They made the book.
That’s great news for the millions of fans of Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 sci-fi masterpiece “Dune.” It’s startling, and gratifying, to see one’s mind’s-eye images from the novel up there on the big screen courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve and his creative filmmaking team.
Ornithopter aircraft flittering over the sands of the desert planet Arrakis like giant mechanical dragonflies.
Those titular dunes, undulating to far, far horizons, inspired by a visit made to the dune-shaped central Oregon seashore in 1957 by Herbert, a Northwest native born in Tacoma and educated at the University of Washington. The desert scenes were shot in Jordan and Abu Dhabi.
Above all, the book’s humongous, iconic sandworms, churning beneath the sands like express trains of death, their vast mouths consuming all surface dwellers unfortunate enough to attract their omnivorous attentions.
And the people.
Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a slender noble-born youth with unique gifts, including the ability to see into the future. His father, Duke Leto (played with gravity and authority by Oscar Isaac), regal and doomed. His mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, animated by her character’s sense of protectiveness toward Paul), the duke’s concubine, endowed with singular powers to guide men’s behaviors with special vocal intonations. Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), a character with one of the most excellent names in all of literature, master swordsman and devoted guardian of Paul. And so many more.
And all deserving to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Villeneuve intended it that way. Never mind phones or tablets. His governing mantra clearly was this: Go big. Make it worth people’s while to get out of the house and see a picture that is a genuine epic, a grand-scale enterprise worthy of its immense, multilevel source material.
The story spans planets and is rife with intricate intrigues, promotes an environmental message (water is so scarce on Arrakis that people must clothe themselves in special suits to reclaim their body’s moisture to survive) and features immense set-piece battle scenes.
Himself a fan of the novel, Villeneuve made the picture for fellow fans. But not only for them. He made it, too, for people who have never read the book. And now they won’t have to. The movie has captured the book with amazing fidelity.
Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried in the 1970s to make “Dune” but couldn’t get his vision off the ground. David Lynch crashed and burned in 1984 with his version, disavowing it and blaming his inability to secure the final cut to make the movie he envisioned.
Where they fell short, Villeneuve and his creative team succeeded.
Villeneuve succeeds not only thanks to his inspired mastery of the story’s visual elements. He succeeded also by casting Chalamet in the lead role. Chalamet — fast rising thanks to his acclaimed performances in such movies as 2019’s “Little Women,” 2018’s “Beautiful Boy” and 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name,” which earned him a best-actor Oscar nomination — handles the part of Paul with great delicacy.
Paul is a multifaceted character, a youth evolving into manhood and then something beyond that, a godlike figure revered by the warlike but oppressed Fremen tribesmen of Arrakis.
Chalamet takes ownership of the role, and the picture in a key early scene in which Paul is forced to endure a painful test administered by the stern and powerful Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood (Charlotte Rampling). It’s a relatively simple scene. She orders Paul to place his hand in a mysterious box. If he removes it, he will be killed. Pain grows the longer his hand remains there. The camera stays on his face and it reveals gradually increasing levels of anguish and eventually angry wordless defiance. It’s a great job of subtle acting.
Opposing Paul is the immense (in the book he’s described as so big he requires a suspension system to support his bulk) and monstrously cruel Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), head of a rival baronial house. Aligned with Paul is the Fremen leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and a young Fremen woman named Chani (Zendaya), who Paul has glimpsed in dreams that foretell the future.
These latter characters are present but their stories are only partially told because while Villeneuve resolved to tell the entire story of Herbert’s original “Dune” (he wrote five sequels), he also resolved that to do it full justice he would need to make it in two parts. So right at the opening of this “Dune” appear the words “Part One.”
In an act that could be called either courageous or foolhardy, he opted not to make “Part Two” until after “Part One” is released. Whether “Part Two” is ever made depends on how well this movie does at the box office. It’s about 2 ½ hours long, but it doesn’t feel like it. If it succeeds, get ready for “Part Two” somewhere down the line. If not, well …
So just see it. It’s remarkable.