led by the untrusting Stilgar (Javier Bardem).
Paul, meanwhile, is unsure of his role in all of this. Is he worthy of the leadership that is his birthright, or would he be more fit to be a soldier? His mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) sees him following a different path entirely. He’s been having murky visions of the future, all of which involve the Freman Chani (Zendaya), and slowly developing the powers of the Bene Gesserit, a powerful race to which his mother belongs. He may turn out to be something of an oracle, which would be even more important than being a duke, though the Bene Gesserit leader (Charlotte Rampling) thinks he either isn’t one or is a bad one. Again, Arraskis is a dangerous world, with threats from House Harkonnen, the Fremen, the unforgiving desert landscape, and an infestation of carnivorous sandworms. If Paul wants to protect his family and his people, he’ll have to use the political and military gifts of his father and the spiritual and supernatural gifts of his mother, as well as the usual leadership qualities like confidence, wisdom, etc. Simply put: there’s a lot of pressure on this kid.
The good news is that the film is a visual treat. Impressively-designed vehicles and devices are present in nearly every shot, and the sandy scenery is used to its full potential. Don’t take this middling review as a sign that you should split the difference and watch the movie on TV; either watch this spectacle in a theater or don’t bother at all. The bad news is that the acting and storytelling leave a lot to be desired. Some actors are fun and intense, like Brolin and Momoa, but most are dull and monotonous, like the much-more-important Chalamet and Isaac. And the film throws so much worldbuilding out at once that it’s hard to keep up. I saw this movie yesterday and I had to look up at least 75% of the characters’ names for that plot description, and I don’t just mean for spelling.
“Dune” never succeeded in getting me invested in its world, and 155 minutes is a long time to sit in a theater uninvested. I can’t say that I can see many people getting invested in this franchise, but I said the same thing about “Lord of the Rings” and I was way off on that one. Come for the promise of a huge new blockbuster franchise, and at least stay for the cool spaceships.
“Dune” is playing in theaters and available on HBO Max. The film is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, disturbing images, and suggestive material. Its running time is 155 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.