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Review: ‘Dune’ Is A Visually Impressive Sci-Fi Classic With Serious Flaws

Director Denis Villeneuve’s operatic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic Dune finally arrives on HBO Max and theaters this weekend, bringing all manner of implications with it. Will the streaming schedule hurt theatrical outcomes? Will it boost HBO subscriptions? Will it contribute to pandemic spread? These questions are more relevant for Dune because the filmmaker and studio repeatedly made those topics talking points leading up to Dune’s release, for better or worse. The results — the film, and the context around its opening — are a mixed bag.

Official poster for “Dune”


Source: Warner Bros

First, this is Forbes, so let’s talk financials.

Domestically, Dune is poised to take somewhere around $35-40 million, depending on how it holds through the rest of the weekend after a $5+ million early bow on Thursday night and another $10+ million on Friday proper. That suggests a final tally stateside of perhaps $100+ million, depending on how well it holds.

With horror films including Last Night in Soho potentially drawing away younger audiences on Halloween weekend, and Marvel’s superhero blockbuster The Eternals arriving on November 5th, Dune will have an uphill battle holding strong enough to deliver higher domestic receipt totals beyond $100 million stateside. Ghostbusters also hits theaters in late November, and December brings a slate of big holiday pictures including West Side Story, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Sing 2, The Matrix Resurrections, and plenty of higher profile adult-skewing award season entries.

What this means is, Dune is releasing during a pandemic with only a small window to get its legs under it and hold onto its audience long enough to build a financial cushion ahead of continued business from strong word of mouth. It’s a franchise IP, but one oriented far more to older genre fans of the book series and/or the 1984 film adaptation by David Lynch, or who are simply familiar with the title in general. It’s also in excess of 2 hours 30 minutes runtime, so it screens less often each day.

Now add in the fact it’s a film with long scenes lacking dialogue and without constant action to keep the pace feeling faster — this isn’t a criticism of such things, merely noting that for mainstream audiences a long film with a lot of long quiet shots and slower pacing is taking a gamble, when the marketing is framing it as the next Star Wars and with trailers making it look like a Marvel movie.

It’s getting good grades from early audiences so far, which is great and well-deserved, but it’s also worth remembering the audience showing up for early preview screenings and waiting in line on Friday includes a lot of the most enthusiastic fans. Which means the more average moviegoers’ tastes aren’t quite as well-reflected in those reactions, and I think there’s some danger for Dune that mainstream audience expectations (especially among younger viewers) are a bit different from what the film delivers.

Outside of North America, Dune has racked up $130+ million so far. Opening in China on Saturday, Dune took about $6.5 million. This all points toward a probable final international total of somewhere around $200-250 million, heavily dependent on just how high the receipts from China go.

The final worldwide tally should fall somewhere in the range of $300+ million. I think the worst case scenario would be in the $250+ million range, if it can’t manage a couple of decent weekly holds through early November, and if it also suffers a weaker-than-expected run in China.

On the higher end, I think it’s possible Dune could benefit from enthusiastic word of mouth and some upcoming films underperforming, as well as the Covid boosters combining with declining infection rates just in time for a holiday box office surge. And there’s a chance it could really connect with audiences in China, who might boost it with positive word of mouth and overcome some early concerns that it will fade fast.

In that case, I can imagine a scenario where Dune takes closer to $125 million domestic and $300 internationally, for a $425+/- million worldwide box office total. I doubt there’s any scenario in which the film could make much more than that, and the reality is it will probably finish closer to $300-325 million.

Off a budget of reportedly $165 million and a big marketing budget, Dune’s break-even point is somewhere around $500 million (the studio only gets about 40% of global box office). Dune won’t reach that figure. So the studio will have to decide they’re committed to this franchise and to working with Villeneuve regardless of whether Dune is profitable or not — the latter being a determination they already made once in Villeneuve’s favor after Blade Runner 2049 fizzled at the box office, so I’m not 100% convinced we’ll get a Dune sequel if this first movie performs as I expect.

Keep in mind, Discovery will be taking relatively soon. If Dune scores on the lower/lowest end of potential box office outcomes, then there’s a good chance the new leadership balks at dropping a few hundred million dollars more on a sequel.

I’ve decided to address the whole “see Dune in theaters, not at home” argument in a separate article publishing next week. But there are a few things that informed my viewing experience that I need to say, for the sake of my review.

I watched Dune on my TV at home. My TV is a 75 inch 4K, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos compatible, and my review of Dune will be better and more positive precisely because I saw it in these conditions. Why? Because most theaters don’t have Dolby Vision or Dolby Atmos, so most theaters show a lower quality of the film than my TV.

If you think size of screen is all that matters and that image/sound fidelity shouldn’t matter most, then I’d say you have a myopic perspective. The brightness of the projection, the color and contrast capabilities, the audio system — this all matters in conjunction with and in relation to screen size, and most theaters aren’t premium venues with the higher-end options like Dolby Cinemas and IMAX, nor do most theaters keep projection at the brightest levels or properly balance the various factors for maximum experience. But I do, because of my TV and home environment.

Other added bonuses: I didn’t have to worry about catching Covid or spreading it to others; I didn’t have to worry about catching the flu; I didn’t have to wonder if some anti-vax protester was going to cause a scene and disrupt the screening; I didn’t have to pay outrageous prices for popcorn; I didn’t miss any of the movie if I had to run to the bathroom; and if I couldn’t hear or didn’t see something, then I can rewind it and watch it again.

So if you are wondering if Dune is only impressive and a worthwhile experience in theaters, and whether watching it at home ruins the experience, have no fear — Dune is still going to impress the hell out of you when you hopefully watch it on HBO Max, and you won’t appreciate it any less, or lose any of the story or vision.

Now, let’s get to my full review of Dune.

Dune is visually stunning. It relies on a great deal of gargantuan imagery and sweeping views across expansive landscapes to covey the immense scale of its subjects. Interiors and structures are monolithic, spaceships are enormous and move glacially, deserts are endless moving seas and sandstorms reaching into the clouds. The camera pans, it pulls back, it raises its gaze skyward, forever searching for the beginnings and ends of these seemingly limitless subjects. Such shots are appropriately reverential, with little dialogue and taking plenty of time to let the scenes engulf you.

The story unfolds in as straightforward a manner as possible, even if much of what’s happening and the subtext are left for the audience to figure out (or not, as the film is also designed to let you take it all in while understanding comes later, like perceiving the image on a jigsaw puzzle as the pieces assemble). Because the visuals and experiences tell so much of the story without exposition, the streamlining of the tale makes sense and was necessary.

The result, however, is a much briefer and — at least at this stage of the telling — relatively shallow story and character arcs, made admittedly grander and more illustrious because they transpire surrounded by such towering spectacle. Still, it’s hard to feel invested in any of the main characters or their fates. Don’t get me wrong, the performances are excellent, but we aren’t presented with a whole lot to personally relate to when it comes to the goals and conflicts the main characters are facing.

I appreciate this is only half of the story, and I know it was streamlined out of necessity. But either I feel drawn to characters and their conflicts and aspirations, or I don’t, and I just don’t feel very drawn to them in Dune. The nearest exception perhaps being Jason Momoa’s standout turn as the most charismatic person in the story and the only one who seems purely driven by love of family and friends.

Luckily, the story doesn’t frankly need me to heavily invest emotionally in the characters (at least at this point in the story) for me to enjoy the visuals and the approach to storytelling, and to appreciate an operatic adaptation of the novel. So as a big sci-fi blockbuster, it works as entertainment and has enough intelligence to the concepts and story to keep things moving and remain interesting. I can watch and enjoy sci-fi films that are more story-driven and visual-heavy, so the lack of more emotional connection is worth noting here but also not as detrimental as it might otherwise have been.

Still, I imagine how much better it would be if we were given more entry into the heart and connections between these characters, in ways beyond superhuman powers and corporate/military strategy.

This is also among the more overt “white savior” stories to hit the screen lately, as it’s literally is about a white savior who comes from afar and fulfills the prophecy of a messiah who leads a desert people in revolution against those outsiders who come to take their resources. So that is another factor that prevents easier relatability and engagement with the main characters.

It’s no secret Dune is inspired by T. E. Lawrence’s writings, and if you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia you’ll see that film’s influences on this latest film adaptation of Dune. The story includes social commentary about the Middle East and energy resources, and it uses “Mahdi” and other Islamic phrases and terms. So I’m not reading things into it that aren’t there. Choices were made to intentionally create this analogy, and to present it in this manner, with these faces to the characters. It informs the narrative and is baked into the concepts behind the characterizations.

So, sure, Dune is presented this way because it was written that way on purpose. Part of its point is that western society should step away from the move toward secularism and science guiding our beliefs and actions, and embrace the lessons and culture of these other people whose beliefs and culture are driven more by the mind and spirit, by faith and extra-sensory abilities. It represents a white westerner turning against their own empire and own value systems, and instead supporting revolt by an indigenous people against occupation and theft of resources and corruption of spirit.

And that is the way it wants to be seen and enjoyed now. The problem with that is, even though it can all be true in terms of themes and plot points, it still relies on the notion that the success and fulfillment of those oppressed indigenous people’s beliefs and revolution relied on the arrival of the “white savior.”

While it remains to be seen how they handle this aspect as it progresses in the next film, and while I can see a way the filmmakers might choose to undermine the “white savior” elements with some creative reimagining of certain story elements, I think they’re probably going to go with a more direct adaptation and focus on the previously mentioned themes and concepts to let them stand and be judged on their own merits. Which I believe would be a mistaken direction to go with it.

I’m sure some of the property’s fans will be upset and resent that I raised these points, but I would argue you are not taking the film or its themes seriously enough if you don’t recognize these are elements of the story and talk about it. It’s literally part of the original story, and it’s clearly part of this film. Ignoring it, or not discussing all of its implications and whether it’s appropriate for modern audiences, would be a much bigger insult to the story and film than, say, watching it on your TV.

The musical score by Hans Zimmer is sublime and as Oscar-worthy as the visual effects. It’s some of his greatest work, and I dare say even if you don’t like the rest of the film you’ll like the music. It is gorgeously haunting, alien and irreverent, but not so much so as to be obtuse or to feel antagonistic toward the viewer.

The visual effects are of course mind-blowing, not just looking real and feeling thrilling but also impressing upon us a sense of vast size and movement. The dreamlike sensibilities Villeneuve brings to the passage of time and proceeding of events contrasts well with the way the effects are both realistic and yet also hallucinatory.

The production design, costume design, and pretty much everything else in the film is remarkable and likely to earn some award season attention, including deserved wins. It’s an impressive undertaking, and there’s a time when Warner Bros. would’ve dared to put the sequel and a third film into production all at once, akin to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Alas, that was another time, and in light of the pandemic it turns out it’s lucky they didn’t try to film all three at once.

As an adaptation, Dune has trimmed a lot but retained most of what the story needed and is still faithful enough to make most fans of the book happy. As a film, Dune is a visual splendor and achieves its desired sense of scale and of wonder so well that it works fantastically on a big TV, without need for a giant theater screen (which is a compliment and testament to the filmmakers’ talents, even if they don’t agree). As entertainment, Dune gets it mostly right and checks most all of the boxes, but it has flaws preventing it from transcending the source material to turn its themes into something modern and universal.

You will be impressed by Dune, you will probably enjoy much if not most of it, but it will be the imagery and the sound and the dreamlike flow that move you and evoke emotional reactions, not the plot points or the characters.

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