The big day came this past weekend; the new Dune movie arrived. I was going to put off posting this until next weekend, but I finished up the post and the topic seems timely, so here we go with a Monday movie post.
I am also going to put a mild spoiler warning here. I discuss plot points of the story. If you’ve read the book or seen the previous movie or mini-series, these plot points are well known to you already. If you haven’t, well, they’ll probably be more confusing than spoiler-ish. But if you want to go into the film clean, don’t read any reviews, including this one.
My wife and I had been talking about seeing Dune in the theater and then I saw that it was also going to be available to watch on HBO Max for the first month of its release… the hedging against small pandemic audiences continues… so we decided to sit on the couch and watch it instead.
I regret not seeing it in the theater on a really big screen a bit… but not enough to actually go out and do so. It is quite beautifully shot and there were points my wife and I both said something like, “I bet that would have been spectacular in the theater,” but that is the way it goes.
I am also going to make a minor fuss up front here about this being “Part One,” but only because the studio seems to have gone out of their way to hide that fact.
None of the movie posters, ads, or other marketing I have seen says that this is only the first half of the book. Even on HBO Max it just says Dune. This seems to me like a particularly pointless, and even counter productive, act.
People are going to find out. I knew about it before we saw the film from people complaining that the studio seemed to be hiding the fact. Turning the book into two films certainly didn’t bother me, and it is not something without precedent in Hollywood. People remember Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Hunger Games: Mockingjay were both two parters and neither seemed to suffer in the box office… though admittedly both were the final chapters in already established successful series on the big screen.
So I am at a bit of a loss about the studio trying to hide this fact. Even in the opening credits, the title of the movie only appears for about five seconds, and only in the last two seconds of that appearance does it say “Part One.” That is enough to miss it, which actually happened to my wife while we were watching, though that is one of the hazards of watching at home where there are many more distractions.
Having hidden the whole “Part One” thing, what are they planning to call the next movie, Also Dune? More Dune? Dune Dune? Or will they go full George Lucas and call it Dune Episode IX – The Fremen Ascendant?
Anyway, that was more words expended than the issue required, though there is more to consider on this front, which I will get to in a bit.
The film itself is very good, certainly relative to its 1984 sibling, about which I wrote last week.
The whole tale still needs a lot of explaining to get the audience on board as to what is actually happening, but it is done in a much more organic way. Gone is the almost non-stop intonations and articulated thoughts of the main characters of the earlier outing as the script/director strive to show the situation through a series of less structured encounters.
People are still spilling forth more information than they might otherwise, but it doesn’t begin to approach the “Ben Stein lectures on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act” presentation to the audience that even the book spins perilously close to at times. My wife said aloud at several points early on that the story was being presented in a much better fashion.
The film also dispenses with the Princess Irulan historical narration, which is in both previous adaptations and the book. This version is firmly set in the here and now. Or the “then” I guess, since this is ten thousand years in the future.
Things are not quite as grandiose in this telling either. It is beautifully filmed and looks excellent on screen, but it is also more like to real life. Things are dirtier or grittier or less well lit. Uniforms are not as gaudy, ceremonies are more subdued, and House Harkonnen isn’t so obviously the bad guys.
I mean, they are still clearly the antagonists, but not quite in the almost comic book fashion of the 1984 film, where they were comparable to Batman villains. Their evil is more banal, their greed more ordinary, their machinations less fraught, their maniacal laughter much more subdued. The Baron is still weird and icky, but at least we aren’t spending a lot of time focused on his acne issues..
We also get a much closer look at the Emperor’s Sardaukar troops, establishing their loyalty and fanaticism. The Emperor himself though, he gives the whole thing a miss, and we see only his herald delivering the news about Arakkis is being transferred to House Atreides.
The whole house swap plan still seems like a mildly ludicrous way to deal with whatever problem the Emperor is trying to solve… a problem that is not really explained at all… but the film does at least spend some time demonstrating how House Harkonnen screwed over House Atreides on the deal more fully than I seem to recall even the book doing. House Atreides is clearly being set up for failure, and that is the part of the plan that is important in the moment.
The film spends its first 90 minutes with foundational material and setting up the coming conflict before House Harkonnen finally attacks to retake Arakkis with support from the Emperor’s Sardaukar. There is the betrayal, the battle, the escape, the Baron, and all the bits and pieces you may recall from book, movie, or mini-series past.
The battle and aftermath gets things close to the two hour mark, after which we spend about 40 minutes with Paul and his mother traipsing about the desert, finding the Fremen and getting accepted by them which, while an important aspect of the story, is kind of a slow roll even when compared to the early exposition laden portions of the film. And then the end credits show up and we’re done. That was a bit of a surprise to my wife who, as I mentioned above, missed the two seconds flash of “Part One” in the opening.
Overall a strong outing, well written and performed, with a Hans Zimmer score that seems to live and breath with the film. I enjoyed it. Go see it in the theater if you can, if Dune and theaters are both your thing.
They trimmed back the cast of characters, no doubt to keep the focus of the story getting too diluted/confused. So the Emperor and his plans are left out, along with the Spacing Guild and Baron Harkonnen’s other nephew, played by Sting back in 1984. But Dave Bautista has chops enough to fill out all the nephew needs of this film. Even the Bene Gesserit feels like it has been left behind after the Reverend Mother plays “What’s in the box?” with Paul early on.
But there is time for all of those who went missing in Part One to make their appearance in the second film, which will necessarily revolve around Paul rising to lead the Fremen and the reactions of House Harkonnen, the Emperor, the Spacing Guild, and the Bene Gesserit to the Fremen insurrection and the disruption of the spice trade.
That is, if we get a second film.
Part of the reason the studio might have been shy about the whole “Part One” things is that, as of this writing, the second film hasn’t yet been officially sanctioned. There is a lot of vagueness about the future of the series at the moment, which I imagine mostly rests on how well Dune Part One does at the box office.
Given that the film barely cracked $40 million mark in the US on its opening weekend, which is good but not great, there does seem to be reason for doubt. (For comparison, Venom did $90 million, Shang-li did $75 million, No Time to Die did $55 million, and even Halloween Kills managed $49 million, all during the last two months.) I am sure HBO kicked in a pile of cash to be able to show it on their service, but was it enough to make up for how many people they kept from going to see it in the theater.
I know at this point somebody is at least thinking “foreign box office!” I would like to remind anybody going down that path exactly how many Warcraft sequels we got when it did so well overseas: Zero. Zero sequels.
So we shall have to wait and see and hope. I want the next film. My worry is that the current one won’t make the cut financially to warrant it.
This is also a reminder to those of us in the nerd faction about the popularity of the Dune IP. I keep seeing people ranking the Dune series in importance culturally with Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. That might just be for our demographic.
Meanwhile, even if the sequel does get the green light to go forward, we’re probably 2-3 years away from a release. Maybe more. That will give people time enough to go read… or re-read… the entire Dune saga.