Happily, I’ve already seen a couple of the Best Picture nominees; before I dive into the rest, let’s get those hot takes out of the way.
He may speak in all his interviews with a somewhat plummy English accent, but director Kenneth Branagh is actually from Belfast, and as a child saw the beginning of The Troubles that roiled that part of the world for decades. His father was already a freelance construction worker in England and brought the rest of the family to join him there. No doubt he’s watched the subsequent films about “Northern Ireland” that have come out over the years, ones that emphasize the violence and chaos – and it’d be understandable that he’d want to present a film showing his own memories, to prove that it wasn’t all like that.
And….well, he does succeed in proving that it wasn’t a warzone 24/7. However, I am afraid I didn’t get all that much of a sense of what it was like. To be fair, we’re looking at things from a child’s perspective, with young Jude Hill playing the 9-year-old Branagh stand-in (here named “Buddy”); he may occasionally notice moments of tension amongst his parents or grandparents, and there’s a weird barrier at the end of the street that’s been up since the day when this scary riot thing happened, but he’s still able to play basketball and he still gets to hang out with his cousins and he still has a crush on the pretty girl in his history class and he still loves when granny takes him to movies and…this is the stuff of the film, but it’s stuff that could have happened anywhere, so when Buddy and his family finally move to England at the film’s end, I’d almost forgotten why they moved until Branagh added a small title dedicating the film to “those who left, those who stayed, and those who were lost.”
This isn’t to say this was a bad film, though; the cast is all excellent, and it’s a damn crime that Catriona Balfe wasn’t nominated for her role as Buddy’s Ma. There’s also a chillingly effective moment from one of the few instances when The Troubles bleed in – earlier in the film, Buddy watches High Noon on television, so during a scene when Jamie Dornan as Buddy’s Pa has to stand off against a more militant neighbor, Branagh scores the scene with that film’s plaintive theme. Nevertheless, the bits of this film that lingered with me longest was its use of classic Van Morrison songs more so than the story itself.
Well….it’s way better than David Lynch’s adaptation from 1984, for starters. Lynch tried to fit Frank Herbert’s entire sprawling epic into a single film, and he was also working in the early 1980s when computers weren’t used for visual effects production – so all the special effects were either models or practical sets or animation, and things took an impossibly long time. So Lynch ended up with a super-confusing mess, where the only thing most people remember is a shot of a bare-chested Sting wearing a bikini with tailfins. (At least….that was the biggest takeaway I had when I saw it at age 13.)
Although, speaking of the visual effects – considering the times, Lynch didn’t do all that bad. I’ve recently discovered a series of Youtube videos in which visual effects artists react to and deconstruct various special effects scenes from films, discussing how they were made, discussing how they may have been done better or – more frequently – how the technology which could have made them better wasn’t around yet. Their video about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune compares each scene to the corresponding scene in Lynch’s Dune, and actually does much to redeem that film’s visual effects as being “as good as they could have done back then.”
However, it wasn’t just the visual effects that saved things here. Villeneuve and his fellow screenwriters John Spaints and Eric Roth had a much more judicious hand with the scissors, cutting out and simplifying the more baroque parts of Herbert’s book. They also took a huge gamble and focused only on the first half of the book, trusting that there would be enough demand for a sequel that they could deal with the second half then.
So this is a much more straightforward space opera, with Timothée Chalamet in the lead as “Paul Atredies”, the only son in a royal family. Paul’s mother (Rebecca Ferguson) is a priestess in a quasi-psychic mind-control religion who’s been training Paul in its secrets (even though she shouldn’t be), and his father (Oscar Isaac) is assigned to govern over a desert planet named Arrakis – the only source of a valuable resource called “Spice”, which is worm guano that has psychotropic qualities. But the previous family in charge attacks to take back control, and Paul is forced to escape to the desert and hide amongst the nomadic Fremen, the planet’s indigenous people.
….That is an extremely broad summary, and is only the first half of the book. There are entire major characters I’ve not yet mentioned – like “Duncan Idaho” (Jason Momoa) and “Gurney Halleck” (Josh Brolin), two members of the Atredies court, and “Chani” (Zendaya), a Fremen woman whom Paul eventually falls in love with. All three characters fare a lot better in this adaptation – as does everyone, honestly. Character’s motives are clearer, relationships are more solid – and the simplified script also means the actors have much more room to breathe, and aren’t saddled down by having to spout off complicated gobbledygook by way of exposition. The characters even get to have in-jokes in this adaptation.
Whether this is a Best Picture film, though, I’m not sure. Everyone does great with it – but it’s still kind of a space opera, and things are a bit unfinished. Paul in particular feels unfinished – but that’s because he is at this point. Villeneuve tries to hint at the heavier stuff in the second half by giving Paul a series of “visions”, but that’s not quite the same as Paul actually experiencing them. It will be very interesting to see what Chalamet does with Paul in the second part. But this first part – while fine, and definitely an improvement on the 1984 film – is not something I expect to take a statuette.