‘Dune’ powerful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel

Rick's Reviews

Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) survey the harsh desert they must cross in “Dune.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

The transformation of deeply complicated and highly loved science fiction and fantasy novels to the big screen can prove to be an extremely daunting task. If done correctly – as in the cases of movie franchises such as the “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” offerings – the result is a product that not only proves satisfying to the loyal fans but also entertaining for those who have not been exposed to the source material. It also must be compelling enough to keep both audiences coming back for more.

That was the challenge director Denis Villeneuve faced in creating “Dune,” an epic science fiction production based on the classic 1965 Frank Herbert novel of the same name. Herbert’s writing is so rich and complicated that past efforts to adapt the book have either failed to happen or in the case of the 1984 film from director David Lynch, could not live up to the power and grandeur of the original writing.

Villeneuve (“Blade Runner 2049”) has succeeded where others have failed by showing a deep respect for the novel but also being equally aware that the very essence of the production is that it must be entertaining. His “Dune” is a visually stunning tale of greed, power, hope and love that finds sharp contrasts in a monochromatic environment.

At the heart of “Dune” is Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding. He and his family are ordered by the Emperor to travel from the ocean planet of Caladan to the desert world of Arrakis. It is a stark and harsh planet that has great significance because of the spices gathered there. The fact it is the most precious resource in existence creates an immediate danger.

The planet has special meaning to Paul who has been having dreams and visions of his life there. A recurring vision is one of a mysterious woman, Chani (Zendaya), who will play a major role in Paul’s true place on the planet.

Paul, his mother, Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson), and father, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), are in immediate danger as their presence on the planet is not to aid the Emperor but as a means of getting rid of them. Only Paul’s emerging special skills can save them.

There’s good reason adapting the Herbert novel has been so troublesome. His book weaves together multiple story threads that make an extremely textured story. The political games are just as important as the mystical elements that surround Paul and his mother. If either is not played out fully, the project suffers mightily. Villeneuve teamed with Jon Spaifts and Eric Roth to create a screenplay that is perfectly balanced.

The overall cast is strong but the casting of Chalamet is the primary reason the film works so well. The young actor brings the same kind of wide-eyed wonderment that Mark Hamill had when he initially played Luke Skywalker or Daniel Radcliffe showed with his work as wonder-filled Harry Potter. The central figures of these kind of epic tales needs to be vulnerable enough to hold the empathy of the audience but also have the hints of strength that assure the viewer this is a hero in the making. Chalamet brings that – and more – to the role.

Telling the tale in a proper way is complicated by the futuristic world that Herbert created as the setting for his story. Unlike the picturesque beauty of the “Lord of the Rings” setting or the intergalactic backdrop of the “Star Wars” franchise, “Dune” unfolds in a world almost void of color.

Despite the harshness of the location, Villeneuve has created a film that embraces what should be dismissed as visually bland and shows how beauty can be found in even the most subtle of differences. He got great help from two-time Oscar-nominated production designer Patrice Vermette, two-time Oscar-nominated editor Joe Walker, two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert and Oscar-winning special effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer in creating the stunning visuals in the film.

The final touch was using Oscar-winning and multiple Oscar-nominated composer Hans Zimmer (“Blade Runner 2049”) to create a moving and haunting score.

Know going into this film that – as Zendaya’s character states – this is only the beginning of the franchise. As long as Villeneuve can continue to generate the same power in his stories, characters and settings, that’s a welcomed revelation.

“Dune” is playing in theaters and is also available through the streaming service of HBO Max for the next 31 days.

Movie review

“Dune”

3 1/2 stars

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, David Dastmalchain, Javier Bandem.

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images

Running time: 155 minutes.

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