Casting Dune – The Film! (spoilers)

Well, here we are. After so much time, I finally got to see it. I’ve been looking forward to this moment since long before the film was announced. I heard rumours years and years ago about the rights being passed around and I knew it would be only a matter of time before this happened. When the casting announcements started coming in, I became more and more excited; so much so that I posted about every random casting of an ‘Atreides trooper’. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the advance screening at the BFI a couple of weeks before it’s UK release. Thanks again to @duneinfo for that one. I owe you. So, last night I went through some tight security, sealed my phone in a plastic bag, and went in to see how good this film was…

And boy was it good!

I’ll veer into spoiler territory as we go through this so do stop reading of you don’t want to know what’s been dealt with how and who gets the best treatment and whether the dinner party is in it or not. It’s not a spoiler to say that this is a beautifully made film. It’s made with so much love and reverence for the source material.

Villeneuve said in the Q&A afterwards that he tried to find equilibrium between hardcore fans of the book like him and people who came to it knowing nothing. I thought in that regard it hit the mark dead on.

Timothee Chalamet was brilliant. No other word for it. He really captures the character and I’m glad that Villeneuve decided to be true to the book and show us the path of which Paul is so afraid. The young actor manages to convey fear and revulsion at his path while simultaneously walking along it. He exudes charisma and commands the screen in every scene he’s in. Sorry Kyle, but he’s my Paul Atreides now.

Rebeca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac as his parents – equally impressive. Isaac especially carries the ‘death thoughts’ of the doomed Duke. Leto is a tragic character caught in a web and that comes across very well. The Lady Jessica is brought to life by Rebecca Ferguson, every expression both regal and deadly.

Jason Momoa is fine as Duncan, even though he doesn’t get the Boromir-level exit that I feel the character deserves. Some of the fight choreography of his scenes felt a little cold – lacking a little something I find it hard to give a name to. His fights all feel a bit like choreography. In contrast, Paul’s fight with Jamis near the end is spot on. There the choreography feels right, like something that IS rehearsed over and over in the time nexus and only ever has one outcome. Paul’s constant defeat of the helpless, enraged Fremen is handled really well, reminiscent of Neo fighting off the the agent at the end of Matrix, barely even thinking; just going through the motions.

Of the rest of the cast, it’s a shame that we don’t get more Thufir Hawat. His character seems a bit lost in the film, appearing now and again but lacking the space to exert himself. The scene in the book with he and Jessica facing off is a great measure of who he is and it’s a shame we couldn’t see more in Part 1. Josh Brolin’s Gurney Halleck, despite having a lot more screen time than Hawat, also feels a little lost. Hopefully, he’ll get more to do in Part 2.

There is so much trimming of the narrative. It’s a massive story to fit into even two films and I know why it’s been done. There is no dinner party scene, which is a shame; no suspicion cast in Jessica’s direction, indeed no warning of the traitor at all until he strikes. I understand the reasons completely but can’t help wishing that, with this incredible cast, we could dwell in the tale for a little longer; let people breathe and inhabit those scenes that are missing. I can always read the book and imagine that, though, so it’s not a complaint. The good thing is that, even without some favourite scenes, the film still manages to hit the right notes and make us feel something for the characters.

One thing I didn’t get on so well with was the Baron. He felt a little monosyllabic; none of the scheming and the grandiosity – the desire that everyone hear how brilliant he is. That, and his sparring with Piter, was something I would have liked to have seen. I know that Villeneuve was keen to escape the outdated attitudes evident in previous portrayals of the character, even in the book, but I feel like a little was lost in the translation. The way the Baron comes unstuck is that he is revealed to be utterly clueless about the real state of things, despite his machinations. Without the pomposity, the scene where he is brought before Shaddam will be very different.

The set design and the general look of the world is incredible and not a million miles away from David Lynch’s vision. Certainly, the worlds and costumes of the Atreides and Harkonnen aren’t that much different to 1984. The updates to the dialogue worked well, although it would have been nice to hear some more of the lines as they appear in the novel. That feudal talk was missing in some places to the detriment of the overall atmosphere. Just in places, though. One thing that was welcome was the constant use of the Old Duke as a reference point. The bull’s head, the model, the portrait – all of them foreshadowing the consequences of bravura.

On to Hans Zimmer’s score. I loved it. I know why I loved it too – because it reminded me of Bear McCreary’s stellar work on Battlestar Galactica. I kept being reminded of it all the way through. Not to the detriment of Zimmer’s work – it’s a testament to just how good the BSG soundtrack is. I swear there were some strains of the 1984 Toto score in there too, hidden amongst the rest.

The Fremen? Well, they were excellent. Javier Bardem was a magnificent Stilgar – so assured in the role, even with so little to say. Zendaya will have to wait until Part 2 to really have much to do except wander around in dreams. She had a good chemistry with Chalamet when they did get to share the same screen near the end. Shadout Mapes got a very quick in and out, feeling slightly underused, and Babs Olusanmokun did really well with his limited screen time as Jamis.

So, there’s a little whistlestop tour. Losing Jason Momoa in Part 2 will presumably be offset by the addition of another big name to play Feyd. We also have the casting of the Emperor (Damian Lewis would be perfect for Shaddam), Irulan and Count and Lady Fenring to await, assuming the film does well enough to get Part 2 greenlit.

The changes to the narrative lead me to believe that we may well see something I predicted a while back – a face off between Gurney and Rabban. Rabban dies ‘offscreen’ in the book and it seems a bit of a waste of the character. It would give a much better pay off if Gurney got to fight him. While I’m on changes, they gave the job of killing Dr. Yueh to the Baron, which I thought was a slight misstep again with his character. The Baron, I feel, would far prefer to watch that kind of thing happen.

In conclusion, I’m reading over this and some of it seems a little negative. I don’t mean it to be. It’s my favourite book and there were always going to be things that didn’t work for me. When you add it all up, though, it’s a magnificent achievement, with a remarkable performance at the centre of it from Timothee Chalamet. He really does have the gravitas to pull off the transformation into Muad’Dib that Villeneuve is signalling. The scene with his mother in the stilltent really made the point about where this is going and was very intense. It already makes me hope that we get not only Part 2, but also a version of Dune Messiah where we get to see the full consequences of Paul’s jihad.

The effects in the film are great – the way the shields have been realised is very good indeed, and the shifting, broiling sands when a worm is close are fantastic. The sound design is also very accomplished; I love what they’ve done with the voice.

Make no mistake: this is the best ever adaptation of the novel. I love David Lynch’s film, the first half of which is spot on, but what Villeneuve has done is on a par with Lord of the Rings in its scope. I can’t wait for Part 2. This was a phenomenal film and one I want to see again as soon as possible, preferably in IMAX.

Thanks for reading, as always.

Richard

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