Sci-fi classic ‘Dune’ returns to the big screen. Does it succeed?

From the time it was first published in 1965, “Dune,” Frank Herbert’s densely convoluted sci-fi classic, was ritually referred to as “unfilmable.” This hasn’t stopped directors from trying to film it anyway. Alejandro Jodorowsky tried for years in the 1970s before finally giving up. David Lynch’s infamous 1984 version, which he disowned after his producers recut it against his wishes, was followed in 2000 by a Syfy channel adaptation that few remember. Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” starring Timothée Chalamet, is the latest and certainly the most anticipated attempt, not least because the pandemic delayed its release for well over a year.

With this much buildup, was the wait worth it? That depends, I suppose, on how much of a “Dune” fanatic you are. I’m not exactly an aficionado, but the prospect of realizing Herbert’s eco-visionary saga on the big screen, especially at a time when moviegoing audiences are aching to once again be overwhelmed, is palpable.

From a purely pictorial standpoint, this new “Dune” is indeed often overwhelming. The sheer monumentality of it all is impressive. Alas, the film’s emotional power underwhelms.

Turning a novel into a film is never easy. But it has proven particularly difficult for “Dune,” a book from the 1960s that has inspired subsequent sci-fi epics like “Star Wars.” The Monitor’s film critic assesses how the latest effort to take on Frank Herbert’s tale has fared.

Like the first half of the book that it follows fairly closely, the movie takes place in the year 10191 in an interstellar galaxy of dueling planetary fiefdoms ruled by an unseen emperor. One of the planets, Arrakis, aka Dune – a sort of colonial outpost with gigantic subterranean sandworms and a clannish, Bedouin-like population – is a parched sandscape prized for its harvested spice that confers supernatural powers and fuels interstellar travel. (Herbert, in all seriousness, called his novel an “environmental awareness handbook.”)

Zendaya stars as Chani, the love interest of character Paul Atreides, in "Dune," directed by Denis Villeneuve.

When the film begins, one of the fiefdoms, the harsh House Harkonnen, is ordered off Arrakis by the emperor and control of the planet is ceded to the more egalitarian House Atreides, led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). The duke rightly suspects the emperor is laying a trap for him but nevertheless transfers his trusted lieutenants – played by Josh Brolin and, in the film’s most entertaining performance, Jason Momoa – to the planet along with his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul (Chalamet). There’s a great deal more to the story, but lest I demonstrate that “Dune” is not only unfilmable but also unreviewable, I’ll just add that Paul represents that timeworn avatar of sci-fi mythology – the newbie who mutates into a messiah. He’s the savior, or at least the savior-in-training, of this brutal world.

No matter how impressive its special effects, a sci-fi movie ultimately has to do more than just wow us with them. Even though Paul is the spiritual center of this epic, his struggles seem rote. Chalamet has the right poetic-romantic look, but without the impassioned underpinnings. This is partly Villeneuve’s fault; he has a penchant for dwarfing his actors in the frame so they resemble stick figures viewed from an Olympian height. 

“Dune” – which is billed as “Dune: Part 1” – has a bigger problem: Because Villeneuve, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, filmed only the novel’s first half, much of the action essentially plays as exposition leading up to a more stirring saga that never comes. After 2 1/2 hours, the film rather apologetically offers up the words: “This is only the beginning.” And yet no sequel is definitively in the works. At least when the first “Lord of the Rings” was served up, we knew we’d eventually get a full meal.

For “Dune” devotees, none of this may matter much. But for those coming to this galaxy for the first time, the sense of incompleteness can’t help but be a letdown. And because Herbert’s visionscape heavily influenced so many subsequent sci-fi epics, especially the “Star Wars” franchise, we may feel as if we’ve seen it all before anyway. I admire any director who is able to create a self-contained world on such a scale, but this is an epic for the eye, not the heart.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Dune” is available in theaters and on HBO Max starting Oct.21. The movie is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and some disturbing images and suggestive material.