Dune, Part 1 | 2021 | PG-13 | starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgard, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardhem & Zendaya | directed by Denis Villeneuve | 2 hr 35 mins |

Denis Villeneuve only makes one kind of movie. Clear-eyed, beautifully crafted atmosphere, well-paced regardless of length, stoic, very serious and utterly humorless. That style fits just right with Dune, the cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s book series that would inspire every sci fi work after it, confound David Lynch and stymie Alejandro Jodorowsky. Villeneuve’s greatest trick here is making Dune look effortless. He makes it work by either being mad enough, or has the studio backing enough, to split the book up, insisting on only tackling the first half of Herbert’s epic in this largely table-setting and incomplete first film.

Teenage Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) comes of age on the planet Caladan where is father is the Duke (Oscar Isaac) and his mother the Lady (Rebecca Ferguson). Primed as a future leader, Paul must learn to fight, learn the history of the planet and it’s rivals and the importance of the Spice on the desert planet Arrakis. Duke Leto has been appointed to oversee the Spice mining on Arrakis, an opportunity seized on by the Sardukar Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) who attempts to seize Spice control for himself and wipe out the native Fremen people once and for all.

I felt like I spent the first time through Dune mentally comparing it to the David Lynch version. Infamously silly, where Lynch stacked the film with multiple narrators and delivered a wacky bouncing beach ball of a Baron, Villeneuve stays the course, folding the world-building in more fluidly and – best of all – restoring the Baron to a fearsome menace of planet-shaking proportions. Reframed into a Colonel Kurtz figure (one of many movie references) that slowly floats above his conquests and played ferociously by Skarsgard, The Baron turning from Lynch’s court jester to a worthy adversary goes a long way to give 2021’s Dune effective stakes.

Similarly Villeneuve has Lynch’s film as a blue print of what not to do, what may read well on the page, but look silly on screen. He has the eye to cleverly pave over the potentially goofier pieces of Dune, re-inventing the personal shields, leaving some special effects unfocused in the background and making the sand worms a staggering size. Everything about Dune is huge which has it’s pluses and minuses. It is often grand to behold, but it’s also SO big that it feels impractically big, robbing the film of the lived-in quality that Villeneuve was able to conjure up so well in Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049. He takes careful attention to make the world feel real – showing the sand shifting under Paul’s hand as a sand worm approaches for example – and all of the flying machines and tech have a practical weight to them as they buzz through space and sandstorms. At the same time, the film is barren. Whether it’s the palace rooms, the desert landscapes or the large ceremonies, it’s a very empty world.

The icy coldness permeates the film. Villeneuve lovingly recreates the details of the book but can’t get us further than arm’s length from the characters. Putting the weird vibe between Paul and his mother every version of this story has, Paul doesn’t become much more than a Chosen One trope in this film. A sniveling kid who steps up to the task before him and uses his own mystical visions of the Fremen (of Zendaya in a glorified cameo) to divinely get himself out of scrapes. Once the film switches out of it’s world-building first half to Paul and his mom lost in the desert, it really starts to drag. Normally such a precise filmmaker with his editing, here Villeneuve cross-cuts between action not to create tension or parallels between the stories, but just to awkwardly cram as much of the story into the same space as possible.

A technical marvel that puts Frank Herbert’s book to screen in a gloriously large scale, old Hollywood fashion with the details intact, Dune is also a hard movie to connect with on any kind of human level. As this film stands it’s incomplete and it feels that way, ending abruptly and unsatisfyingly on what feels like a very long 2nd act turn. We’ll see what Villeneuve has up his sleeve for the next chapter, he obviously loves this stuff, so if anyone can film Paul riding on top of a sandworm and not make it look dumb, Denis Villeneuve can.