Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Dune' review: Space nuns, Shakespearian twinks, sinking sand

Eric Webb
Austin 360

All hail the twink prince of space. Long — very long — may he reign. Over precisely half of a movie plot.

Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" might be catnip (or spice, to use the parlance of the story's galactic empire) for fans of Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi tome of the same name. I've never read it, which might make you scoff and immediately avert your eyes from what I wrote, but I have witnessed the unhinged spectacle of David Lynch's 1984 movie adaptation, which maybe counts for something.

This new "Dune" is different. Its hinges are fully tightened to the door frame. Meticulously stylized and as serious as a prophecy-induced headache, Villeneuve's take on one of the bedrocks of modern space fantasy is a gorgeous, ponderous, multimillion dollar ode to Timothée Chalamet's messianic bone structure.

'Titane' review:Sex, cars and the most twisted gender reveal party ever

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from "Dune."

Summarizing "Dune" is like wrapping the book of Genesis into a paragraph, but here goes. In the far-flung future, interstellar society is governed by rival noble houses. The gallant House Atreides — Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), heir Paul (Chalamet), concubine-matriarch Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and its various generals — is given control of Arrakis, a planet of sand dunes that hide the precious spice, a substance that both enables space travel and space peyote trips. The dunes also hide giant sandworms, which look like every genital possible.

Wouldn't you know it, but the planet's previous stewards, the evil House Harkonnen led by a rotting baron (Stellan Skarsgård), has set House Atreides up for (dramatic synth drones go here) doom.

Ominous turns are to be expected, as Paul is given to visions, which makes sense because mama Jessica is part of an occult order of mind-controlling nuns. Dreams of a young woman named Chani (played by Zendaya) belonging to the Fremen, the oppressed people of Arrakis, lead Paul into a centuries-old struggle. Legend promises a chosen one will come, perhaps one with high cheekbones, right as Baron Harkonnen makes his move.

Jason Momoa plays the swashbuckling Duncan Idaho in a scene from "Dune."

And hey, about those dunes. "Dune" is presented in gorgeous Sand-O-Vision, which is no surprise given Villaneuve's stylish work on modern sci-fi gems like "Blade Runner 2049" and "Arrival." While the vibe is very "Sharper Image opens up in Marfa," no one can deny the fully realized aesthetic language the director's brought to the world of Paul Atreides. Beaded veils and bronze wall reliefs blend with round-edged tech and holographic visualizations.

Composer Hans Zimmer's score glitters like stardust, lurches like a star vessel and intones folk horror dread. Costume designers Robert Morgan and Jacqueline West give every clan their own style: Euro-military finery for House Atreides, "Doctor Who" foot-soldier uniforms for House Harkonnen, Kanye West-meets-T. E. Lawrence desert duds for the Fremen.

For the senses, it's a rich stew. For the mind, "Dune" might just prove that the long-held fear in pop culture circles — that Herbert's sandy saga is just unfilmable — was warranted.

'Lamb' review:Finally, a cautionary tale about killer sheep

Destiny, gender, politics, magic, religion, eugenics, commerce, conservation, racism, colonialism, the survival of bagpipes 10,000 years into the future: "Dune" is about a lot of things.

For some, that might be a welcome proposition, and sure, the ambition is admirable. The all-you-can-eat buffet of themes would feel more like a delightful tasting menu if there was a coherent story arc to ride like a sandworm, though. The opening title of the film, which informs the audience that these 2 hours and 35 minutes are merely a first chapter, quashes any dreams of narrative economy.

Speaking of dreams, you can tell Villeneuve was blessed with visions, just like Paul Atreides. The specter of the real-life war in Afghanistan looms over "Dune" — futuristic helicopters fly over deserts, woefully underinformed soldiers try to bring enlightenment to a culture being strip-mined for its natural resources, terrorists perform beheadings in the arid wastes. But then there also are the touches of Shakespearian tragedy, and the almost blatant echoes of "Star Wars."

Herbert's work directly inspired George Lucas' generation-defining space opera, and Villeneuve's film doesn't go out of its way to discourage comparison. Baron Harkonnen? Looks like Palpatine. Arrakis? Could use the same travel brochures as Tatooine. Jessica's psychic powers and Muppet-esque vocal mesmerizing, and Jason Momoa's swashbuckling Atreides warrior Duncan Idaho? The Force, Yoda, Han Solo.

It's kind of like the song "Respect." Otis Redding did it first, but Aretha did it most famously. It's her song now, which you can't really ignore.

'Unrolls like a film':Austin's Zach Theatre is back with immersive outdoor 'Into the Woods'

And like Anakin Skywalker or Luke Skywalker or Rey (or heck, Neo, Buffy Summers and Harry Potter), Chalamet's Paul Atreides fills the destined hero trope. The "Call Me By Your Name" actor's tortured boyishness is put to good use here. His sensitive touch with natural acting choices, a little less so; those are buried under all the backstory about space economics, mind-controlling nuns and race relations.

A note on the racial politics in "Dune": They're clumsy, to be generous. A white colonist's kid is prophesied to lead a tribal people of dark-skinned natives to greatness, becoming their greatest champion? And that civilization's enlightened connection to the land is represented by their bluest-of-blue eyes? Eep. 

A few actors manage to swim above the sand. Momoa sticks to what he knows, which is playing Jason Momoa, this time among the stars. (Dying to see the line item in his contract that forbids cutting that mane.) "Dune" creaks beneath its seriousness whenever he's off the screen. And, this being a dynastic melodrama at its core, only Ferguson as Jessica and Charlotte Rampling as her sinister mother superior really lean into the camp. 

Timothée Chalamet, left, and Charlotte Rampling engage in some space mysticism in "Dune."

"Dune" is a feat of futuristic world-building and mythic adventure. On those counts, the slow burn doesn't singe too bad. Around the second hour, you realize all that court intrigue has led you to a "Dancing With Wolves" story — or "Dancing With Sandworms," as the case may be — that you don't even get to see unless a sequel gets the green light.

Dreams might be messages from the deep, as the film tells us, but I'm not sure that Part II would be anyone's wildest fantasy.

'Dune'

Grade: C

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Oscar Isasc

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence and suggestive material

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Watch: In theaters and streaming on HBO Max