'Dune' review: Sci-fi epic is an immersive but incomplete experience Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel is undeniably staggering. But his Dune also feels rudimentary, as if he's managed his source material without fully mastering it.

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Sci-Fi epic 'Dune' is an immersive but incomplete experience

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SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's been almost four decades since David Lynch directed his ill-fated adaptation of "Dune," Frank Herbert's classic 1965 science fiction novel. Now, the director Denis Villeneuve has delivered the first half of a planned two-part movie version featuring an all-star cast led by Timothee Chalamet. It's opening this week in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Dune" may not be the best new movie you'll see this year, but it's easily the most new movie you'll see this year. I left the theater feeling overwhelmed and a little parched, as though I'd spent two hours and 35 minutes being pummeled by hot desert winds and blinding sandstorms. The world of Frank Herbert's novel feels big and immersive here in a way it never has on screen with its futuristic spacecraft, cavernous fortresses and, of course, terrifying sand worms.

I've never been a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve's technically stupendous but oddly soulless movies, like "Prisoners" and "Incendies," or bought into the notion that he's some kind of second coming of Stanley Kubrick. Still, there's no question that he's well-prepared for this assignment as the director of moodily ambitious science fiction, like "Arrival" - probably his best film - and "Blade Runner 2049."

He and his co-writers, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, have made a lucid adaptation of a book that's long been deemed unfilmable. The Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously abandoned his "Dune" movie in the '70s, and David Lynch's 1984 version was deemed such a disaster that Lynch himself disowned it. There was also a bland 2000 miniseries that at least understood that the book might be too dense to squeeze into a single film.

That may be why Villeneuve opted to split "Dune" into two movies. This first installment is a largely faithful retelling of a complicated story. Many millennia into the future, the universe has become a vast feudal society - a sort of interstellar "Game Of Thrones" - in which noble houses control different planets. The most coveted is the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, the source of a powerful, life-extending substance called spice.

As the story opens, there's been an imperial decree that control of Arrakis will be taken away from the treacherous House Harkonnen and handed over to its longtime rival House Atreides. It's a triumph for the good Duke Leto Atreides, played by Oscar Isaac, though he and his advisers, played by actors including Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin, suspect they may be walking into a trap.

Soon after, they arrive on Arrakis, a local expert - that's Sharon Duncan-Brewster - explains the workings of the special suits they must wear to survive the desert heat. She notices that the duke's son, Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalamet, seems to be one step ahead.

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SHARON DUNCAN-BREWSTER: (As Dr. Liet Kynes) A stillsuit is a high-efficiency filtration system. Even this early in the morning, you wouldn't survive two hours without one of these. It cools the body and recycles the water loss to sweat. Your body's movements provide the power. Inside the mask, you'll find a tube to allow you to drink the recycled water. In good working order, your suit won't lose more than a thimbleful of water a day.

TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) Most impressive.

DUNCAN-BREWSTER: (As Dr. Liet Kynes) Let's have a look at you, lad. You've worn a stillsuit before.

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) No, this is my first time.

DUNCAN-BREWSTER: (Dr. Liet Kynes) Your desert boots are fitted slip-fashion at the ankles. Who taught you to do that?

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) Seemed the right way.

CHANG: Chalamet is a great choice for Paul Atreides, a coddled royal heir who could be the Kwisatz Haderach. That's "Dune"-speak for messiah figure or super being. For the most part, the movie keeps Herbert's made-up languages to a minimum.

Villeneuve wants even novices to be able to follow along. He plays up the book's ever-resonant subtexts of colonial oppression and ecological disaster, and he's cast even the smaller roles with magnetic actors like Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgard, who keep you watching even when the plot begins to tilt into abstraction. Rebecca Ferguson brings a welcome warmth to Lady Jessica, Paul's mother, with whom he flees into the desert when House Atreides comes under attack. And Zendaya and Javier Bardem turn up among the Fremen, the brutally oppressed Indigenous people of Arrakis, who will play a larger role in Part 2.

For sheer seat-rattling spectacle, "Dune" is undeniably staggering. The attack on House Atreides is staged with a brooding, quasi-Shakespearean grandeur. And then there are those giant sand worms winding their way through the story - so mysterious and mesmerizing to behold that you almost wouldn't mind being eaten by one just to see what it's like.

But there's also something crucial missing. Much of the plot is advanced through elements of mind reading and mind control, so it's a shame that the movie never really gets inside its characters' heads. As with so many of Villeneuve's films, the visuals are stunning, but the storytelling feels rudimentary. You get the sense that he's managed his source material without fully mastering it. In some ways, Lynch's "Dune" actually got closer to the mind-bending strangeness of Herbert's novel. It had a touch of visionary madness that this movie could use a little more of.

Even though Villeneuve's "Dune" is incomplete by design, there's something odd and unsatisfying about the point at which it slams to a halt. Still, it duly whets your appetite for Part 2, assuming it gets made. That will depend on whether Part 1 does well enough at the box office. I hope Villeneuve gets the chance to finish what he started. This first "Dune" may not be a great movie or even half a great movie, but Dune the planet is gorgeous enough that I wouldn't mind a return visit.

BRIGER: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Dune."

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BRIGER: On Monday's show, actor Jonathan Majors. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as Atticus Freeman in the HBO series "Lovecraft Country," co-starred in the Spike Lee film "Da 5 Bloods" and is in the new Netflix Western "The Harder They Fall." Hope you can join us.

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BRIGER: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Sam Briger.

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