The following films were more expensive to produce than Dune:
• Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
• Terminator: Dark Fate
I understand that making an effects-heavy feature with a budget higher than the nominal GDP of the Republic of Kiribati is an extremely difficult endeavor under any circumstance, but I have also now seen what Denis Villeneuve, Mary Parent, Cale Boyter, and Joe Caracciolo, Jr. can do with $165 million. So really, what excuse will Kevin Feige have in the future for continuing to throw nondescript CGI aliens and energy beams at us in blandly-imagined green screen environments at $200 million a pop? Why should audiences accept the upcoming Jungle Cruise sequel taking place in environments that look like a PS4 cutscene from in the first film, now that we know what’s possible from a team working with less?
This is not a review of Dune, since I am mostly in agreement with Joey Magidson with the caveat that I’m still not sure if he and I are slightly overrating it. This is, after all, a movie that struggles at times to marry its literally breathtaking visual splendor to the functionality of its lore and world-building, and while splitting Frank Herbert’s beast of a novel into a (confirmed!) pair of two-and-a-half-hour-long movies may very well be the most feasible approach to adapting it in a remotely satisfying way, that still leaves us with a structurally… “lumpy” first half.
This essay is more of a plea, a call to action to an industry that has become timid in its sensibilities. Is Dune a “legitimately” great movie on its own terms? Maybe, maybe not. But what I do know is that, after years of watching allegedly “big” movies that feel like TV pilots featuring action sequences with no sense of genuine scope or palpability, feeling nothing watching these anodyne excuses for spectacle and forgetting all about them within hours after the credits, it was a truly exceptional experience to see a movie put its money where its mouth was when it demanded that you “had to” see it on the biggest screen possible.
Dune is exhausting. Dune is overwhelming. Dune flat-out assaults your senses with a punishing soundscape and imposing array of otherworldly landscapes and effects shots that are shameless in their commitment to inspire awe. And I loved that feeling. I loved that there are still filmmakers out there who want to impress me and not just placate me.
This would normally be the depressing part of the article; the part where I lament that audiences these days just want to feel numb with half-baked IP rehashes and most people turned away from Dune and we’re doomed to a future of small-scale, tediously presented, theatrically-released glorified TV shows. But it looks like general audiences, after nearly two years of being isolated and stressed out, given the chance to go to a big dark room so a movie can pummel them with majestic sights and overpowering sounds and famous actors reciting portentous dialogue advancing a mind-bogglingly convoluted mythology… took it. Dune enjoyed the highest opening weekend of Villeneuve’s career. It’s the best showing for a movie burdened with a simultaneous theatrical/streaming release from Warner Bros by far. It is on track to being one of the biggest hits of the post-pandemic era. And, as a bonus, both casual audiences and more dedicated cinephiles seemed to love it.
This was not an assured outcome, let’s be clear. Herbert’s book series is one of the most notoriously dense mythologies ever to achieve any kind of mainstream popularity, with the first novel alone containing pages and pages of glossaries and appendices just to help readers comprehend the main story. Not exactly an easy canvass to paint something accessible to the public. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unproduced conception of it was so overambitious and bizarre that his notes became the stuff of entertainment industry legend. David Lynch’s feature film is visually stunning but so narratively incomprehensible it can only be genuinely enjoyed as something akin to the man’s most abstract art films… and even that’s being generous. John Harrison’s dull-as-dishwater Sci-Fi Channel – oops, sorry, I mean “SyFy” – miniseries is a stark example of why strict fidelity to the source material alone should never be the sole aim of any adaptation. Poor Kevin Misher wasted years of his life trying to get a reboot of the property off the ground and, understandably, threw in the towel in 2011.
The modern cultural landscape has not been kind to mainstream studio filmmaking that trusts the audience with intense emotions or intimidating visuals. That’s why there have been so many superhero movies lately that feel the need to undercut their own dramatic developments with some “ha ha, you’re seein’ this too, right?” quip to reassure you that nothing you’re seeing onscreen really matters. When was the last time you knew for sure what could actually hurt or kill a character in a Marvel movie? How many high-concept blockbusters in the last decade would you say actually prompted a visceral reaction from you during one of its chase or fight scenes? When was the last time an effects shot actually blew your mind when you saw it?
I’ve been outspoken in recent years about my fear of the widening gap between gigantic tentpole blockbusters and micro-budgeted indie films squeezing out medium-sized mainstream movies into extinction. Making matters worse is how most of these tentpole blockbusters can’t even present themselves as “gigantic,” anymore. Despite exploding production budgets over the last twenty years, more and more of the biggest movies from the most lucrative studios have become visually empty cut-and-paste green screen locations, particle effects covering dodgy compositing by overworked technicians under unreasonable deadlines, weightless rubbery bodies in mo-cap outfits effortlessly shrugging off blows that should be fatal to a normal human… it’s all just so disheartening. Yeah, I might be a “movie snob,” but by god I’m still human and if I pay to see a movie with a nine-figure budget I want to see some cool shit.
Dune is what happens when actors have a script to work with instead of a series of hastily-rewritten-the-day-before studio notes. It’s the result of a producer team that communicated a clear vision well in advance, so their artists and technicians weren’t being overworked desperately “fixing it in post” under last-minute deadlines. By understanding and respecting the contributions of, say, the wardrobe department, Villeneuve’s team actually saved money that Marvel routinely wastes by leaning on an increasing number of non-union VFX houses painting on CGI costumes.
Dune threw down the gauntlet on good old-fashioned epic-sized razzle-dazzle; let’s see if anyone else has the guts to try and measure up by time Dune: Part 2 hits us two years from now.