Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to walk out of the theater after watching “Star Wars: A New Hope,” having witnessed the start of a franchise that would change cinema forever? Or, have you imagined buying a ticket for “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” not knowing you are about to see a movie that would leave its mark on cinema history? I have. And after seeing “Dune” last week, I know exactly what it feels like.
Dennis Villeneuve’s long-waited epic hit the theaters on Oct. 22 after more than a year of delay. When Warner Brothers first announced they were adapting Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi epic “Dune” to the big screen, one couldn’t help but think about the two failed attempts in the past. After Alejandro Jodorowsky’s crazy mid-1970s fantasy that never got made and David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation that flopped massively at the box office, this seemed like a very risky call. Even though Dennis Villeneuve was already a well-established director at the time of the announcement, both Jodorowsky’s and Lynch’s history showed the industry that adapting “Dune” is a big challenge, no matter how talented the director is. That, combined with Warner Brothers’ infamous past of handling big franchises like the DCEU, casted a shadow of a doubt over the studio’s 160 million dollar investment.
I also had my own doubts with the choice of Dennis Villeneuve, because his style did not quite seem like it was a good fit to capture the essence of Herbert’s “Dune” accurately. His greatest trademark was to explore the internal conflicts of his characters, isolating them from the external conflicts they were going through. Even “Blade Runner: 2049,” Villeneuve’s biggest movie until “Dune,” was more about the existential crisis of K than the mechanics of the dystopian world. While Frank Herbert’s novel deals a lot with the growth and internal struggles of his characters, covering the politics of the complex universe of “Dune” was much more crucial. Fortunately, benefiting from the advantage of splitting the book into two (potentially three) parts,Villeneuve creates a narrative that both satisfies the fans of the novel and introduces the dynamics of the universe to newcomers.
Villeneuve’s greatest strength is, as always, his visuals. Instead of working with his long-time collaborator legendary director of photography Roger Deakins, Villeneuve partners up with Greig Fraser (“Lion,” “Rogue One,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) as the cinematographer. Their collaboration in visual direction combined with Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score do justice to the universe that Herbert created in 1965. That is mostly why “Dune” will be compared to franchises that changed the course of cinematic history like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.” The technical work in “Dune” is groundbreaking and it will certainly influence the sci-fi movies to come. It is likely that by the time Villeneuve completes this saga, it will have as much influence on the industry as “Star Wars” did.
The technical work helps Villeneuve to immerse his audience into the universe. The slow pace, often the most common criticism Villeneuve receives for his filmography, doesn’t seem to be an issue in ‘‘Dune’’ as the visuals on the screen are engaging enough to keep the audience asking for more. Even though ‘‘Dune’’ also falls on the slower side of the narrative pace spectrum, I would definitely keep watching if there was another three hours of it.
On the narrative side, “Dune” is not as grandiose as its visuals though. The stellar cast putting the most popular names in Hollywood like Jason Momoa, Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya and Dave Batistuta together with veteran actors like Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgard, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin bring Herbert’s characters to life pretty successfully. While nothing is essentially wrong with the story, it doesn’t reach its peak because it’s incomplete. The fact that this is only the exposition of the cinematic “Dune” saga makes the ending feel somewhat anticlimactic. It is not anyone’s fault, but you know the coming movies are going to be much more satisfying, just as “The Return of the King” was the best of the LOTR trilogy. Even though “Dune” is truly majestic on its own, the best of storytelling is yet to come.
Which brings us to an important point. Even though “Dune” was one of the most anticipated movies of the last few years, Warner Brother gave the official green light for Part Two only on Oct 26. Two part movies like “Deathly Hallows” or the “Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame” are usually written at the same time and shot consequently to cut costs. This will obviously not be the case with Dune. This puts greater pressure on ‘‘Dune: Part Two’’ in two separate ways. First, the sequel will be released in at least three years given the intricacy of the production which means the movie will fade away from the audiences’ memories by the time the sequel is released. Second and more importantly, two separate production cycles will increase the budget significantly. It would be a miracle if “Dune: Part One’’ can even manage to break even with its production budget in the pandemic era, let alone turning out to be a profit, so the sequel has to not only equal its production budget but also cover the loss of the first movie. This will be a significant challenge with the inflated costs of running two separate production cycles. Regardless, Warner Brothers has an asset that can leave its impact on history. I hope they don’t mess this up as they did with the DCEU.