To Denis Villeneuve’s credit, he states it directly in the opening title card of his new film: From a first part. There was simply no way to condense the sprawling narrative of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic into a single feature film, even a 2.5 hour feature, a reality only gifted filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch had already discovered in their own attempts. to film adaptations. As recent examples ranging from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for Twilight for Thisit would be yet another case of prioritizing fidelity over efficiency, counting on the audience’s investment in the source material to leave them leaving the room thinking that half (or a third, even) of a story was always a complete and individually satisfying film.
And so we dive headlong into the galactic political intrigues that lead the Atreides family – Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) – from their home planet of Caladan to the planet desert Arrakis, where Leto was commissioned by the emperor to oversee mining operations for the extremely valuable substance simply called “the spice”. Long story short – not particularly short, in this case – the increasingly powerful Atreides family has been set up by the Emperor for possible attack by a rival clan led by Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, numerically and prosthetically inflated to the dimensions of Jabba the Hutt), in addition to the more mundane threats of a hard planet under an occupying power.
Villeneuve’s adaptation – co-credited to veterans Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts – generally downplays the colonialism angle in favor of Paul’s Hero’s Journey arc, a Joseph Campbell-ready “chosen” narrative built on the Lady Jessica’s story with a mysterious spiritual order. Chalamet’s brooding style works well for a character haunted by his dreamy visions, and he does well with the part of Paul’s story that deals far more with confusion and uncertainty than action.
The action is present here in concentrated doses, however, offered in a scope that’s truly best served on the biggest screen possible. As Villeneuve has demonstrated in his previous science fiction endeavors like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, he prefers awe to slam-bang spectacle, and his imagery – captured in haunting dusty vistas and accented beams of light by cinematographer Greig Fraser – emphasizes things like huge spaceships and colossal sandworms. “Building the world” has become loaded, almost sarcastic terminology when it comes to telling stories like this, but there really is no better word for the detail Villeneuve engages in, from the dragonfly-style design of one of the commonly used airships, to the functional costumes of the characters, rituals and traditions of the native Fremen of Arrakis built on the value of humidity in this world. If your ideal movie experience emphasizes memorable things to watch, you’ve come to the right place.
If your ideal cinematic experience is based on connecting with characters, however… eh. Long stretches of From a first part are dedicated to making sure we understand exactly why the Atreides come to Arrakis and the Harkonnens leave, as it repeats just in case we missed it the first time around. Such an intense focus on machinations leaves little room for anything resembling emotion, other than the brief bursts of energy that Jason Momoa brings as a loyal Atreides soldier/Paul’s best friend, or Skarsgård’s Harkonnen. played like what looks like a hat-trick to Marlon Brando in Revelation now. Repeated glimpses of a premonition by Paul that he will one day have a relationship with a Fremen warrior (Zendaya) only underscores that we don’t usually see real people having real relationships.
Is this partly a function of the split narrative? Sure. That’s the risk you take as a filmmaker when you start something that people who have bought a ticket won’t be able to finish for a few years. From a first part can be a pretty extraordinary show, but it can only be half of a story, which is not even the same as an “in-between episode” like The Empire Strikes Back which ends with a cliffhanger. Maybe this movie will feel different around 2023, when From a first part was solved by Dune, part two.