April 22, 2024

Villeneuve is for the most part scrupulously faithful to the source material, which makes his most significant departures interesting and worth lingering on. The biggest is to compress the story chronologically so that Paul’s sister Alia, conceived weeks before the end of Part One, remains in utero at the end of Part Two (Herbert and Lynch both allow a few years to go by, and have a young Alia, born with all the adult memories of her female ancestors, present in the final act). Alia appears in Part Two as a conscious fetus to which Jessica is constantly talking, which is a detail so weird Herbert might as well have thought of it himself; we also glimpse an adult Alia in one of Paul’s prescient visions, and if Villeneuve delivers on his promise to adapt the second novel in the series, Dune Messiah, we’ll get to know her a lot better. For now, though, Villeneuve seems to have determined that Part Two is busy enough without a preternaturally wise little girl joining the cast (this also means it is Paul, rather than Alia, who kills the old Baron, who is revealed to be their grandfather).

There are some other secondary characters that fall by the wayside: the Atreides adviser Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who had a memorable role in Part One and who in the second half of the novel becomes a Harkonnen hostage, doesn’t feature in Part Two, and we don’t meet the emperor’s right-hand man, Count Fenring, though we do meet his seductive Bene Gesserit wife, Lady Margot (Léa Seydoux). We also meet Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), the sad-eyed, Machiavellian emperor of the universe, and his sharply analytical Bene Gesserit daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), who together stand between Paul and the fulfillment of his political ambitions. Like I said, the cast is stacked, and everyone seems thrilled to be a part of Villeneuve’s project, again in marked contrast to the labored performances by talented actors in Lynch’s film.

What’s most impressive about Parts One and Two alike might be Villeneuve’s ability to make all of this comprehensible to a lay audience that hasn’t read the book and doesn’t have access to its lengthy glossary. He has a remarkable sense of what does and what does not need to be explained, how to make exposition seem organic to the story, and how to balance this onslaught of information against the need to develop distinctive characters and advance the plot. He makes all of that look much easier than it actually is. Fans of the book can recognize all the subtle nods—for instance, how closely the emperor’s temporary headquarters on Arrakis resembles its description in the novel: “A single metal hutment, many stories tall, reached out in a thousand-meter circle from the base of the lighter—a tent composed of interlocking metal leaves.” Newcomers don’t need to know how accurately the film realizes that image to appreciate how cool it looks on screen. They may, however, understand some of the plotting and character motivations better than first-time readers of the novel do, because Villeneuve is frankly better than Herbert at establishing those in plain English and in logical sequence.