I posted on Facebook my response to viewing the latest trailer for upcoming prestige event production of Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic, Dune. I described it as “meh.”
You can guess that it did not go over with much agreement.
(The movie is based on a 55 year old novel, but sure – spoilers ahead. Whatever, mortals.)
I get it. The “Many Gesserit” fandom around the saga is both wide and deeply loyal, and likely angry that I replaced “Bene” with “Many.” They’ve been waiting for an adaptation that treats the source material with the deepest respect, and they certainly have found that in director Denis Villeneuve, possibly the only director working right now who would stake everything on Dune‘s success.
I mean everything. Because of COVID-19 theater closures, Warner Bros. and streamer HBO Max struck a day-and-date release deal for films coming throughout 2021 including Dune. How did that set with Villeneuve, Tenet director Christopher Nolan, and James Gunn, the man behind the upcoming Suicide Squad sequel/reboot? Not well.
For Villeneuve, his public dissent for the WB’s action was a justified bite out of the hand that feeds. It’s something you simply do not do, but he believes that much in Dune.
But what is Dune, exactly? Well, it’s about two powerful empires in the drug trade. Fine, I’m being willfully reductive, but at the heart of this massive story are the Houses Atreides and Harkkonen waging war to control the planet Arrakis, commonly referred to Dune as it is a desert world. It’s the planet where “the spice melange” is mined. It is a highly addictive substance but also has other curious effects than merely trippin’ balls. He who controls the spice controls the universe, in more ways than one.
You can infer from that description that this is a very counterculture-forward story, and that’s what drew director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain, The Incal) to it in the 1970s. He envisioned a very long and very psychedelic adaptation, bolstered by designs from Chris Foss, Jean “Mobius” Giraud, and H.R. Giger. The film would have had a score created by Pink Floyd. It was an ambitious project too big to start, never mind too big to fail.
In the 1980s, equally eccentric director David Lynch – having shocked the world with Eraserhead, and again with restraint with his adaptation of The Elephant Man – delivered a very long and very rambling version to the theaters. So complicated was it that in initial screenings, the film was accompanied by a glossary handout because it would have been too long to “show, don’t tell” this stuff. His is more tempered than we’d come to know from Lynch later on, but there was still that necessary strangeness that undergirded Herbert’s mind-altering vision. He, like Jodorowsky, got it.
And I think it is a good bet Villeneuve gets it, too, but I do not see it in the trailer. What I see are potentially conflicting marketing messages that will ultimately tick off one camp or the other: the deathless faithful and the spectacle-driven newbies.
The tone of the trailer feels very much like space opera grafted onto Lawrence of Arabia. That includes the Luke-Skywalker/Biggs-Darklighter relationship tone between heir apparent Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalomet) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa being very Jason Momoa). That includes several clips with lots of spacecraft bang-zoom. What that doesn’t mean is that psychedelic layer that was baked into Frank Herbert’s story. This is, after all, a story about a drug that helps pilots cope through space-warp. It’s a story about palace intrigue, religion, and sees its protagonist delve headlong into a messiah complex. (The ’80s Lynch version found Paul Atreides actually becoming a messianic rainmaker.)
The least likely outcome is that Villeneuve has smoothed out the material so much for the non-Dune viewer that the die hards will be crushed. Again, in Denis we trust. He wouldn’t do that.
More likely, this trailer, devoid of truly brain-melting content aside from the monstrous Arrakis sandworm, is going to give newcomers specific expectations of what this is to be and they are not prepared. The film will be long, it will be layered, and it will be more than “pew-pew-gottem!” gunplay.
There have to be compromises. This is an enormous production, and it is going to require more than just Dune fans showing up to make back production costs, let alone turn a profit. But by framing this movie in such a grandiose but still conventional way, by not being more upfront with what the viewer is sure to get, there are going to be a lot of critics who probably will deem the results ponderous and obtuse.
So, yeah. When I saw this trailer, all I could think was that this is a rather watered-down take. I hope I am wrong, and I hope that the audiences will roll with the punches the material is bound to throw, just as they did with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was done before and it can be done again, but in our digital new world of communication, where a handful of angry people can post “this sucks” diatribes that can actually tank a film, I think the Dune trailer needed to be a bit more screwed up just to prepare all the tribes.