Warning: Contains Minor Spoilers

I liked Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival quite a bit. 

You know what I wouldn’t have liked? Arrival if the movie stopped halfway through and rolled credits. That would have been frustrating and disappointing.

Alas, that’s what we’ve been given in Villeneuve’s Dune

Dune is the title given on the poster and ads. But the movie tells us something different. Onscreen, the titles tell us this is Dune: Part One, a bit of bait and switching that would-be viewers should be aware of before they pick up a ticket. 

Some day, if part two — or part two and part three or whatever — are ever actually made, the final result may be one glorious epic with a slow build and a killer payoff.

That may happen eventually.

But that’s not where we are now.  

Right now, what’s onscreen is a movie unlikely to satisfy those unfamiliar with the Dune books and likely to frustrate many of us who are.

It’s been years since I’ve read Frank Herbert’s books. I liked them more than most books on my science-fiction-packed teen shelves largely because of their world-building. Here was an epic where economics, ceremony, politics and religion all played a part in shaping the world(s). These books were packed with characters, many of them playing high-stakes mental chess with each other, trying to outthink and out-predict outcomes. Making the right decisions felt crucial. But even while operating in this unique universe, the books were populated with interesting individuals making decisions that affected the world.

This new cinematic take on the story respects the world-building but, in spite of a first-rate cast, never makes us care about the characters or their challenges. 

The story concerns the Atreides family, whose kingdom of sorts is relocated by an overseeing Emperor from a seemingly idyllic planet to Arrakis, a sand-covered world that produces a spice essential for interstellar travel. They are being set up, though, and their predecessors soon return to wipe them out. At the center of the story is Paul Atreides, the Duke’s son, an offshoot of a breeding program that a group of women called the Bene Gesserit have been working on for generations. But Paul’s mom went and had a boy instead of the girl she was supposed to have and …

OK, it’s a bit more complicated than Luke rescuing a princess with a couple of funny robots or a group of hobbits and their entourage returning jewelry. 

And it’s colder. By design. There’s no joy here. No break from the grimness. Even the action sequences, like the buildings and ships, have a burdensome heaviness to them. The deliberate coldness of the Dune books (ironic for a desert planet story), and their intense seriousness, is part of their strength. But on film, the grimness is just … grim. And dull. Where David Lynch opted for operatic over-the-topness in his much-mocked version from 1984, Villeneuve goes for gravitas. But he never makes the machinations of the characters matter. Timothée Chalamet seems smart casting as Paul, as does Rebecca Ferguson as his mother and Oscar Isaac as his father, yet they only register as figures in a history book or a lesser biblical epic, not as people whose struggles matter. 

I admire the way the movie introduces layers of intrigue, as well as a small army of characters, in its relatively action-free first hour. (Although my Dune-uninitiated 19-year-old son claimed afterward that he was thoroughly confused by how this whole power structure worked). But that setup leads to … nothing. It walks a fine line in its effort to avoid this story of an outsider maybe-messiah becoming another white-savior tale (see Avatar, Dances with Wolves, etc.), but cautiousness doesn’t make for exciting cinema. 

And the ending, or lack thereof? It must have taken a lot of rationalizing to think that an epic film such as this can be satisfying when it “climaxes” with a fight between Paul and … some guy who we just met and who isn’t even an enemy. 

I’m not Paul Atreides. 

I don’t have visions of the future. 

I don’t know if the rest of this film will ever get made and, if it does, if the two halves will add up to anything special. 

What we have now, though, is half a movie, as dry as the sands of Arrakis.