Denis Villeneuve Offers a Rock-Solid ‘Dune’ to the Masses

It’s funny to me how much fear vibrated through the sands ever since the first frame of this movie was released.

Dune is based on a 1965 book and subsequent book series. It has quite the fanbase. A 1984 film adaptation from David Lynch and Dino DeLaurentis failed critically and financially. This version’s distributor and co-financier Warner Bros. has had a string of costly flops (Blade Runner 2049, Justice League, Doctor Sleep) and has had every movie fan on the internet worried about its marketing and production choices. But fret not. The pandemic has shifted the sands of moviegoing expectations while the filmmakers behind this film have been pounding the pavement telling audiences they need to go experience Dune in theaters.

Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve and Warner Bros would kill to have the same Box Office numbers that financially disappointing film (2049) had in a healthy marketplace. Add in a rare same-day streaming debut and the game has changed.

As far as Hollywood adaptations of Science Fiction and Fantasy go the movie is in line with The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. It is a straightforward streamlined and unfussy adaptation. However, Dune distinguishes itself by not doing a speedrun of the material and instead vowing to break the novel into two. Offering up a Part One subtitle in the opening credits I’m sure disappointed a few audience members. Villeneuve is making the film at a time when Warner Bros. needs new franchises. With Harry Potter and the Middle Earth Saga wrapped up (with the former spinoff series Fantastic Beasts creatively and financially floundering) the second biggest Hollywood studio could do with a throwback epic. Made before the pandemic (which feels like eons ago) Warner Bros. sat on this film for a year before making the risky decision to delay filming a second part, also release the film simultaneously on their streaming service HBO Max in the U.S.. Villeneuve’s native Canada gets no such opportunity.

Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners) argued in The New York Times recently that the reason his film succeeds where past attempts have failed: the original 1984 film, and an Alexander Jordoworsky version that never got off the ground– was that the filmmakers were more interested in the ideas surrounding Dune and what inspired them than the actual material itself. He’s right. But there’s something to be said about bringing extra creative vision to the table.

The film is big in terms of physical scale and scope, but also empty. The streamlining, for example has all the red-heads of the novel rendered here bald to provide a unique look. Decisions like these are stylistically work better but also make the film look plain. The texture of the novel is pared back along with the zany personality the medium usually affords or the 1980’s De Laurentis/ Lynch adaptation which is filled with rich production design.

The production design of Villeneuve’s last film Blade Runner 2049 had a microbe liveliness to it thanks to Production Designer Dennis Gassner, who was working on the film 1917 while this was being made. 1917 also hogged Christopher Nolan’s regular editor Lee Smith. [In retrospect 1917‘s hogging of two of the industry’s greatest to produce a simply good film is all the more frustrating in the barren wasteland of 2021.] Christopher Nolan ended up making TENET. A project this film’s composer Hans Zimmer turned down in order to do Dune. You see Hollywood’s a small town when it comes to talent and this film is resource-rich in that department.  A lot of talented people worked on this film. If you see the cast almost all of them except Zendaya feel like they belong in this world. Although her other-worldliness is put on display as she is literally the dream girl of the protagonist. Why then for a film so resource-rich does it feel so empty?

Production Designer Patrice Vermette, a longtime Villeneuve collaborator (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival), works fine on location in the actual desert but his minimalist style often leaves the film feeling cold and empty like the Great White North they are from. That remoteness might cause the audience’s mind to wander and ask questions during the film like; how is anyone supposed to go to the bathroom here? Why do future beds always look so uncomfortable? Maybe if Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac, the film’s best performer) didn’t sit so far from his girlfriend and son at the dinner table he’d be more interested in what they had to say. Important plot details like *SPOILER ALERT– “I’m pregnant again” — SPOILER ALERT ENDS* and “I am having dreams about the exact people you are trying to convene with.” These are questions the audience isn’t supposed to think about or ask. Then again, if you’re a young boy dreaming about Zendaya, who would think that’s vital or out of the ordinary? The film is so stylistically flat in bringing the page to the screen that despite everyone putting forth their best effort I wouldn’t blame anyone for not caring. It takes place on the most boring sandworm infested planet that the moment someone tries to inject some spice into the production with bagpipes the evil Baron orders to have them killed. If you see the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

It’s funny to me how much fear people have placed on themselves about movies being made. It’s not their job to worry. Fear is the mind killer. Warner Bros. isn’t worried about their string of financial failures or crushing debt. Parent company AT&T is selling it off to Discovery media. Warner Media CEO is worried about his potential job loss. But it’s his job to worry. It’s not the audience member’s. For now you can go to the theater where local health units say its okay.  Wear a mask, sit back and enjoy the show. Even critics who were negative towards this film have talked about how vital an experience this is. Or simply don’t go and wait for Premium On Demand, Home Video or streaming. This tale is best told at the audience’s pace.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert

I thought Dune was fine. It is a big swing to land a single, with no forced errors. It is an exercise in a faithful adaptation, one I was unmoved by. But hey, even Roger Ebert gave a thumbs down to Lord of the Rings until he saw the third film. I’ll reserve total judgement until the end of the second part. Whenever that giant film which will take at least 2 years to make is green-lit. A long wait that $220 million already in the bank I’m sure will gas up.

Rating: C+


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