TORONTO — “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar,” bow down to “Dune.”
Director Denis Villeneuve’s galvanizing new film, which had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday night, is 100-percent worthy to stand next to those science fiction and fantasy epics. Believe it or not, at times it visually tops them.
I heaved a sigh of relief early on. David Lynch’s infamous 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel was a spectacle in its time, but it was hard to watch then and it is impossible to watch now. Give it a try some night if you’re having trouble sleeping. I worried this new version would fall into the same style-over-substance trap.
But the storytelling from the get-go is crisp and assured. Bold. Gargantuan. Herbert’s plot is dense, but once you get a handle on a few key words (Atreides, Harkonnen, Arrakis), the sandstorm lifts and you’re in the clear.
Timothee Chalamet — who is already famous but will go stratospheric after this — plays Paul Atreides, son of the powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac).
Their family controls the desert planet of Arrakis, which is rich in valuable spice (think gold or oil) and infested by awesome giant sand worms. The peaceful House Atreides is determined to keep it out of the clutches of the evil House Harkonnen, who seek to plunder its resources and murder the natives, including a group of fighters called the Fremen (Zendaya is one). The Harkonnens are lorded over by the Baron, played by Stellan Skarsgård doing his finest Jabba the Hutt.
War breaks loose, and it’s up to Paul, who many believe to be the prophesied “chosen one,” to save Arrakis.
“Dune” freaks will tell you that there’s much more to the story than that. Spare me your nasty social media posts, dudes — you’re right! For instance, Paul’s mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is a powerful being who teaches him “the way,” a kind of magic that involves mind control. There’s a ton of stuff like that.
However, Villeneuve has focused on clarity and approachability with his movie. You don’t need to absorb every piece of trivia to have a fantastic time.
Frankly, you could watch it on mute and your jaw would still drop. The richly imagined world combines ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern aesthetics and blends them with elegant, futuristic technologies to create an absolutely mind-blowing, immersive environment.
The director has also thrown in a little humor and colloquialized the speech a tad, which course-corrects the rigidity of Lynch’s movie.
To that effect, the acting, especially from Chalamet and Ferguson, isn’t stiff so much as formal and ceremonial. They are royalty in a millennia-old society rooted in tradition. Not Meghan Markle on Oprah.
Chalamet’s gravitas surprised me. Gone is the boy from “Call Me By Your Name,” and in his place is a not-quite-man whose steps on the sand land with the thud of Neil Armstrong’s.
What a surreal premiere Saturday night was. We all sat, aptly, inside a giant spaceship-looking orb on Lake Ontario called the Cinesphere IMAX. Despite the massive scale of the event, it still felt small. Fans didn’t mob the red carpet, and irksome social distancing remains mandatory in Toronto. Nobody flippin’ cared. Five minutes in, our sphere faded away and was swapped with a distant, spectacularly envisioned galaxy. This movie is the first of two planned parts. Please, dear God, make the second one.
“Dune” will hit theaters and HBO Max Oct. 22. My advice? Screw HBO Max — choose IMAX.