“Dune” Should be a New Model for Blockbusters

Chalamet and Ferguson in “Dune” (Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair)

Chalamet and Ferguson in “Dune” (Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair)

Thomas Rice, Editor

I’m going to preface everything I have to say here about the 2021 movie “Dune” by saying that I have not read any of Frank Herbert’s novels on which the film is based. Some might say that hampers the experience, but I might say that I am lazy and that I was going to read at least the first book before seeing the movie, but I did not understand what people were talking about on Twitter, and all I have ever wanted in life is to understand what people are talking about on Twitter. 

So, I watched “Dune” on HBO Max without any previous knowledge of the source material. Good news! It’s great! Denis Villeneuve has made yet another heady, slow sci-fi movie where every environment has a ton of translucent particles obscuring the background. “Arrival” had smoke all around the aliens and also just mist everywhere for some reason, “Blade Runner 2049 also had mist or sand covering everything, and now “Duneturns the sandometer up to 11. That’s not a complaint, to be clear, because this movie looks absolutely fantastic, just as “Arrivaland “2049do. The special effects in particular look incredible, which is probably a side effect of this movie being delayed over and over again to push for a release in theaters. Marvel movies have famously bad effects because of the strict schedules they release on, and I think “Dunejust proves how great CGI can be when artists are given enough time. (There is one glaring exception to my praise of the effects, which is one shot where a CGI Timothée Chalamet plunges into the uncanny valley with reckless abandon. I don’t want to spoil much here, but you’ll notice it when you see it.)

The cast of “Duneis a real who’s who of people that’ll make you say, “Huh, they’ve sure been doing a lot of stuff recently.” We’ve got Thanos and Cable himself, Josh Brolin, we’ve got “Mission: Impossible’s” and “The Greatest Showman’s” Rebecca Ferguson, we’ve got Oscar Isaac, who doesn’t seem to like “Star Wars but was still in the movies, we’ve got Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and, of course, we have Chalamet, who is well on his way to completing his apparent goal of appearing in every single movie. Not only do all of these actors put on great performances, but they also allow me to not have to remember any of their characters’ names, unless it’s a really stupid name, like Duncan Idaho. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but that’s not “Stilgar,” that’s just good old Javier Bardem. I’m not going to remember the name “Piter De Vries,” but I sure am going to remember that he’s played by Polka-Dot Man. (The actor’s real name is David Dastmalchian, but “The Suicide Squad is very fresh in my mind.) 

I’m kidding about the names, mostly, but they did legitimately help me keep track of the characters because I recognized the actors, and keeping track of things is very important in this movie. There are truly heavy loads of exposition dump, so much so it feels that about half of the runtime is just dedicated to explaining things, from galactic conflicts about spice on the planet Arrakis, to the natives of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, to how Paul (Chalamet) was installed as the “chosen one” by the Bene Gesserit, who need their own explanation altogether. In short, it’s a lot, and the movie really needs you to pay attention to get it. Again, this kind of headiness is nothing new for Villeneuve, and he tackles it by sprinkling exposition throughout the movie, usually while there’s something else to look at. It makes for an engaging movie, but an incredibly slow one. 

Duneis so slow, in fact, that it doesn’t even finish before the end of its substantial two-and-a-half-hour runtime. About two hours of that feel like act one, and the rest feels like the beginning of act two. My main issue with the movie is the inescapable fact that it is not really a full movie, or at least not a full story. This is all part of the plan, of course, as the first “Dunesequel has already been announced and there will probably be at least one more follow-up after that, but it does make this viewing experience feel somewhat incomplete, with loose plot threads left for most every character. I can’t stress enough that this isn’t even a “Fellowship of the Ring situation, where there is a logical endpoint for the story and it makes sense to cut the first movie off. That could have been done earlier in “Dune,” but instead a brand new conflict arises and new characters are introduced purely for the last half-hour of the movie. It’s a bit of a puzzling decision. Certainly the movie needed to be broken up, but doing so not during a lull in the story, but while it’s picking up, doesn’t make complete sense to me, especially because the sequel is not filmed yet and is scheduled to be released a full two years after “Dune.” Movies are supposed to leave the audience wanting more, but I think there are better ways to go about achieving that goal. In the end, though, I suppose that keeping just one portion of a story this engaging despite the lack of a real resolution speaks as a testament to “Dune.”

In today’s film landscape, I think “Duneshines as an example of not just making a movie right, but making a big-budget adaptation right. I think there’s been a bit too much pearl-clutching over the relentless releases by Marvel and studios looking to profit off of Marvel’s franchise model, but those movies are undoubtedly held back from becoming truly “great” by their emphasis on consistency and not necessarily artistic value. “Dunehad a massive budget, all-star cast, and massive expectations as a result of being an adaptation of a popular book, but remained unique and complex and visually stunning and all the other phrases that are plastered on Christopher Nolan movie posters. It’s hard to tell if “Dunewill set any trends for bigger movie franchises. Money talks, but “Dunewas released on streaming and in movie theaters at the same time, so box office numbers are unreliable. At the time of writing, “Dunehas grossed just over $350 million, according to Box Office Mojo. That kind of number at the box office won’t convince studios to take many risks, but maybe the streaming numbers will be stellar enough to warrant studios rethinking some of their major blockbusters. I hope so, at least to see what more filmmakers can do with larger budgets and greater freedom attributed to them. If they make anything like “Dune,” I’m all in.