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Dune starts a slow burn in the desert

If you walk into the movie Dune cold, you may find yourself lost in a hot desert. Based on the first half of the first book in a series covering 19 volumes, Dune takes time to set the stage, and director Denis Villenueve shows little inclination to speed things along. It proves a good choice for hardened fans but a risk for those accustomed to jumping feet first into action.

Longtime fans remember how upon its release in 1965, Dune felt unique with its attention to environmental issues faced by inhabitants of a planet in a galaxy yet to meet the Star Wars dimension. Author Frank Herbert envisioned a barren world with blazing sun, predatory creatures, and locals who knew how to recycle their most precious resource, water. They could survive, but not without a fight since their planet also provided a highly desirable and economically necessary substance called “spice.” Herbert granted readers the intelligence to use spice as a metaphor for anything they want.

Into this mix comes the outsiders, the colonists ready to follow orders from leaders caught up in a series of power struggles. Classic fantasy traits found in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and more, these plot elements keep Dune on the list of most—or must--read science fiction. With all this history behind them, Director Villenueve and his co-writers come to the project with deferential respect, plus the tools and skills to visually create a world that once seemed impossible to show on screen.

He brings in a well-chosen cast, with Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya highlighting youthful appeal. Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, and Oscar Isaac skillfully add their own big-franchise flourishes from the Marvel and Star Wars universes. Overall, the new Dune 2021 introductory chapter looks gorgeous, but even at two-and-a-half hours feels like it’s just taking baby steps with characters.

Stopping at a point with neither a cliff-hanger nor wrap up of key issues, Dune as a franchise will require many years of patience. Personally, I expect to demonstrate some of that patience; after all, I once named a pet Alia after a Dune character I hope to meet again in the next installment.

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