Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Rated PG-13 (some disturbing images; sequences of strong violence, suggestive material)
Now playing at Laemmle Newhall and Regal Edwards Valencia
A couple of summers ago, I watched every episode of “Game of Thrones” in about three weeks. I enjoyed the show quite a lot, but I seem to have comprehension problems with fantasy and science fiction when stories are densely populated with strange names and places. Intense binge watching allowed me to hold onto some kind of continuity from one episode to another, but even now, I could not tell you the difference between House of Targaryen and wherever the White Walkers are from. Those complicated names, titles, and locations just don’t stick.
I wish that tremendous couch-potato stamina had prepared me for the baffling world of “Dune.” House Atreides. Sardaukar. Harkonnen. Suk Doctor Wellkington Yueh. Galus Helen Mohiam. Are these people or places? Good guys or bad guys? Honestly, I have no idea. These sorts of names and titles fly at you fast in “Dune,” and good manners prevented me from taking notes on my phone during the movie.
Fortunately, tracking and remembering places and names isn’t the key to enjoying “Dune.” The film is an extraordinary visual accomplishment, a dense piece of imaginative, world-building science fiction that provides one amazing sight after another and a story that, while emotionally distant, is nevertheless involving, intricately plotted and endlessly surprising.
The plot of “Dune” is, as you may surmise, complicated. I’ll try to boil it down: our protagonist is Paul (a well-cast Timothée Chalamet), a young prince of sorts who moves with his family (Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson) to a giant worm-infested sand planet that has been imperialized by a brutal group of profiteers interested in mining Spice, a mineral that can extend life and makes interstellar travel possible.
Unfortunately, Paul and his clan have been set up and soon find themselves at war with the violent imperialists. Meanwhile, Paul is experiencing psychic-like dreams and visions that seem to indicate that he is more powerful than he imagines and that his destiny is to fight alongside the oppressed indigenous people of the sand planet.
That’s about as straightforward as I can make it other than saying “Dune” is “Star Wars” meets the aforementioned “Game of Thrones” (or maybe “The Lord of the Rings.”) There are countless plot twists and supporting characters (all expertly performed by Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and others), but one of the pleasures of going into this film cold, as I did, is discovering these characters and how they interrelate. And, if you’re already familiar with the story, you don’t need a summary in the first place.
A significant amount of credit for the success of “Dune” must go to director Denis Villeneuve, a talented and imaginative director at the height of his powers and clearly having fun in this literal sandbox. In his earlier films such as “Prisoners,” “Arrival” and “Enemy,” Villeneuve has shown that the quietest moments can often bring the most teeth-gnashing suspense, whereas his other film such as “Sicario” and “Blade Runner 2049” demonstrate that kinetic action need not sacrifice clarity for intensity. In “Dune,” Villeneuve’s sense of pacing is right-on, and he masterfully balances the small quiet moments with the film’s bombastic and complex action scenes.
Also worthy of special praise is production designer Patrice Vermette, who makes every location unique and otherworldly while managing to include many examples of Villeneuve’s fascination with insects, including amazing dragonfly-like helicopters. Villeneuve’s long-time editor Joe Walker is enormously helpful in maintaining narrative and action clarity despite all of the story complexities.
Be aware that the film only covers about half of Frank Herbert’s 416-page book, so story closure is not to be found; I would have gladly waited through a 10-minute intermission before returning to sit through part two.
I suspect the density of “Dune’s” story and the sullen gravitas of the trailer may turn off audiences who like their action-adventure movies to be more in the bright-and-cheery mode of Marvel. But, to dismiss “Dune” so easily would mean missing one of the richest films so far this year.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.