In this first of two Dune movies, director Denis Villeneuve smooths out the most cumbersome parts of Frank Herbert's original tale, providing enough spectacle to overcome the dull bits. With echoes of his earlier films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve brings a languid moodiness to the storytelling here, slowing things down and allowing viewers time to take in the vast sets (built broad and low to fit the widescreen frame) and devices -- like the amazing, if impractical, ships modeled after dragonflies -- and to keep track of the story's innumerable characters. This rhythm builds to the tale's memorable, invigorating highlights -- such as Paul dodging a life-threatening hunter-seeker or enduring the painful gom jabbar test, or the first appearance of the massive sandworms -- and makes them feel extra vivid.
The movie even manages to soften the old, tired "chosen one" device, as well as the simplistic plot strands that are covered up by heaps of sci-fi names (how do you pronounce "Thufir Hawat" anyway?), places, and devices, making things flow more organically. It's even possible to remember that the original novel, published in 1965, actually inspired much that came after it, including Star Wars and The Matrix. Villeneuve can't quite downplay the source material's choking seriousness, but there are lighter moments. Skarsgard's Baron is a highlight; he's so grotesque that you can't look away. And then there's a swaggering Jason Momoa as swordmaster Duncan, who seems to be the only one having any fun. As with Blade Runner 2049, Dune goes on too long, with too many scenes of fighting, and this version lacks the quirky personality of the 1984 David Lynch take, but it's far more rousing.