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Review: Spectacular sci-fi epic 'Dune' is a once-in-a-generation movie

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Timothee Chalamet, left, and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from "Dune."

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Timothee Chalamet, left, and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from "Dune." (Chia Bella James, Warner Bros. Entertainment via Associated Press)

Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

ARRAKIS — Movies that feel as huge and monumental as Denis Villeneuve's spectacular "Dune" only come around once in a generation.

Villeneuve's adaptation of the beloved science-fiction novel is a grandiose cinematic achievement that deserves to be in the same conversation as our most adored movie epics, like "Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars" and even "Lawrence of Arabia."

Frank Herbert's 1965 book is a futuristic space opera about two powerful families fighting over the valuable "spice," an extremely important resource found only on the desert planet Arrakis. But the book is so much more than swords and spaceships. Herbert delves into ecology, religion, the plight of indigenous peoples and many other weighty topics.

Since it's so dense with layers of political intrigue, religious mysticism and environmental themes, "Dune" is infamously difficult to adapt to the big screen. Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt collapsed in the 1970s. And David Lynch disavowed his own 1984 film adaptation.

Villeneuve's film is deeply faithful to the book and succeeds where other attempts have failed. Here's why "Dune" is the must-see blockbuster epic of the year. This is a spoiler-free review.

Its epic scale is astounding

From its bombastic, Zendaya-narrated prologue, "Dune" grabs you by the throat and doesn't loosen its grip until the credits. This is a film that demands your attention and respect. You'll be forced to whisper "fear is the mind-killer" to yourself by the end of its intense 155 minutes.

The production design and special effects of "Dune" are incredible. Director Villeneuve, along with cinematographer Greig Fraser, has built a world that will make you feel as small as a grain of sand in the Arrakis dunes. Massive starships rise up through oceans before floating across vast expanses of space. Huge tanks crawl across the desert mining the spice and are whisked away by hot air balloon-like aircraft. And, of course, hulking sandworms wriggle through desert dunes as far as the characters can see.

Hans Zimmer's wonderful score, percussive and primal and unlike anything he's ever composed, pounds tension and wonder into every moment. Everything about "Dune" feels immaculate and grandiose, and it's impossible to take your eyes off it.

The ensemble cast is tremendous

Villeneuve assembled a huge cast full of A-list names to bring life to the world he created in "Dune": Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgaard and Javier Bardem. Character actors like Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian and Stephen McKinley Henderson round out the cast.

Chalamet stars as the young Paul Atreides, who is heir to the great family that inherits control of Arrakis and who might be the most important person in the history of the universe. Chalamet is subdued as the saga's conflicted main character, but steps up to the plate when called upon, particularly in one key dramatic scene toward the end of the film.

Ferguson plays Paul's mother Lady Jessica in what is basically a second lead role. Ferguson is a perfect casting choice. She nails the role, bringing passionate emotion to a character caught between her desire to protect her son and the orders of the Bene Gesserit, an ancient order of women who have superhuman powers and have been secretly crossing bloodlines for centuries in an attempt to produce a messianic figure known as the Kwisatz Haderach.

Isaac plays Duke Leto Atreides, Paul's father and leader of the family. The veteran actor brings a melancholy to his tragic character in a role lesser actors would play only with brute force and power. It's a solid supporting performance that gives Chalamet's character much-needed depth.

Brolin and Momoa are wonderful in limited screen time as Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, two warriors who mentor Paul. Skarsgaard is terrifying as the villainous Baron Harkonnen, literally drenched in black as the ultimate evil of "Dune." Charlotte Rampling also makes a cameo as a mysterious Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, sharing one of the film's tensest moments with Chalamet.

But despite the big ensemble, "Dune" never loses its focus on Chalamet. Herbert's storytelling builds a near-limitless galactic world, but when it comes down to it, "Dune" is really about Paul Atreides and his personal journey. Villeneuve wisely chooses to center his film around Paul and Jessica, and it keeps the movie grounded and tangible — unlike Lynch's adaptation, which got out of control by trying to do too much.

It's faithful to the book — but only half of it

The opening title card of "Dune" refers to the movie as part one, and although a second part has yet to be officially greenlit, Villeneuve has said he's optimistic that the franchise will continue.

And aside from omitting a few minor characters and plotlines that may yet be introduced in a sequel, "Dune" is very faithful to Herbert's book. Villeneuve and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth stray little, if at all, from Herbert's vision.

This will probably satisfy most people who have read and liked the book. But that also means people who haven't read the novel could be lost. As you'd expect from the first installment in a science-fiction saga with such a massive world, there's a lot of setup here. Viewers who aren't familiar with the source material might get weary trying to keep track of all the Shai Huluds, Gom Jabbars and Sardaukars as the film surpasses the two-hour mark.

The deep mysticism and lore of this story have attracted fans to "Dune" for decades, but it's an acquired taste and isn't for everyone.

Without spoiling anything, "Dune" also cuts off about halfway through the plot of the book. After over two hours of all that setup, the ending could be anti-climactic for some. Zendaya, who has become a huge star, has a smaller role than some may be expecting, though she'll likely have a much bigger part in a potential sequel.

What parents should know

"Dune" features lots of violence typical of PG-13 movies that involve swords. There are frequent, long battle sequences featuring stabbings, throat slashings and hackings, but little blood and gore is shown. An image of a blood-drenched knife is shown several times, though the stabbing that presumably preceded isn't shown.

There is no sexual content beyond a kiss between two characters, and little to no profanity in the film.

Is it worth watching?

"Dune" is astounding, must-see cinema. It's a reminder of just how powerful and affecting the movies can be.

Warner Bros. will make "Dune" available on HBO Max at the same time the movie debuts in theaters. For those who are comfortable with going to movie theaters in pandemic times, it's absolutely worth it to seek out the biggest screen you can find and see "Dune" there.

This is probably speaking too soon, but it feels like Villeneuve is creating a massive franchise that will be beloved for years. Hopefully, Warner sees fit to let the spice flow and allow the director to continue the story.

"Dune" is rated for PG-13 sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material. It debuts in theaters Friday and is available now on HBO Max.

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