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The Stew Review: ‘Dune’ delivers exceptional adaptation of epic, classic novel

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Timothee Chalamet, left, and Rebecca...
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Timothee Chalamet, left, and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from "Dune." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)(Chia Bella James | AP)
Published: Oct. 28, 2021 at 11:53 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Dune is undoubtedly half a movie (the actual title comes up as Dune: Part One), but what a compelling, arresting half it is.

For a time, and not without good reason, Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel was considered to be “unfilmable.” David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation was interesting but unquestionably a misfire, at best. The Sci-Fi Channel miniseries adaptation from 2000 was, well...a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries adaptation from 2000. Even under the most optimal conditions, adapting a novel as dense, unique and narratively internalized as Dune was always going to be a Herculean task. And yet co-writer and director Denis Villaneuve ignored caution and thrust himself head-first into delivering an adaptation of Dune that works as an adaptation, a work of cinema and the first half of a story that somehow still feels satisfying with its inevitable cliffhanger.

I say all of this as surprised as anyone at the results. Yes, the novel is incredibly weird and is told largely through internal monologues and has a lot of heady concepts that in no way translate to Exciting Cinema, to say nothing of the fact that countless storytellers and filmmakers over the decades have cannibalized the more interesting parts of Dune for their own use. Rather, I was skeptical of this adaptation because I found the novel to be as dry and unwelcoming as the desert planet upon which it is set. I finished the novel, but only out of some misbegotten sense of obligation. Sure, there are heroic deeds and weird psychic powers and huge beasties that excrete space cocaine which fuels intergalactic travel (no, I’m not joking), but at its core Dune is a story about intergalactic politics, imperialism and the various ways greed spurs only the further destruction of people and natural resources. It’s a novel I feel I should have connected with more than I did.

So when I say that Denis Villaneuve’s two-and-a-half-hour first half of this story is engaging, intriguing and captivating from beginning to end, I want you to know the weight with which such a declaration is given.

Part of why the film works is that the technology now exists to render the scope and scale of Herbert’s intergalactic vision with few, if any, notable compromises (visually-speaking, at least). The mammoth sandworms are equally awe-inspiring and terrifying in their realization here. The dragonfly-esque ornithopters, a design I thought too silly to be seriously rendered in a film, are now among my favorite sci-fi ship designs. The look and feel and tone of the aesthetics of this world is designed in a way that both builds on the now-familiar elements while presenting them in a way that communicates the immense scale at play. Epic is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but there is an undeniable grandiosity on display here that makes this world feel alive and overwhelming in its size. There’s a strong debate to be had over the ritual of going to a movie theater and whether or not that is the more “pure” way to see a movie. I’ll not digress with my feelings on that (somewhat) complicated issue, but suffice to say, Villaneuve’s film more than amply makes the argument that some movies simply must be seen on as big a screen as possible.

More miraculously, however, is the way Villaneuve and co-writers Joe Roth and Jon Spaights have managed to condense an overwhelming amount of lore, world-building, character development, religion and story into a movie that has a runtime shorter than the most recent James Bond movie. Granted, as I said earlier, this is quite clearly only the first half of the story. And a good portion of said lore, world-building, character development and religion has either been trimmed, sidelined or otherwise glossed over. And yet Dune: Part One never feels incomplete or that essential material is outright missing. It never feels like a stunted or restrained movie. For instance, there is a wealth of information left out about the Bene Gesserit, an intergalactic coven of all-female scientist theologian spy nuns who use political and cultural manipulation to further their goal of paving the way for a so-called chosen one. Villaneuve gives us a taste of who the Bene Gesserit are but leaves much of their existence and purpose in the shadows, both metaphorically and literally. And yet doing so only adds to the intrigue. It’s a choice that adds an unexpected layer of texture to the film instead of stymying the world building. Choices like this are found throughout and while some ground will have to be regained in part two with the more pared-back nature of part one, Villaneuve’s choices thus far have felt so correct I have complete faith he’ll manage to stick the landing.

It’s the cast that in some ways feels like the most miraculous achievement, though. Special effects can create literally anything now, but so much of what makes Dune so unique is the internalized nature of its narrative. The story is often told through a character’s running, internal monologue. There are long stretches with no dialogue. For Dune to work on-screen without feeling long-winded or awkward, it requires a cast who not only believes and believe in the material, it requires that many of them emotionally project in a way that few movies seem to require these days. Thankfully, they can.

Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides strikes the perfect balance as a stalwart leader with vision and purpose, yet still has a compassionate side he’s more than capable of revealing to his son when needed most. Lady Jessica is a woman trapped between her religious devotion and the desire to protect her son and Rebecca Ferguson’s performance expertly finds equal moments of near-crippling fear and unshakable strength. It’s Timothee Chalamet as their son, Paul, however, who anchors the entire affair and around whom the entire tale pivots. Chalamet has given strong performances, and I had my doubts as to how compelling this young man who appears so wispy and elven in appearance would (or even could) actually be. But Chalamet accomplishes what is most needed here by leaning heavily into the uncertainty that plagues Paul’s journey and delivers a character that is understandably conflicted about his place in the universe (literally and metaphorically) but is all the same compelled by circumstance to grow beyond himself into something...more. That conflict and growth is in his stature, his stance, his eyes. It’s the internalized character of Herbert’s pages made flesh in a way that I didn’t think was quite possible.

That said, by far my favorite performance was Jason Momoa as Paul’s friend, trainer and all-around big brother, Duncan Idaho (Herbert had a way with names, for better or worse, that has yet to be matched). All I ask is that Momoa be allowed to play every role of “super manly big bro who probably does extreme sports and is incredibly more handsome than you but still loves you and just wants you to live up to your fullest potential” in every movie from here on out.

And while the film inevitably lands on a cliffhanger, it still manages to feel like a natural stopping point. We’ve reached a significant turning point in Paul’s life and where things go from here literally change the entire known galaxy. Part two has thankfully already been greenlit, so now begins the excruciating wait for Villaneuve and company to conclude this spectacular vision. I have every confidence they can in the best way possible.

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