It’s no secret that I wasn’t quite enthralled with what I saw at the Dune IMAX event earlier this week, but that’s merely one critic’s opinion, a critic who liked Arrival and Sicario more than Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049 no less. But my biggest concern, as a box office pundit or whatever the hell I am these days, is just how weirdly uncommercial the film looks. Sure, commercial doesn’t always mean “good” anymore than “uncommercial” does, but when you’re spending $160 million on the first half of a story, with the second half only being adapted if the first one succeeds, yeah, whether it looks like a likely hit is indeed an issue.
It’s one thing to do the whole “split the book into two movies” gimmick when you already have a fanbase. Heck, cultural critics may carp, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part II and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part II all either out-grossed or ended up relatively close to their respective “part one” installments. They were also selling the slam-bang finale of a drawn-out cinematic story which was already incredibly popular and profitable. Even It Chapter One cost $37 million, had a killer marketing campaign, benefited from multigenerational nostalgia and looked like an horror movie event even for those indifferent to the source material.
It also told a 99% self-contained story and finished the entire source material within those two films. Dune part One not only has to make enough to justify a Dune part Two but Dune part Two (presuming we get such a thing) has to be commercially successful enough to justify further sequels and/or HBO Max spin-offs. I’m still waiting for that Dark Tower TV show and/or the fourth “TV movie” installment of The Divergent Series. As ambitious and “epic” as this looks in scope and scale, to quote the last mega-bucks “new to cinema” franchise (a YA adaptation with a simple hook and a marquee character), the odds are not in Dune’s favor.
As noted yesterday, we were here four years ago, with a Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner bombed in 1982 and eventually became one of the more influential sci-fi films of the 1980’s. A cult classic to be sure, but one more revered by we film geeks than general audiences and not one passed down from parent to child. Alcon Entertainment, Columbia Pictures and friends spent Tron: Legacy-level money on a far-less audience-friendly three-decades-later sequel to a 1982 box office bomb and focused the entirety of the advertising campaign on the mere idea that it was another Blade Runner movie. $93 million domestic and $251 million worldwide would have been pretty good for an R-rated, 2.5-hour, action-lite, sci-fi tone poem that didn’t cost $160 million.
This second trailer mostly focuses on Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides as a Duke’s son potentially siding with the oppressed, of than last year’s character-focused teaser (and this week’s character posters). I’d expect the third trailer (presumably dropping either in tandem with the film’s Venice Film Festival debut or in late September timed with No Time to Die) to further focus on the film’s Avatar-like sensibilities as the young heir realizes his side is the oppressor, falls for one of the oppressed (Zendaya) and switches sides. While that’s a damn primal story, it’s also one that’s been told many times, and the second trailer goes out of its way to make it seem more complicated.
The good news is that Dune has a huge ensemble cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa (the only one seemingly having any fun), Dave Bautista and many more). It’s got a PG-13, presumably more action than Blade Runner 2049 and potentially someone resembling a marquee director at least in the Film Twitter bubble. The five key ingredients for a non-nostalgia hit seem to be good reviews (fingers-crossed), an all-star ensemble, a high-concept hook (that’s missing), a marquee director (that’s debatable) and the promise of escapism (will Dune be fun?). Right now, it has two of those elements with the hopes that it won’t be a grimdark passion play.
Again, the focus needs to be not “At last, a Dune movie!” or even “cinematic wonders beyond what you can imagine,” because Frank Hubert’s novel is at-best a cult property and because audiences are no longer wowed by spectacle alone. Otherwise, Jupiter Ascending, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Mortal Engines would have been genuine blockbusters. Alita: Battle Angel almost pulled it off ($405 million on a $170 million budget) by focusing on the Robert Rodriguez/James Cameron combo and the gee-whiz appeal of Rosa Salazar’s title character. Will “conflicted white guy prince” played by a ridiculously good-looking Chalamet be anywhere near the draw of Jen Lawrence’s Katniss or Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter?
As pessimistic as I am about the film’s commercial success, I hope it’s at least a good film. I hope it’s at least one that Warner Bros. can at least point to as “See, we do more than just Harry Potter and Batman movies” even as audiences ignore it for Jackass Forever and Film Twitter retroactively blames the marketing. Warner Bros. has a history of marketing comparatively unconventional films big (Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road and Inception) and small (Magic Mike, American Sniper and It) into relative event movies. In the Heights was a rare miss in that sense, but if any studio can sell Dune to the masses, it’s the Dream Factory.