The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Dune’ is the movie fans have been waiting for, even if they’ll have to wait for the rest of it

Timothée Chalamet stars in “Dune,” the first film in a planned two-part adaptation of the 1965 novel of the same name by Frank Herbert. (Video: Warner Bros.)
(3 stars)

A young messiah finally finds his calling — after two long hours and change — in “Dune” (which, it should be noted, is actually “Dune: Part 1,” although this fact is not exactly well advertised in the film’s marketing material). “It Begins,” as it says, quite accurately, on one of the posters for the new film, gorgeously adapted by director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”), from a smart screenplay he co-wrote with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, based on novelist Frank Herbert’s beloved, legendarily unadaptable 1965 sci-fi opus.

So maybe don’t exactly expect full closure.

These 21 movies are getting Hollywood’s hopes up — and people talking — this fall

The story does reach a nice stopping point, however, if you set your expectations accordingly: for what turns out to be the first half of one gigantic bedtime story, set in the year 10,091, on the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis, whose nickname lends the movie its title. Arrakis is the repository of hallucinogenic “spice” mines: the source of what’s known as “mélange” that extends life and enhances mental abilities, and that everyone in the galactic empire wants. It is sure to give you vivid dreams (the movie, not the spice). Perhaps not quite as vivid as those experienced by the film’s psychic hero, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the heir apparent to his father’s dukedom, and all that spice. But vivid nonetheless.

Imagine sand as far as the eye can see, massive sandworms and spaceships that look like levitating office buildings, as well as something called ornithopters, which are a cross between helicopters and dragon flies. To survive in the heat of Arrakis, everyone who arrives there wears a “stillsuit,” which recycles the body’s sweat and urine. It’s all pretty spectacular and awesome, in the original sense of the word: instilling wonder and a little bit of fear (as well as a touch of disgust).

Here’s where the fear comes in: As the film gets underway — majestic, epic, with a trumpeting score by Hans Zimmer that could have been written for elephant and alphorn — Paul and his parents (Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson) are relocating to Arrakis. The move is at the behest of an unseen emperor, who has kicked out the planet’s previous overseers of spice production: the Harkonnen, let by a Jabba the Hutt-like baron (Stellan Skarsgard).

It might help to think of the whole thing as a kind of Mafia turf war, set in space: Enemies and treachery are everywhere. The Harkonnen want their drug market back. And maybe the new job on Arrakis isn’t really a promotion for the House of Atreides after all, but a way for the emperor to get rid of them, assisted by his henchmen, the Sardaukar. Making matters worse are the planet’s oppressed natives, the Fremen — free men — who seem to hate everyone.

And don’t forget the sandworms.

But all that is really the backdrop to the saga of a hero’s rise. It’s the more stirring of the two narratives, and one that rests squarely on the unlikely, narrow shoulders of Paul, whom some say could be the One: the “Mahdi” of legend, sent to lead the Fremen, like the Israelites, out of slavery. Paul, you see, has been blessed/cursed with strange and as yet untapped abilities, inherited from his mother, a member of an all-female order called the Bene Gesserit. (Get used to the pseudo-religious gobbledygook. It comes fast and furious. Between that and the loud soundtrack — and the fact that several characters are telepathic and/or communicate via sign language — a lot of what might otherwise be explanatory dialogue is missing or unintelligible.)

And yet “Dune” is somehow almost purely pleasurable, and rarely tedious, despite its gargantuan running time and minor imperfections.

Villeneuve was correct, it seems, in insisting that he be allowed to break the book into two pieces. There’s a lot going on here — a quasi-biblical space opera, part “Lawrence of Arabia and part mobster movie — and spreading it out over two movies has allowed him to take his time with the story and tell it richly, and without rushing. (For an object lesson on how not to adapt “Dune,” see David Lynch’s 1984 version, which, even at 137 minutes, felt overly condensed and frenetic, without the source material’s sense of grandeur and, well, spaciousness.)

The movie is eye candy, to be sure. But its cast is substantial: Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa as retainers of the Duke; Javier Bardem and Zendaya as Fremen rebels, the latter of whom keeps appearing to Paul in dreams. Then there’s Paul, whom characters keep referring to as a boy. Chalamet is well cast: an almost too pretty slip of a man who harbors hidden strengths and intensity. When at last he learns to harness it, it lands with satisfying heft, even if it makes you wait, in a mix of frustration and fulfillment, for the next chapter.

PG-13. At area theaters; also available on HBO Max. Contains sequences of strong violence, some disturbing images and suggestive material. 155 minutes.