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Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ captures the novel’s essence

Dan Webster

Above: Timothy Chalamet stars in Denis Villeneuve's adaption of "Dune." (Photo/Warner Bros.)

Movie review: "Dune," directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Timothy Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, John Brokin, Dave Bautista. Screening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

It’s been several decades since I read “Dune,” the novel that started it all. I’m referring, of course, to the 1965 science-fiction epic that won both a Hugo and a Nebula award.

That book introduced us to the sprawling universe dreamed up by Frank Herbert that revolves around the character of Paul Atreides, the desert world of Arrakis and the mysterious spice that is desired by all.

And not for the first time do I mourn the passing of my brother Randy, who had read the whole series, including the various prequels and sequels, some written by the author’s son, Brian Herbert. My brother, a serious student of all things “Dune,” could have explained to me everything that director Denis Villeneuve got right, and maybe what he got wrong, in his adaptation of that first novel, which is both playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Here’s what I can say: Unlike David Lynch in his utterly bizarre 1984 adaptation, Villeneuve wisely chose not to try to capture the entire novel even in a two-hour-and-35-minute movie. Instead he opts for a “Star Wars”-type cliffhanger. And, while there’s no confirmed release date as yet, “Dune: Part Two” is said to be already in pre-production.

So what does that leave us? Well, a film that is sweeping in scope, rich with the kind of computer-graphics that we’ve come to expect and characters that – for the most part – feel fully fleshed out. I say for the most part because at least one character, Baron Harkonnen as played by an almost unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgärd, comes across both as gross and as simplistically evil as Jabba the Hut – again from the “Star Wars” series.

Based on a screenplay penned by Villeneuve and two others, Eric Roth (who won an Oscar for writing “Forrest Gump”) and Jon Spaihts, “Dune” is set in a universe controlled by great Houses – basically family dynasties – all having pledged loyalty to the Emperor Shaddam IV. But like most such arrangements – both in fiction and in real life – jealousy, greed and distrust are rampant.

At issue is the mélange, or spice, that is found only on Arrakis, a world of shifting sand dunes and peopled by loose-knit but hardy tribes of people called the Fremen. The spice is in demand because it makes interstellar travel possible, giving the House navigators the ability to travel safely through time-space. And – though highly addictive – it can add years to one’s life, besides providing heightened vitality and awareness.

“Dune” opens with Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) given what seems to be a gift from the emperor: exclusive rights to Arrakis’ spice production. These rights have long been owned by House Harkonnen, which has ruled over the desert world with brutal force – provoking an ongoing guerrilla war with the Fremen.

Duke Leto knows that the emperor, afraid of House Atreides’ power, is setting him up to fail. But loyalty and pledges being what they are, the duke – the epitome of an honorable man – can’t refuse. He heads to Arrakis fully intent on working with, instead of against, the Fremen.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Leto’s son, Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), the young scion who has been trained in mystical powers by his mother, Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the powerful Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul has dreams, which may – or may not – foretell the fate not only of him, not just of his family but of the entire empire … a fate that is tied to Arrakis, to the Fremen and to the spice.

I’ve mentioned “Star Wars” more than once here, and by intention. Stories of characters who slowly realize their inner powers, and who end up as chosen people, date back millennia. Today they range from Avengers tales to Harry Potter adventures to, maybe most closely, George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker saga.

Blend that with references to real-life history, especially those bearing barely disguised references to Islam and the force of fanatical jihad, and you have this new, improved version of Herbert’s original vision. Or at least half of it.

Which leads to another “Star Wars” similarity: You’ll have to wait at least a couple of years to discover what comes next.

An edited version of this review was broadcast previously on Spokane Public Radio.

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