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'Dune' review: Visually spectacular, but short on human warmth

Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides in "Dune."

Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atreides in "Dune." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures/Chia Bella James

PLOT A young man travels to a distant planet that produces a priceless resource.

CAST Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Zendaya

RATED PG-13 (action-violence)


WHERE Area theaters and streaming on HBO Max

BOTTOM LINE Spectacular visuals only partially compensate for this sci-fi saga’s emotional chill.

"This is only the beginning," goes the last line of "Dune," which is not much of a spoiler — the posters feature the tagline "It Begins," and you’ll notice that the movie itself is subtitled "Part One." The question is: Are you ready for two, three, nine or even more parts of "Dune?"

If so, you probably have an appreciation for the following: dense science-fiction stories whose planets, peoples and languages have been created with near-scholarly detail; the stately style of director Denis Villeneuve ("Arrival," "Blade Runner 2049"); and the dreamy-eyed young actor Timothée Chalamet ("Call Me By Your Name," "Lady Bird"), who plays an intergalactic hero of Joseph Campbell-caliber proportions.

I appreciate those things, too, but I’m not eagerly awaiting a "Dune" franchise. This opening salvo is nothing if not visually spectacular, full of sweeping panoramas, dazzling costumes and CGI creations that range from the awe-inspiring (giant sandworms with terrifying maws) to the supercool (airplanes whose wings beat like dragonflies). At the same time, "Dune" — based on Frank Herbert’s dense 1965 novel — feels short on human warmth. This is a movie of Oscar-quality craftsmanship, but it lacks the primal drama of a "Star Wars," the emotional interplay of a "Star Trek" or the engaging camaraderie of a Marvel installment.

Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, whose family takes charge of Arrakis, a desert planet that produces Spice — a sacred hallucinogen to the indigenous Fremen people, but a priceless energy source to others. The year is 10191, but Spice clearly has its historical antecedents (steel, oil, actual spices) and the Atreides family are essentially intergalactic colonizers. Paul’s parents, played by a rugged Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto and a coolly calculating Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, want great things for their son, though their agendas differ.

Paul, haunted by dreams of an unknown Fremen beauty (a near-wordless Zendaya as Chani), seems destined not to conquer the natives but become their unlikely messiah. It’s a romantic storyline, clouded by a faint white-saviorism. The most visible Fremen, who wear Bedouin-style scarves over their high-tech water-saving bodysuits, are played by darker-skinned actors, including Javier Bardem as the taciturn chief Stilgar and Babs Olusanmokun as the warrior Jamis.

Speaking of casting: Several faces come from the superhero world, including Jason Momoa ("Aquaman") as the gregarious soldier Duncan and Dave Bautista ("Guardians of the Galaxy") as a bellowing baddie named Rabban Harkonnen. Even Stellan Skarsgård, relishing his role as the gluttonous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, spent time in the "Thor" films. It’s a little hard to get lost in this movie’s cinematic universe when these actors remind us of so many others.

As a final note, Villeneuve’s impeccably crafted film made me a little nostalgic for David Lynch’s wildly botched "Dune," from 1984. Though campy, perverse and grotesque, Lynch’s take at least had the power to shock and surprise. That movie left an impression; this one will leave you impressed, which is not the same thing.

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