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Review: 'Dune' may be on HBO Max, but it's one film you want to see on a big screen

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Long-awaited and hotly debated, the movie "Dune" is finally here. Based on the biggest, best-selling science fiction novel ever, director Denis Villeneuve's adaptation is available tonight in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. But critic Bob Mondello says this is one film you want to see on a big screen.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In terms of desert, Lawrence only had Arabia. The folks in "Dune" have a world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low.

MONDELLO: A desert planet glistening with something everyone wants.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) Rolling over the sands, you can see spice in the air.

MONDELLO: Spice - so valuable it lures a whole galaxy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) The outsiders ravage our lands in front of our eyes.

MONDELLO: The latest ravagers have left, making way for the house of Atreides, who are kinder, gentler ravagers from all appearances, at least when it comes to their teenaged heir apparent Paul Atreides. If he weren't so handy with sabers...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) I have you.

MONDELLO: ...And with a mind control technique called the Voice, you'd call him a sensitive kid. He's been training with his mom, a priestess in a powerful order of mystics. One of their elders pops by to see how Paul's coming along.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Gaius Helen Mohiam) The test is simple. Remove your hand from the box, and you die.

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) What's in the box?

RAMPLING: (As Gaius Helen Mohiam) Pain.

MONDELLO: Fun test. But in fairness, much will be asked of Paul. The Imperium sent his family to govern the planet, not really expecting them to be successful. In fact, the Atreides have barely arrived when they're under attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

JOSH BROLIN: (As Gurney Halleck) Get everything with guns off the ground. Go.

MONDELLO: Now, if it occurs to you that this sounds a lot like what happened long ago in a galaxy far, far away, you aren't wrong. Frank Herbert published "Dune" more than a decade before "Star Wars," and George Lucas borrowed quite a bit - naive young hero on a desert planet, ancient order of protectors tapping into a mystical power, evil emperor, planet-hopping technology oddly mismatched with warriors wielding swords, even a more action-oriented pal for our hero and a princess to fight for.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) This crysknife was made from a tooth of Shai Hulud, the great sand worm. This will be a great honor for you to die holding it.

MONDELLO: But "Dune" is a somber epic, and director Denis Villeneuve doesn't lighten it, as Lucas did with jokes and dogfights. Instead, he makes it huge - wind-whipped landscapes, massive structures, massive warriors. Timothee Chalamet, who's persuasively tormented as Paul, looks almost childlike standing next to Jason Momoa, who's the house of Atreides' ambassador on Arrakis because, well, who better to understand the importance of water on a desert planet? Actually, though, Paul intuits it as he and his family are being introduced to the body-cooling filtration suits the locals use to survive desert heat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

SHARON DUNCAN-BREWSTER: (As Liet Kynes) You ever worn a stillsuit before?

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) No, this is my first time.

DUNCAN-BREWSTER: (As Liet Kynes) Your desert boots are fitted slip-fashion at the ankles. Who taught you to do that?

CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) Seemed the right way.

DUNCAN-BREWSTER: (As Liet Kynes, speaking non-English language).

MONDELLO: He will know your ways as if born to them, murmurs their guide in a language and tone suggesting the planet has been expecting a savior. That notion goes hand in hand with other geopolitical parallels - nomads in robes and turbans angry that their desert land is being plundered for its resources, the dusty ecological tragedy of a desiccated planet. And then, of course, there are gigantic sand worms, dragonfly helicopters caught in mile-high dust storms, all accompanied by Hans Zimmer's furiously buzzing score.

There's a lot to "Dune" and a lot of "Dune" - two and a half hours of visual magnificence shot in and designed for IMAX just to get to what amounts to intermission because so far, Villeneuve has completed just the first part of Herbert's sprawling story. Had the pandemic not interfered, the director and his star-studded cast would now be riding global success to a more-or-less guaranteed Part II. But with cinemagoers still skittish and the film streaming from Day 1, who knows? Here's hoping they get to complete their epic. Cinematic sandcastles as impressive as Villeneuve's "Dune" don't come often - wouldn't want it to just melt away in the desert wind.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAUL'S DREAM")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.