Jewish actor Timothee Chalamet’s blockbuster looks gorgeous but falters on story

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Warner Brothers Pictures

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Paul can’t sleep. Due to a wicked combination of terrifying nightmares and enlightening visions, his nights are distorted; a young man destined for high purpose (leader of galaxies?) who isn’t exactly ready for what is about to come.

I don’t think the casual moviegoer is ready for Denis Villenueve’s “Dune,” an epic science fiction drama opus that seemingly drags us through the bombastic sand for over two and a half hours without any real conclusion. While everyone should go into this film understanding it’s only “Part One,” a better payoff after such a long journey would have pushed this cocktail down smoother.

Alas, we are left with Timothee Chalamet’s highly uninteresting Paul, another young hero-to-be who spends 98% of the movie trying to find out if he really is “the one.” When his powerful father (Oscar Isaac) acquires a planet for the galaxy’s most sought-after resource known as spice, it attracts the attention of other forces and thus launches a war. Spice, the drug that can extend life and gives humans other special powers, is the very thing that should have been left inside Pandora’s box. At least for poor young fellas like Paul, who can fight well even if he doesn’t know all there is about his mother (Rebecca Ferguson, pumping oil into an underwritten part).

There’s also an evil empire run by Stellan Skarsgard’s monstrous world-ender named Baron, who dispatches heavy hitters like Dave Bautista’s Beast Rabban to destroy entire colonies of people. Javier Bardem and Sharon Duncan-Brewster have vital roles that unfold slowly, while Jason Momoa gets to do his hero-legend best as Duncan Idado, the mentor to Chalamet’s Paul. Josh Brolin has a role that seems to be something early on before basically disappearing.

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Chalamet is a talented Jewish-American actor — something shown in “Beautiful Boy” and “Little Women” — but he can’t breathe much life into this particular hero role, often looking overwhelmed by the scope of the film and reacting instead of creating something with his performance. It’s akin to John David Washington’s work in Christopher Nolan’s misguided “Tenet,” a large-scale film with a thinly written lead part, resulting in an actor looking lost at sea rather than comfortable in the character’s skin. It’s this listless performance that keeps the film detached from casual moviegoers, who are the ones that hope to give Villenueve’s film some legs as the holiday season approaches.

To say a lot is going on in “Dune” is an understatement. It’s exhausting just to fully describe the plot alone. While its pacing is uneven and the editing less than stellar, it puts a lot on the plate for the moviegoer to take in. It does look very nice. If anything, it’s endlessly dazzling to the eye, creating otherworldly visuals that blend the exotic with the wicked. The sound from Hans Zimmer kicks off the walls in the first hour and really clicks into the Villenueve’s overall aesthetic. But eventually, you want all of this loud purpose to become something, and it never does.

By the end of the film, however, I wanted more–but not exactly how you think. I needed even more time with these characters to decide if I should care about their fate moving forward. One wouldn’t call that a good thing with such a blockbuster-type swing. What was served ultimately isn’t interesting enough to care about, especially for a story that is so incomplete. For over two hours, we are led down this derivative rabbit hole thinking something ultimate is going to happen at the end. But all we get is a lame fight that tells us nothing we didn’t already know about the characters.

The only character in “Dune” that ever clings to any sort of real life is Momoa’s Idaho. When he’s onscreen, the entertainment factor hits a high note and a character that is so easy to invest in soaks up our eyes and attention spans. But it’s not Duncan’s movie, and Paul isn’t nearly as interesting. He’s just a lost boy in search of purpose and an elusive woman from his dreams (Zendaya, who seems to be shooting a perfume ad on Mars).

In the end, Villenueve’s film comes off as an overstuffed concoction of “The Matrix” with heavy riffs from “Blade Runner: 2049” and “Game of Thrones” as well. While that may sound like a lovely cinematic T-bone steak in the playbook, the movie doesn’t exactly stick the landing–hindering its ability to come off as complete as those previously mentioned pieces of work. With so much going on and little of it intriguing the non-book novice mind, the movie never amounts to much more than a museum of sexy imagery. Gorgeous actors with thinly written roles and a plot that is too familiar.

While it can be a copout to write that a movie would have made a better television series, “Dune” fits the criteria to a tee. Perhaps the story, and its confused-looking hero, could have burrowed their way into my senses with more screen time. Warner Brothers has spoken of a sequel, but nothing is guaranteed at this point. There’s a chance this one movie is all audiences could get, and the ending won’t please that many souls. It just won’t.

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