Thoughts and reactions while wondering the Gom Jabbar scene was triggering to the anti-vaccine crowd…
So I watched Dune.
Despite the most peer-pressure I’ve felt since high school, that viewing took place in the comfort of my own home, via an internet streaming device connected to my television set. I understand this violates the catholic doctrine that has swept the world of film criticism, where anything less than 100% adherence to seeing the movie on the biggest theatrical screen available requires immediate confession and will result in generations to come being required to buy AMC Indulgences™.
Somehow I was able to still enjoy the movie and appreciate the work of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser. This is obviously because, based on the opinions of various essayists and sharers of hot takes, I do not truly love film, nor do I support filmmakers.
Still, there are a handful of thoughts I’d like to share, though of course you are free to give my opinions the weight you consider appropriate given the shameful admissions above.
on the presentation…
I’m the first one to agree that theatrical viewing is great, but we need to do away with the notion that there’s some sort of hallowed experience that needs to be preserved. Even putting issues of the quality of the theater – including the parking lot, lobby and everything else connected with it – aside, arguments that seeing a movie theatrically is “immersive” fall apart quickly. That’s especially true with any movie over 1:45. After that point I’m no longer immersed in whatever I’m watching and can only concentrate after I miss 10 minutes of the movie and come back to my seat.
Tell me how that’s a more pure viewing experience than being able to pause the film and come back to it without missing a single scene.
Also, I’m going to assume every critic and columnist insisting people can only fully appreciate the movie on a massive screen will not be buying or viewing any home video release, including its current streaming on HBO Max. Wouldn’t want to sully yourself, after all.
Which leads me to:
on the box-office…
Dune’s $40 million domestic opening weekend total may seem somewhat on the small side, especially since both Halloween Kills and No Time To Die recently hit or exceeded $50 million and Venom: Let There Be Carnage hit $90.
Conventional wisdom has suggested that, if Dune hadn’t been on HBO Max in addition to theaters, it might have scored closer to $80 million or so. But that $40 million is significantly better than Villeneuve’s last two big budget sci-fi movies, and given the…imposing…nature of the source material in this instance, it could have been a lot lower.
While it’s impossible to prove a hypothetical alternative, I’m inclined to believe the constant “go see it in theaters!” message from the filmmakers, critics and the campaign itself motivated a lot of people to go do just that. In a non-HBO Max timeline my hunch is the weekend total would still be under $50 million, and the long-term value of the hybrid release to Warner Bros. is probably greater than the difference.
on the visual design…
One thing Villeneuve, with the help of his production designers and other trades experts, seems to do better than many other current filmmakers is create a sense of proportion between massive sets (both practical and virtual) and the performers being asked to move in and around them.
Throughout Dune, especially in the first 1:30, characters are walking around massive 50-foot tall inscribed solid walls. Somehow the director and his team are able to successfully convey the size of these while also showing the characters as fully inhabiting them instead of being dwarfed by them.
on the performances…
That’s in part because the performances of the actors are not trying to fill the room. Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet all seem to be acting in a small, storefront black-box theater instead of on the set of an epic sci-fi motion picture. The focus from all of them and others is on the moment and the emotions contained therein, not on trying to act next to a huge dragonfly-esque flying craft.
There’s not really a weak link in the chain in terms of cast. The three mentioned above are all great, Chamalet conveying a lot about Paul Atreides simply by staring at the sculpture of his grandfather fighting a bull, Isaac being stoically honorable behind his thick beard and Ferguson clearly demonstrating love for her son Paul despite repeatedly setting him up for various tortures and tests.
Also completely enjoyable are Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling and others. Rampling in particular manages to be more menacing behind her black veil than most mustache-twirling villains in other movies.
The praise being given to composer Hans Zimmer for his score is absolutely deserved. But you really have to stand up and applaud how the music fits into the overall sound design from Mark Mangini and Theo Green, who are responsible for creating everything from huge mining vehicles to the smallest sound of two grains of sand bouncing off each other.
I mean it’s no Toto, but in this economy, what is?
on the comparisons to David Lynch’s 1984 film…
The two can’t really be compared, at least not objectively. They’re both trying to do completely different things and convey completely different themes and messages.
Villeneuve’s movie is more straightforward, seeing the whole story about honor and destiny, whereas Lynch’s is more about the machinations of the characters that lead them to take the actions they do and break the trusts they do. That’s most seen by considering what scenes Lynch included but Villeneuve did not and vice versa.
The visuals are just as stunning in both versions but in different ways, most clearly exemplified by the different approaches to portraying Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), not just because certain…unsavory…aspects of the character have been excised in the new version but in the general design of the gluttonous leader of the clan opposing House Atreides.
If you’ve seen David Lynch’s 1984 version of Frank Herbert’s Dune you know that the conventional wisdom of the novel being essentially unadaptable might not entirely be hyperbole from die-hard fans who want their favorite book to remain unadulterated. Herbert’s text is dense with detail and story, making it an imposing wall to climb for anyone trying to translate it to another medium.
This week brings another attempt to scale that wall in the form of Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Timothée Chalamet stars as Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). House Atreides is called by the emperor to take on stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, important because it’s the only source of spice – a drug that extends human life and which is so pervasive it’s now essential to life itself – in the galaxy. But the enemies of House Atreides stand in the shadows to attack. And once on Arrakis, Paul and the others will have to work with the Fremen, natives of the planet that include Chani (Zendaya), a young woman Paul has been having visions of in his dreams.
Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Charlotte Rampling, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem and others round out the cast.
That the movie, which runs over two-and-a-half hours, only covers the first half of the first book indicates just how dense that book is, though Villeneuve’s luxurious, unhurried style surely contributes as well. With that in mind, let’s see how it’s been sold.
announcement and casting
While there had been other projects that had attempted to get off the ground over the years, this one was officially announced all the way back in 2017, when Villeneuve was revealed as the director of this new version.
Though Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t a smash success, that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for Villeneuve to take on Dune, with the director being called the “sci-fi remake master” in this interview where he discussed both movies. Later on he revealed he planned to make the adaptation a two-parter, a format he confirmed in a separate interview.
Chalamet and Ferguson were cast in mid-2018, with others added that year and up to the beginning of production in mid-2019.
One of the first cross-media expansions of the story announced was a video game from Funcom, news that showed the movie was renewing interest in the universe as a whole.
Warner Bros. announced in May 2019 that the series “Dune: The Sisterhood” would debut on its upcoming WarnerMedia streaming service. The series would focus on the women of the Bene Gesserit, the enigmatic mystical power brokers in the story’s universe and be produced by Villeneuve, who would also direct the first episode.
marketing phase 1: pandemic is the release date killer
An interview with the filmmakers was accompanied by a number of first-look photos from the film in April 2020, showing off Chalamet, Issac and others in the cast. More photos along with additional comments from Villeneuve came a bit later.
Also on the tie-in front, a comic version of the “House Atreides” novel was announced in May, telling a story set some 30 years prior to the events of the movie.
Reports circulated in mid-June that WB was planning to release a first look at footage from the film along with Inception when that movie returned to theaters to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
A Q&A featurette with the cast was released in early September at the same time as the first trailer.
Despite the marketing seeming to get up and running through September, in early October reports emerged that WB was pulling the movie from its planned December release date and pushing it all the way to October, 2021.
A first-look package in Empire included Villeneuve talking about the expanded role he gave Lady Jessica, Issac talking about the relevance of the story in today’s world and more.
Warner Bros. debuted the first trailer in theaters in front of Tenet’s release at the end of August 2020, weeks before it came online.
When it did (37.5m YouTube views) at the beginning of September of last year it went a long way toward making even skeptics eager with anticipation. The focus of course is on Paul as we follow from his training to his life on Arrakis and the adventures and people waiting for him there. It offers significant glimpses at other major characters as well, especially in how they relate to Paul, but only at the end do we get a look at the worms that dominate the planet, offering the key to its place in the universe while also presenting a clear threat to the humans living there. It’s…just great.
Just after the first trailer came out, Zimmer was interviewed about working with a full choir on the version of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” that appears in that spot. The use of Floyd is also a nod, intentional or not, back to the development of a Dune adaptation in the mid-70s with Alejandro Jodorowsky set to direct. At the time, Jodorowsky intended to have the movie’s soundtrack created by the band.
There was a feature profile of Chalamet that covered the actor’s role in this film as well as his rise to stardom over the last few years, including comments from Villeneuve.
Like the rest of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate, the release of Dune was altered in December of last year to include both theaters and HBO Max, a concession of pandemic reality by the studio. But that didn’t sit well with financier Legendary, who blasted the decision, or with Villeneuve, who penned an op-ed criticizing WB for grabbing cash instead of respecting artists.
When Chalamet appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in December of last year, about the time the movie was originally meant to be in theaters, his choice to wear a “Legendary” branded t-shirt raised lots of eyebrows given that company’s disapproval of WB’s HBO Max decision.
Zendaya commented on making the movie when she was promoting Malcolm & Marie earlier this year.
Rumors came early in 2021 that the studio may not have completely settled on a release plan for the film despite it appearing in a number of HBO Max promos, but nothing solid was reported or announced. Eventually WB execs confirmed it would receive a hybrid release just like the rest of this year’s lineup, and not be exempted from that plan.
marketing phase 2: hope clouds observation
With Warner Bros. now committed to that theatrical/HBO Max release plan, the marketing restarted in July of this year.
That’s when a series of character posters came out showing extreme close-ups of Paul, Chani and others.
The second trailer also came out at this point. It opens with Chani describing how beautiful the planet Arrakis can be but also how that beauty is marred by the greed and brutality of the outsiders who want her homeworld for the spice, regardless of who gets hurt. The focus then shifts to Paul and the rest of House Atreidis, which has been tasked with managing the spice and the world as a whole. As loyalties are betrayed and war comes to the planet, we’re reminded numerous times that Paul may have a destiny that’s unknown and unexpected by others, one that seems intimately tied to the Fremen and Dune as a whole.
IMAX offered theater goers at that time not only the trailer but also an exclusive look at even more of the film at a special event slated for late July.
An interview with Villeneuve had him talking more about the imposing nature of the story and how casting Chalamet was crucial to his deciding to make the movie at all.
“It begins” we’re told ominously on the next poster, released in early August. It shows Pau wandering the vast nothingness of Dune at the bottom while above the main cast is shown assembled in the standard franchise design.
IGN offered introductions to the heroes of the movie that included exclusive images and character backgrounds. The site would later publish similar roundups of the Fremen, House Harkonnen and other major groups from the story.
marketing phase 3: if you don’t see this movie in theaters, we’ll kill this dog
At this point the director began hitting on a notion that would become common through the rest of the publicity campaign, namely that this may be the first movie but it’s just the first part of the larger story he’s telling. Building on that, he makes it clear fans shouldn’t take the second installment for granted as it will depend on this first one being successful.
The message is this, then: You better go to the theater because that’s the yardstick WB is using to measure whether or not it greenlights Part 2. The fate of Dune as a movie series is thus clearly placed in the hands of the audience. That message is underlined by his additional comments about how moviegoing is an almost religious experience, one that should take place communally, not just on your own at home.
Screenwriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts were interviewed about the challenges in adapting what’s long been seen as an unfilmable book and story. A later interview with the movie’s costume designers covered their own struggles with recreating the looks described in such detail in the book, as would the director of photography in his own conversation.
Warner Bros. included footage from the movie in their presentation to exhibition executives and others at CinemaCon in August.
Shorter videos – likely used as TV spots, social media and other promos – started coming out at this time that each focused on a slightly different aspect of the story, from Paul’s journey to the other characters like his mother and father that influence his path and more.
The IMAX exclusive poster simply zooms in on the image of Paul in the desert seen on the earlier one-sheet while calling out that the movie was “filmed for IMAX” to lure in those who want to see it in the format it was apparently intended for. The same message was shared in a commercial for IMAX and in an exclusive featurette on how Villeneuve shot the film specifically for big screens.
The movie’s appearance at the 2021 Cannes International Film Festival was confirmed in May. It was also scheduled (out of competition) for September’s Venice International Film Festival and as a “special presentation” at the Toronto Film Festival. Villeneuve received the TIFF Ebert Director Award at Toronto. It was later added to the lineup of the New York Film Festival.
That Venice appearance garnered mostly positive buzz and reviews, with critics calling it some mix of exhilarating and impressive and mildly disappointing, though many of the latter comments seem to stem from this not being the complete story. In interviews from the festival Villeneuve again called for audiences to see it on the big screen and urged for them to turn out in droves so the studio will allow him to make the sequel.
We’re introduced to the characters, especially the warring houses that drive the action and drama, in a featurette given to Fandango’s MovieClips.
The director joined Chamalet and Zendaya in a short featurette about the process of making the movie together. In another he talked about working with composer Hans Zimmer on the score of the film.
Dolby’s exclusive poster shows Paul still wandering the desert, but this time from a slightly different and harsher looking point of view. It also had its own featurette on how Villeneuve directed and crafted the sound of the movie.
The cast and crew headed to Paris in early September for a screening there.
Additional interviews with Villeneuve had him talking about why he chose Abu Dhabi to serve as Arrakis and how he wanted the screenwriters to focus specifically on the influence and importance of the story’s female characters.
A takeover ad campaign run on IMDb at the beginning of October caused more than a few negative reactions for being too obtrusive, covering information on pages and rendering the site largely unusable because the ads couldn’t be minimized.
Both Ferguson and Villeneuve appeared on “The Late Show” to hype the movie while revealing as little of what it entails as possible.
An exclusive poster for RealD 3D pulls the camera out a bit but, like the others, shows Paul walking along a massive sand dune
MovieClips received an exclusive featurette that had the cast and crew talking about the massive scale of the movie and how it was filled with visuals and more that the audience had never seen before.
The final trailer (3.1m YouTube views) came out in the first week of October. It doesn’t have a whole lot that’s brand new, though there are a few scenes we haven’t seen before, but does sum up the story and the epic nature of the movie nicely, including some quotes from positive reviews to help make the case to the audience.
At the same time, Villeneuve and composer Hans Zimmer were hosting a screening and Q&A at New York Film Festival.
EW ran a cover story package of features that went into the making of the movie, including how Villeneuve first began considering how a new adaptation might be made, the process of bringing the cast together and lots more.
Momoa praised Chalamet when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
Another interview with Villeneuve had him making it clear that he took this job not in spite of being seen as difficult but because it was seen as difficult, which is a nice sentiment.
HBO Max announced just days before release that the movie would be available on Thursday, not Friday, as part of a “special preview event.”
Let’s be about what works in the campaign.
It focuses on Paul Atreides, which makes sense given the entire story revolves around that character, but it doesn’t go too hard in the paint in setting him up as a white savior out to rule the native people and their lands. Nor does it spend too much time tipping its hat toward Paul’s role as a prophet or Christ-like figure. Instead he’s a young man put in a rough situation and making the best of it and trying to fulfill his destiny as well as his father’s expectations for him.
It highlights bits of comedy – or at least levity – that are wholly missing from the source novel or previous adaptations. Those especially come through in some of the scenes featuring Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides and Duncan Idaho, played by Jason Momoa. With such a weighty product being pitched to audiences, it’s good to include a few lighter moments added by screenwriters Ross, Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts to make it a bit more attractive.
It keeps the scale both massive and human. This is addressed in one of the interviews linked above, but the marketing nicely balances showing how big the movie is while also making it clear the story hinges not on those huge ships or the grand, detailed buildings we see but on the characters walking around and through them. That helps communicate that the audience won’t be overwhelmed or wonder who they’re being asked to care about or why they should care.
With those all in mind there’s one thing that strikes me as odd about the marketing.
Namely, the message sent by Villeneuve and others that the fate of the second movie being made at all hinges on audiences going to theaters in huge numbers to see this one.
It’s odd, especially in this age of franchises being central to studio success, that there would be any contingency placed on the second installment, especially given the admission that this is only the first half of the first of multiple stories that could be told. If not “odd” then it’s at least out of character for a major studio to not immediately say that both movies will be made and released. After all, that’s the approach WB itself took with both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, reassuring fans that they would see the whole thing over a few years and wouldn’t be left hanging without The Return of the King because The Two Towers had underperformed. We know when the next 12 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are coming out, so why not lock dates in for the entire Dune two-parter?
Instead we have the cast and crew sounding increasingly desperate in their appeals.
Critics, who have given the movie positive reviews adding up to an 87% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes ranking, have added to that. For a while now the unofficial line has been that the movie needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the full experience. While that may be true and is relatively common/innocuous, many have gone further recently and suggested anyone who doesn’t go to the theater is someone who doesn’t actually love movies.
That’s not fair and does a disservice to critics in general, who should be more concerned with substance than delivery platform. And, based on what’s seen in the marketing campaign, Dune has plenty of substance and style, both of which can be just as easily enjoyed at home as on a big theater screen.
We should be more confident, but that’s not working out.
Last month’s grand reopening of movie theaters in many parts of the country did not turn out as expected, though that in and of itself should have been expected. Tenet, seen as the salvation for theaters that had been closed for months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, grossed an estimated $41 million in its first three weeks combined, and that was the best performing film since mid-September. Weekend box-office totals have fallen since its release without another major feature to attract audience interest.
Also falling in that time has been advertising spending by studios, largely because Tenet acted not as a savior but a warning signal to others, including Disney, which pushed just about everything on its release calendar – including Black Widow and West Side Story – by anywhere from six to 12 months down the road.
Key to all of this is that a handful of major markets including Los Angeles and New York City are still keeping theaters closed. San Francisco officials have given the greenlight for opening, but the recently-announced delay of both No Time To Die – pushed from November to April of next year – and Dune – pushed from December to October – has created even more chaos.
Looking at how things stand as of this moment, the biggest titles still on the 2020 calendar, all of which are slated for mid-November at the earliest, are:
12-11-20: Free Guy
12-18-20: Coming 2 America
12-18-20: Death on the Nile
12-25-20: News of the World
12-25-20: Wonder Woman 1984
That list, which doesn’t include a handful of smaller titles with great word of mouth like Nomadland and Ammonite as well as streaming releases like The Prom, raises a number of questions and other points to consider.
What’s the Plan Until November 20th?
Between now and the middle of November, the major releases are all happening on Netflix while theaters only have a smattering of art-house titles to program. The Trial of The Chicago 7, Rebecca and others are all streaming, meaning unless The War With Grandpa unexpectedly breaks out into blockbuster territory theaters are going to have minimal new films to play and even fewer that benefit from any sort of mass advertising or marketing campaigns.
That landscape is why theaters are reducing hours or closing on select days in certain markets to reduce overhead during times when no one is coming to see any of the movies being shown. Regal even just announced it will be closing all theaters in the U.S. and U.K. It’s also why a coalition of The National Association of Theatre Owners, the Directors Guild of America, the Motion Picture Association and scores of high-profile filmmakers have once again petitioned congressional leaders for an industry bailout package, citing the monumental losses they’ve suffered.
Such a bailout seems unlikely, though. While the House of Representatives has unproductive talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on a stimulus bill that’s $1 billion less than what the House passed in May, the Senate is solely focused on rushing through a Supreme Court justice approval. And if the news that Disney Parks will be laying off 28,000 people in California and Florida or that airlines are on the verge of letting 50,000 employees go isn’t enough to spur significant action, it’s hard to imagine a strongly-worded letter will do the trick.
Some of Those Dates Are Sketchy At Best
If Disney were going to move Free Guy, which originated with Fox, it likely would have done so last week when it made other changes. And Sony seems to have revived the No Time To Die campaign in earnest, so the odds it’s released as scheduled are at least decent.
But it’s hard to believe Coming 2 America remains on that mid-December date for much longer. With October now begun, the campaign for a long-anticipated sequel starring the recently revived Eddie Murphy should have started by now. Instead there hasn’t even been a teaser trailer or announcement poster. The same goes for News of the World, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks Elizabeth Marvel.
Also, of the nine titles on that list, eight of them are bunched on just three dates: 11/20, 12/18 and 12/25. That’s literally putting all the eggs in a single basket and means studios are counting on people feeling like it’s simultaneously too dangerous to visit family and friends during the holidays but also safe enough to hang out in theaters. Those are both big assumptions or bets to make.
They also assume that the attention of the U.S. audience won’t be focused tightly on what’s shaping up to be a contested election cycle. With cries of hoaxes, frauds and conspiracies already abundant there’s a good chance the end of November will still find the country watching the legal battles being threatened by a certain incumbent president. Either that, or a clear defeat of that same individual will consume 40% of the nation in planning the armed rebellion he and others like him have been encouraging for months now should he lose.
Even if all those things are true, it remains unclear what percentage of the audience NATO, Wall Street or anyone else thinks is coming back to theaters any time soon for two reasons.
First is simply because of health concerns. The number of coronavirus cases are rising across almost the entire country, there’s massive uncertainty because not only does the president have Covid-19 but the information coming out of the White House – which is increasingly looking like a super-spreader hotspot – is unclear and inconsistent. A lot of people are either still taking the same precautions, for a variety of reasons, they have been for the last seven months or are newly concerned about potential exposure. As Lucas Shaw said on Twitter:
Second, the economic picture has not improved substantially for a good percentage of the U.S. population. While stock indexes continue to inexplicably rise:
The number of people who have been out of work for six months – the threshold for labeling those losses “permanent” – is growing, in part because companies aren’t filling open positions, asking those still at work to do more in a push for productivity.
Personal spending has dropped with the ending of enhanced unemployment benefits, or because people have dropped out of the workforce.
With that all in mind, it’s unclear what disposable income the analyst quoted in the THR piece linked above thinks people have to be spending on what is essentially an outing explicitly designed to give them Covid-19.
And, as I’ve said before, it’s unclear exactly what studios are supposed to do. Any option available to them at the moment may bring in only a percentage of what a movie was expected to given a fully functioning economy and box-office. So they must decide between honking off consumers and exhibitors by holding movies back from any kind of release or honking off only exhibitors and punting titles to streaming of PVOD. Only one of those comes without putting studios in the position of the bait that lures audiences into an infectious disease trap.