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"DUNE"
(2021) (Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi: A young man travels to a distant, barren, and hostile planet with his family only to learn he might be destined to lead the native inhabitants there.
PLOT:

In the year 10191, the Emperor has declared that the House Harkonnen should cease occupation of the barren and hostile planet Dune and the mining of its precious mineral "spice" (that allows for, among other things, interstellar travel), something that doesn't sit well with Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (STELLAN SKARSGÅRD) and his warrior enforcer, Beast Rabban Harkonnen (DAVE BAUTISTA). Instead, stewardship of the planet and that mineral will now go to the House Atreides, with Duke Leto Atreides (OSCAR ISAAC) taking command.

With his scouting expedition -- led by Duncan Idaho (JASON MOMOA) -- giving the all-clear, Duke Leto travels there with his longtime lover, Lady Jessica (REBECCA FERGUSON), and their young adult son, Paul (TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET). Like his mother, he possesses supernatural powers, something that hasn't escaped the attention of Lady Jessica's leader, Reverend Mother Mohiam (CHARLOTTE RAMPLING).

When Paul passes her severe test, he's allowed to travel there alongside his weapons trainer, Gurney Halleck (JOSH BROLIN), and the family physician, Dr. Wellington Yueh (CHANG CHEN). But the young man isn't entirely unfamiliar with the planet, what with having dreams and visions of the planet and its native inhabitants, the Fremen, and one beguiling one in particular, Chani (ZENDAYA).

Once there, they meet the likes of Fremen leader Stilgar (JAVIER BARDEM) and imperial ecologist Dr. Liet Kynes (SHARON DUNCAN-BREWSTER) and are warned about the planet's dangers ranging from the severe heat to enormous sandworms that hunt by surface vibration and can swallow most everything and anyone. But the real threat comes from elsewhere, and soon Paul must not only contend with that but also inklings that he might be destined for something greater on that planet.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10

Of the various things you learn in any sort of creative writing, two of the most important are that any story must have a beginning, middle, and end, and for it to be effective, it must elicit some sort of emotional response from the reader, listener, or viewer. Both would seem rather obvious, but sometimes storytellers get so deep into the woods that they overlook or diminish one or both of those rules.

Of course, the first rule is objective where anyone can quickly assess -- either during or immediately after consuming such a product -- whether it hits the B, M, and E marks. The emotional response is obviously more subjective and will vary from person to person, but if I walk away feeling mostly indifferent, I have to report it in my critiques.

All of which brings us around to the latest cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel, "Dune." The first try -- as directed by David Lynch and featuring the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Max von Sydow, and Sting -- was mostly universally panned, and I can't say I remember much about it, not necessarily because of the intervening nearly four decades since I saw it, but more so because it was so unremarkable at the time.

Writer/director Denis Villeneuve ("Blade Runner 2049," "Arrival," "Sicario") and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth are hoping to reshape the perception of a movie version of the classic tale with their new offering of the same name. Visually impressive and featuring some exciting moments and a great cast, the film nonetheless fails the first storytelling test in that it just abruptly ends with one character stating, "This is only the beginning" after we've just sat through 155 minutes of upscale sci-fi.

Yes, I knew going in that this was just part one of the tale, and the on-screen credit does indeed state this is part one. And I realize it's the same issue that the first two "The Lord of the Rings" flicks had back upon their release (and for which I docked them a few points). Even so, and with no sequel guaranteed in today's uncertain box office world for films that don't revolve around superheroes or horror plots (unlike the "LOTR" trilogy, all of the parts of this one weren't shot at the same time), it's possible viewers will never see the conclusion of this story.

Even with that in mind and saying this without having read the source material, it seems one could still have told this half-story with its own beginning, middle, and end. If not, the whole thing should have been expanded into a mini-series and offered on some streaming service where more fleshing out of the story and the characters could have taken place. As it stands, it comes off like a cliff-hanger at the end of an old TV series season or, worse yet, simply an incomplete offering.

And a long one at that. Despite clocking in a few minutes shorter than the recent James Bond flick, it feels nearly twice as long as that one, partly because I didn't care about the characters and their story arcs. But that's also possibly because I wasn't well-versed in all things "Dune" related and thus wasn't geeking out when the film touches on the necessary jargon, names, story elements and so on that might mystify, confound, or otherwise bore those not familiar with the story material.

That said, and notwithstanding all of those names, alliances, and so forth, the story is fairly straightforward. In the year 10191, there exists a planet (that would be Dune) that's mostly a vast desert wasteland featuring conditions so severe that the locals -- known as the Fremen -- operate in the shadows when not living underground or in enclosed bunker compounds.

Despite that and the presence of gargantuan sandworms with mouths probably one-hundred feet wide if not more and that hunt by surface vibrations (which I'm guessing is what inspired the movie "Tremors"), the mineral known as "spice" is what makes the planet valuable. And that's not because of the hallucinogenic effects of being exposed to it, but rather that it helps people live longer and is what fuels interstellar travel.

Nonetheless, and for reasons that will later come to light, the Emperor (no, not THAT one) has ordered the current occupiers and miners on the planet -- the House Harkonnen -- to return home and has replaced them with the House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac). He's to travel there with his longtime lover, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), and their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), with the likes of Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) heading there first on a scouting expedition, and weapons expert Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) making sure Paul can defend himself if necessary.

None of this seems new to the young man, what with dreams and visions of the place and a young lady, Chani (Zendaya), who's either going to be his lover or killer (or maybe both). Those visions and his not fully functional telepathic abilities have drawn the interest of Lady Jessica's leader, Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), who wonders (and worries) that he might be the next Luke Skywalker, um, young man with a special knack for using The Force (or whatever they're calling it here).

Meanwhile, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, sort of looking like a stretched-out Jabba the Hutt) and Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista) are plotting to attack Dune, while local leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) looks unkindly at all of the outside interlopers.

Yes, there's a lot here that feels like material we've already seen, and while Herbert's original work predates the more familiar trappings of George Lucas and others, the comparisons can't be avoided. But the biggest issue, as stated before, is that I didn't feel nor separately recognize any reason to care about the characters and their storylines.

Perhaps that will pay off in round two, but as it stands, "Dune" comes off as a visually impressive offering that feels long, incomplete, and -- despite some exciting moments here and there -- fairly flat. It rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 11, 2021 / Posted October 22, 2021


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