In the end, Denis Villeneuve was all too right: Your television isn’t big enough for the scope of his “Dune,” but that’s only because this lifeless spice opera is told on such a comically massive scale that a screen of any size would struggle to contain it. Likewise, no story — let alone the misshapen first half of one — could ever hope to support the enormity of what Villeneuve tries to build over the course of these interminable 155 minutes (someone mentions that time is measured differently on Arrakis), or the sheer weight of the self-serious portent that he pounds into every shot. For all of Villeneuve’s awe-inducing vision, he loses sight of why Frank Herbert’s foundational sci-fi opus is worthy of this epic spectacle in the first place. Such are the pitfalls of making a movie so large that not even its director can see around the sets.
How big is “Dune”? We’re talkin’ slabs upon slabs of angular concrete as far as the eye can see, spaceships that seem to displace entire oceans when they emerge from the seabeds of Caladan, and sandworms so large they could eat the Graboids from “Tremors” like bar nuts. Even yoked kings Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista look like tabletop miniatures when placed against its backdrops, as if cinematographer Greig Fraser discovered a way to shoot deep focus and tilt-shift at the same time.
So why, for all of its unparalleled immensity, does watching “Dune” amount to the cinematic equivalent of being handed a novelty-sized check made out for six dollars? Why is the scope of Villeneuve’s dream betrayed by the dull shallowness of its reality to the point that his film’s most astounding effects — which are every bit as tactile and transportive as those in “Blade Runner 2049” — feel more like optical illusions? Why does this “Dune” feel so small?
The first and most fundamental problem is a screenplay (credited to the heavyweight trio of Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Villeneuve himself) that drills into Herbert’s novel with all the thunder and calamity of a spice harvester, but mines precious little substance from underneath the surface. And while it’s not much of a shock that Denis Villeneuve hasn’t succeeded where the likes of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky have already failed, his “Dune” is at least uniquely dispiriting, as the director of “Prisoners,” “Incendies,” and “Arrival” comes to this project with such a deep affinity for stories about transcending cyclical violence.
Alas, that’s really all this adaptation is allowed to be, as the source material is bisected in a way that punts all of Herbert’s most resonant (and psychedelically unstable) ideas about the braided relationship between colonialism and chosen one narratives into a sequel that may never be made.
It’s hard to overstate how little actually happens in this “Dune,” which flows like an overture that’s stretched for the duration of an entire opera. In stark contrast to the Lynch version — which immediately unpacks the Emperor’s twisted scheme to weaken house Atreides by giving it control of the spice planet Arrakis — Villeneuve’s film sees this story through the eyes of the great family’s young heir, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), and embraces the boy’s awestruck confusion at moving to a desert world and learning that he was bred to be the white savior of its native people. “Who will our next oppressor be?” Zendaya asks in the introductory voiceover that Villeneuve gives her in lieu of a character to play, but the rest of the movie completely betrays that sting of suspicion.
This much-debated aspect of “Dune” is complicated in later installments of Herbert’s series, but here it remains unchallenged; Paul is Jesus Christ as a eugenics experiment designed by space witch Charlotte Rampling, who paired Duke Atreides (a bearded and winsome Oscar Isaac, who gets to yell “Desert power!” several times) with a very special concubine (the ever-capable Rebecca Ferguson), and the Bedouin-coded Fremen of Arrakis are happy to accept this foreign twerp as their prophet.
It helps that Chalamet is a natural fit in the role. The actor is something of a chosen one himself — a gawky New York kid who leveraged his internet boyfriend status into legitimate stardom — and Villeneuve helps steer him toward the dislocation of a bird-boned model descended from a line of sex mystics and Hemingways. Paul Atreides invented the blankness that Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter would later inherit, but Chalamet spices things up by making the character palpably out of his depth.