To deliver this “impossible to adapt” story requires someone who loves the material and the story of Dune; not the spectacle. Because, absent the story, there isn’t a movie. Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has proved himself over and over to be patient with story and to deliver knock out visuals to aid them. But that didn’t mean it would be easy.
The trouble always starts with the casting. Dune is an epic and it starts with Paul Atreides as a tween. For some reason, no adaptation of the story wants to cast more than one actor for the role and so usually pick someone older. Timothée Chalamet (Little Women) is the latest 20-something to step into the role. With Villeneuve’s guidance he really delivers on the unsure, reluctant leader-to-be by focusing on who he is, not who he will develop into down the line. It imparts a youth to his Paul that helps bridge the credibility of the age anomaly.
He is surrounded by great actors, many of whom I was dubious of when I saw the clips and choices. Oscar Isaac (At Eternity’s Gate) was chief among them, but he proved me wrong. On the other hand Rebecca Ferguson (Reminiscence), Jason Momoa (Sweet Girl), and Josh Brolin (Solo: A Star Wars Story), and Javier Bardem (mother!) were all inspired selections. Each embodies aspects of the characters from the books that have been missed in the past. And almost unrecognizable, and wonderfully, necessarily creepy is Stellan Skarsgård (Cold Pursuit). Even knowing he was in the story, it took me several scenes to realize it was him beneath all the prosthetic.
There are many similarities to the infamous 1984 Lynch version of the story. It’s inevitable as they both had the same challenge of relating huge amounts of information, context, and exposition in order to provide grounding for the story. But Villeneuve, I think, did it much more organically and well. The script, pulled together along with Jon Spaights (Passengers) and Eric Roth (A Star is Born), makes solid choices to feed us needed information in direct and indirect ways, even making the exposition work for the film.
Here’s the one admission I must make: I can’t be sure how this works for anyone who has never read the books. Unlike the current Foundation series (to be written up soon), this sprawling epic is much fresher in my mind and it’s focus is smaller in many ways. I think it will work for even the uninitiated, but I’m going to have to watch it again more critically to be sure. But it is gorgeous, and it promises a great deal in the (hopefully) coming sequels. This is “part 1” as declared in the opening title card. You won’t get the full story yet, but the movie finds a natural place to end/pause. It is the very fact that it does leave us hanging that I can’t give the movie a perfect score. Hopefully it will be greenlit soon and return with its conclusion before the glow of this release can fade too much.
Update: Part 2 is on for Oct. 2023.