Review: Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi epic 'Dune' is a mixed bag of eye-popping sci-fi, lackluster storytelling

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The sci-fi epic “Dune” boasts a few films’ worth of giant sandworms, amazing spaceships, cosmic armies and galactic political drama, though it essentially is only half a movie.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s visually arresting big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic – well, a good bit of the novel anyway – is an odd bird and a mixed bag. “Dune” (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters and on HBO Max) is impressively ambitious in scale, like Villeneuve mashing up the worlds of “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones,” but with that unmistakable signature style he showcased with “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049.”

While the film (currently playing the film-festival circuit, hopping from Venice to Toronto to New York) has a lot going for it, including a pretty stellar cast, real-world metaphors and an intriguing twist on a war-movie aesthetic, it's lacking in character development, and aspects of the book's substantial mythology are tossed in to keep your head swimming over 2½ hours.

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Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) has visions of Chani (Zendaya) before meeting her in "Dune."
Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) has visions of Chani (Zendaya) before meeting her in "Dune."

In the year 10191, the noble House of Atreides – led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) – is tapped to relocate from the rather pleasant planet of Caladan to dangerous, desert-filled Arrakis to oversee the mining of Spice, a precious resource that does wonders for human existence and makes interstellar travel possible, and to tame the indigenous Fremen. Leto’s teenage son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), has had vivid dreams of this new place – specifically a young Fremen girl with shining blue eyes named Chani (Zendaya) – and this phenomenon has brought extra attention from the Bene Gesserit, an all-female order with superpowers including Paul’s warrior priestess mom, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

Paul is seen in some circles as a messiah, so he’s caught between an ancient prophecy and being an heir to a renowned house. Their rivals in villainous House Harkonnen – including Baron Harkonnen (a near-unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgard), a slovenly mix of Jabba the Hutt, Colonel Kurtz and the Emperor from “Star Wars” – were Spice stewards for 80 years, and they’re out to sabotage their successors. And the Fremen, led by the enigmatic Stilgar (Javier Bardem), are the most unpredictable wild cards of them all, though they loom large in Paul’s story.

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House Atreides is led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his warrior priestess wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in "Dune."
House Atreides is led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his warrior priestess wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) in "Dune."

Alongside themes of ecology and colonialism, the movie boasts plenty of factions and personalities, though good luck actually investing in any of them. Chalamet’s a talented actor, but Paul’s a tortured, broody sort, while Isaac and Ferguson do what they can with fairly dry parental figures.

Everything’s overly serious in “Dune,” though the guy who's most enjoyable (and has the best name) is Jason Momoa as Atreides sword master Duncan Idaho, a fearless warrior loyal to his crew yet absolutely joyful whenever his old student Paul is around. Also noteworthy is Dr. Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), a gender-swapped Fremen figure from the Herbert book who works for the emperor (yes, “Dune” has one of those, too) transitioning Arrakis to Atreides’ control.

Beware the massive sandworms on the desert planet Arrakis in "Dune."
Beware the massive sandworms on the desert planet Arrakis in "Dune."

The other issue for Paul and Co. is that there’s much more to their tale not in this movie. Unlike, say, the horror film “It,” where the first film stood as a singular story and you didn’t have to see its sequel, “Dune” doesn’t: It gets to a point and just ends, not to mention being extremely anticlimactic. Imagine watching the original “Star Wars” if they blew up the Death Star midway through and then Luke Skywalker tussled with a few Tusken Raiders in the finale. (George Lucas was influenced by "Dune," and audiences will find the use of “the Voice,” a psychic ability wielded by Paul and his mother, to be very Force-like, though there is some striking sonic originality here.)

Even with its imperfections, “Dune” as an experience is awesome, with astounding special effects, great production design and a propulsive Hans Zimmer score. Insect/helicopter hybrid vehicles buzz around, Paul’s frequent future visions add a mysteriously neat vibe, and it’s hard to beat scarily mawed sandworms that could stretch across quite a few football fields.

You’ll just need to hope for a "Dune" sequel – or head to the books – for it all to make sense. Sure, it's got Spice, but better storytelling would be nice.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Dune' review: The sci-fi is awesome to watch, even if half a movie