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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

'Dune' Is an Exercise in Delayed Gratification

read anything about Dune—or Dune itself—and you'll likely glean that it is an unwieldy beast. A novel so massive in scope it defies adaptation, yet so ornate and lyrical it pretty much taunts filmmakers and showrunners into trying. Since Frank Herbert’s book first came out in 1965, there has been a David Lynch movie based on its story, a Syfy series, and a famously ill-fated attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky to capture its grandeur. Now, in 2021, Denis Villeneuve—one of the most respected sci-fi directors of his generation—is releasing his attempt at putting Dune on the big screen. It’s practically begging the question: Has Dune’s time finally come?

The answer is no. Not because the movie is bad—it’s quite stunning—but because it’s incomplete. Fans knew this would happen. Villeneuve has been saying for months that the only way he could adapt Herbert’s novel is to split it into two parts, and so he has. After waiting more than five decades, and an additional year because of Covid-19-related theater closures, the version of Dune fans are getting is half-finished. By the time the credits roll, many of the novel’s most epic scenes have yet to get their moment on screen; they remain zygotes in Villeneuve’s mind.


Perhaps this is for the best. One of the other byproducts of the pandemic-induced theater closures is that this year, Warner Bros., the studio behind Dune, is releasing all of its films simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming service HBO Max. While this could negatively impact how Dune does at the box office this weekend—and thus whether or not Villeneuve even gets to film its successor—it could also mean it finds a lot more fans simply by being free for subscribers to watch with the click of a button. Dune, as a franchise, has some ardent fans, but what it doesn’t is many casual ones. It's not Star Wars; outside of certain specific circles, it's not extremely well known. Letting it live on a streaming service for a while might help beef up its fan ranks.

In a just world, finding these converts wouldn’t be too hard. Despite the whimper the movie ends on, it remains fairly epic. All of the book’s hallmarks—giant devouring sandworms, water-reclaiming stillsuits, the powerful drug known as the spice—are there, rendered in loving detail. (The movie's production designer, Patrice Vermette, is a two-time Oscar nominee and seems gunning for a win with Dune's visuals.) 

Also present: Herbert’s many interwoven plots. The book’s hero, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet, putting his brooding and jawline to good use) is still there, struggling to make his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), proud, while also confronting the fact that he might have been part of a plot cooked up by his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), to bring about a messiah. His family still goes to the desert planet of Arrakis to take over the harvesting of the spice from their rivals, House Harkonnen, and find themselves in a death match for power. Paul makes allies of the Fremen, Arrakis’ original inhabitants—a move that eventually makes him their messiah (and something of a white savior trope). Villeneuve didn’t miss a thing—and, for the first time, someone has finally succeeded in making Dune make sense on the screen. He’s just only halfway done.

It is not a foregone conclusion that he will get to finish. Warner Bros. has yet to greenlight Dune: Part Two. Provided that the studio does open its checkbook, the second chapter likely wouldn’t be complete for another year or two. By then, one of two things will probably have transpired: One, Villeneuve’s movie will have accumulated a new cadre of sand-fans and spice-heads, leading to the kind of massive opening weekend at the box office that Part One could’ve gotten if Covid had never happened. (This could be heightened by the fact that the second installment would be the grand finale, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi rolled into one, with a final face-off between you-know-who and you-know-who-else.) Or, two, the hype around the franchise will have fizzled and, once again, Herbert’s novel will be left with an unfulfilled screen adaptation.

In psychology, delay of gratification refers to the idea that biding one's time can lead to better rewards later on. Like Paul Atreides waiting for revenge, victory is sweeter when it’s hindered. Fans have waited 56 years for the kind of adaptation Villeneuve is crafting. It’s lush and slavish in its attention to the details Herbert wrote (with some modern modifications), and it fully embodies the novel on which it’s based. But, as Chani (Zendaya)—the Fremen who will become Paul’s partner—notes in the movie’s final moments, it is “only the beginning.” Readers of the book know that it doesn’t get good until Paul goes into the desert to find himself, and that’s where Dune: Part One ends. Judging by the artistry of the front half, if Villeneuve gets to film the backend of his story, it will be the adaptation fans have wanted to see for decades. It will have been worth the delay.

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