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Venice Film Festival: ‘Dune’ Leaves Us With 3 Big Questions

The spice must flow. But will audiences go?

Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated “Dune” premiered Friday at the Venice Film Festival, an unusual place to debut a sci-fi franchise-starter that cost upward of $160 million. Then again, “Dune” is not your typical tentpole.

It’s something dreamier and weirder, a movie that straddles the line between auteurist art-film and studio blockbuster so provocatively that even after watching it, I can’t quite predict how “Dune” will fare when it comes out in theaters (and on HBO Max) on Oct. 22. When I left my screening, the first critic I spoke to was totally besotted. The second fled the theater as if Villeneuve had planted a bomb there.

Still, after a decade of Marvel movies made with high-level craftsmanship but few formal risks, it’s bracing to get a movie of this scale that takes such big artistic swings. Here are three questions that kept swimming around in my head after watching it.

Though “Dune” is based on a classic sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, adaptations of it have hardly set the world on fire. David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation was a famous disaster that the director disavowed, while two mini-series adaptations were more notable for stuffing wonky blue contact lenses into the eyes of a young James McAvoy than for inspiring any significant pop-cultural reaction.

But “Dune” has strong bones, and they’ve been picked over considerably since Herbert’s novel was published in 1965. So many films were inspired by “Dune” that the contours of the story might feel familiar now: A young man (Timothée Chalamet) is sent to an exotic planet that is being mined for a valuable natural resource — in this case, the hallucinogenic “spice” — but he eventually decides to throw in his lot with the Indigenous folk and fight back against their well-militarized oppressors.

Yes, that’s basically the same plot as “Avatar” … and hey, maybe that’s a good thing! After all, “Avatar” was a record-setting blockbuster, and while Chalamet is new to leading this type of movie, Villeneuve has surrounded him with a cast of veterans: Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista and Josh Brolin have all done their time in the superhero salt mines, Oscar Isaac is fresh off a “Star Wars” trilogy, and Rebecca Ferguson has become the leading lady of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. If so many other tentpole films have stolen from “Dune,” the least “Dune” could do is steal something back.

Still, even with that pedigree, “Dune” faces some significant obstacles. The film finished principal photography over two years ago and was originally set for release in November 2020 until Warner Bros. decided to delay the film for nearly a year. The expectation was that the push would place “Dune” in a post-Covid film landscape; the reality is that the continuing havoc wreaked by the Delta variant has movie studios spooked enough to shove some major movies (like “Top Gun: Maverick”) into 2022.

In some ways, this could be a good thing for “Dune”: With fewer brand-driven blockbusters in the marketplace, “Dune” could stand out and draw curious viewers who are eager for something big to watch. But to Villeneuve’s vocal consternation, the film will also premiere on HBO Max at the same time it bows in theaters, which could cut into box-office receipts and threaten the odds that a sequel will be greenlit.

It could affect the first round of buzz, too: The audience that will go see “Dune” in theaters is more inclined to be invested in it (and will experience its visual and sonic pleasures on the biggest possible scale), while the bored, curious and unfamiliar who click over on HBO Max may not be as partial to Villeneuve’s mise en scène. The first significant action sequence, a sandworm attack, doesn’t arrive until an hour into the movie. Are at-home audiences going to be as willing to see things through as the people who eagerly paid for their own tickets?

Part of what’s so striking about “Dune” is that Villeneuve has a sense of texture that’s rare among big-budget filmmakers. When a character falls in battle, Villeneuve is besotted with the way the man’s eyelashes flutter as he dies. And during the assault on a character’s compound, the camera drifts from the action to show us magnificent palm trees that have been set aflame, their leafy crowns now a starburst of destruction.

Though sci-fi movies can sometimes be a hard sell with Oscar voters, I suspect that Villeneuve’s distinctive eye will distinguish “Dune,” as the movie looks undeniably ravishing. A ton of below-the-line nominations are guaranteed, including Greig Fraser’s cinematography and the production design by Patrice Vermette. The score (by Hans Zimmer), sound and editing are all more daring than this genre usually allows: The aural soundscape and artsy crosscutting feel almost designed to draw you into a spice-induced trance.

And I haven’t even gotten to the fashion! The costume design (by Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan) is a stunner, and especially during the first hour of the film — with Rebecca Ferguson wearing outrageous space-nun sheaths and a veiled Charlotte Rampling dressed like the Green Knight in Gaultier — “Dune” can seem like a moody high-fashion shoot that occasionally includes spaceships. (I mean this as a good thing.)

Villeneuve’s last film, “Blade Runner 2049,” scored five Oscar nominations and won its cinematographer Roger Deakins a long-overdue Academy Award. Still, the movie couldn’t break into the two top Oscar categories, best picture and best director. Does “Dune” stand a better chance?

I’m taking the wait-and-see approach here. None of the actors from “Dune” are likely to be nominated, which would have helped legitimize a film like this with Oscar voters, and an adapted-screenplay nomination isn’t a foregone conclusion, either. Still, after 2020’s intimate field, I think the academy is eager to get a bigger movie into the best-picture race. Villeneuve’s fight to get his movie seen on the big screen may also resonate with streaming-skeptical voters who see his stubbornness as a crusade worth backing.

Viewers who watch “Dune” expecting a complete experience may be thrown for a loop when the title card comes up: This isn’t “Dune,” it’s “Dune: Part One.”

Villeneuve has split Herbert’s book roughly in half, meaning that several of the significant character arcs are just getting started when this film comes to a close. And though Zendaya is plastered all over the marketing as the female lead, it’s really Ferguson who gets that spotlight: Outside of a few dreamy visions of what’s to come, Zendaya’s character doesn’t factor into the story in a big way just yet.

Villeneuve intends to make “Dune” a two-parter and is working on the screenplay for the sequel, but Warner Bros. still hasn’t technically greenlit it. The studio has tried the two-film gambit before, splitting the Stephen King adaptation “It” into halves, but those films opened two years apart and a prospective “Dune” sequel would likely take far longer to mount. (It may also concern the studio that “It Chapter Two” made some $225 million less worldwide than the first film, despite an influx of big stars.)

Perhaps Warner Bros. is taking a wait-and-see approach, too, and watching the “Dune” box office before pulling the trigger on a second film, but the benchmarks of success look very different during a pandemic and a simultaneous streaming run. With a planned HBO Max spinoff series focused on the Bene Gesserit (a secretive, all-female group that counts Ferguson’s and Rampling’s characters among its acolytes), I’m surprised that the studio won’t firmly commit to a sequel now, if only to engineer some momentum ahead of the film’s release.

It would also cue audiences to expect an unfinished story at the end of “Dune,” which rockets through a couple of higher-octane climaxes before landing on a somewhat muted denouement. Villeneuve does plenty of teasing: Many major events to come are glimpsed, as if the movie can’t wait to get to the good stuff. But how long a wait will that prove to be?

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