The Oscars are in their flop era. Every year brings in fewer viewers, followed by a victorious conservative news cycle about the insufferable wokeness of Hollywood elites. Worst of all, that news cycle is at least partly right, albeit not for the right reasons. Quite a few Hollywood elites are insufferable, and award shows find them in peak self-congratulating mode, showering superlatives on prestigious projects whose significance often diminishes almost immediately.
In a doomed effort at populist appeal, the Academy this year has revived its Fan Favorite category, first floated in 2018 and axed later that year, when it was seen as a sop to Black Panther fans. But it’s hard to imagine much drawing power in the chance of watching Spider-Man 3 win the American Idol portion of the proceedings. One potential solution to waning Oscar interest, though, lies in the hands of Academy voters. What if, just this once, they voted as Best Picture a movie that critics and audiences agreed on—the brainy blockbuster that turned an unfilmable book into an unforgettable feast for the senses? The future of the Oscars could be saved by Dune winning Best Picture on Sunday night.
Fans and newbies
The gulf between what audiences and critics seem to want from a movie like Dune is nothing compared to the one between what superfans and newbies want. As with any mega-budget adaptation of a beloved sci-fi or fantasy epic, one of the two groups is going to be disappointed. Dune, however, isn’t just any sacred text; it’s the sacred text. Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, you name it—essentially every messianic narrative of the last 50 years owes a deep debt to Dune. Disappointing the serious Dune-heads would be unforgivable, especially since that’s already happened several times—most dramatically with David Lynch’s 1984 film, which the director has since disowned. But is it even possible to please fans and casual viewers when the source material is so legendarily impenetrable as to render the conceit of “casual viewing” a paradox?
Ask a duner what Dune is about and you might get an uninterrupted 45-minute response. It’s a sprawling, 800-page, anti-imperialist allegory, packed with intergalactic mythologies and a lot of weird nonsense that people have been getting high to for generations. Read any random page, and your eyes may glaze over or pop out, depending on the page.
Here’s my most compact attempt at summing up the plot. Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son to noble Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), may be humanity’s Chosen One, whose bloodline has been subtly steered over millennia by a secret society that Jessica is a part of, the Bene Gesserit. (If goofy sci-fi phrases chafe your ears, strap in!) Paul’s heroic journey takes him from his home planet Caladan to the harsh desert planet Arrakis, where a shadowy emperor has installed Duke Leto to harvest something called “spice,” a psychoactive substance that makes interstellar space travel possible. Arrakis natives known as Fremen resent being exploited and oppressed for the abundance of their natural resources, and they may just have to do something about it.
Did I mention there are enormous sandworms?
This is hard sci-fi, and it’s a lot to ask viewers to understand. Fortunately, Denis Villeneuve made a movie that viewers can merely almost understand and still love. The director somehow found a way to help newbies get through his Dune without holding their hands. Villeneuve, who cowrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, wisely halved the book into two movies, and uses economical storytelling to make the densest material not feel like reading a book. For instance, David Lynch’s Dune starts with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) talking directly to camera for two minutes straight, while the new version axes Princess Irulan entirely (Florence Pugh will play her in the sequel) and opts for a vivid depiction of life on Arrakis—narrated by a Fremen named Chani (Zendaya)—nodding toward what lies ahead for the planet.
This intro reveals key concepts and themes without getting lost in the weeds, and things continue in this fashion for the duration. Villeneuve doles out his exposition in breadcrumbs not blocks, leading the audience on, further and further, until about halfway through the movie. At this point, both rookies and old hands alike finally know everything they need in order to sit back and soak in the grand cinematic spectacle of the setup paying off, without having to actively keep up.
Theaters and streamers
Dune is the quintessential pandemic movie. It was designed to be seen in theaters—perhaps during one of the brief lulls in 2021 when it felt safe to go—and it enriches with repeated viewings—perhaps on HBO Max, where it premiered on the very same day. It did well in both formats.
It’s impossible to appreciate Villeneuve’s polite insistence that audiences see his film in theaters without actually seeing it that way. Everything about his movie looks, sounds, and feels much too massive to be contained within one’s home. Every sweeping landscape shot drips with grandeur. Every booming symphonic note projects immensity and menace in equal measure. Every penny of the $165 million budget is accounted for onscreen.
Dune is what going to the movies is all about: pulpy adventure set pieces, major movie stars with memorable character beats, and sensory overload done right. What takes the movie to the next level, however, is that it is also utterly immersive. The world-building is so expertly constructed that, no matter where in the galaxy a scene might take place, viewers get a sense of what the territory must look like just beyond the frame, and that another equally absorbing movie might also be taking place there. Astro-ninjas descend from the sky, and you immediately accept it. Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) mentions something called a sand compactor and you think, “That sounds like something that would exist here,” and then several scenes later, of course, what must be a sand compactor appears in action.
Watching Dune in theaters is a thrill ride, but watching it again at home turns it into a thrill playground, to explore at your own pace.
Parts and wholes
Once Warner Bros. officially signed off on a Dune sequel, due in 2023, the film’s title changed to Dune: Part One. Some critics have since cited its “unfinished” feel as a reason not to love it. However, despite the film’s last line being, “This is only the beginning,” Dune tells a complete story. The arc of House Atreides harvesting spice on Arrakis comes to an end, and leaves Paul Atreides at a pivotal point in the path on which he’s headed. There is no reason that the film we’ve seen shouldn’t be recognized on its own terms, rather than through the Lord of the Rings Oscar lens of waiting until it’s over to award its makers their flowers. Dune’s achievements are apparent enough already.
It’s strange that a movie with 10 nominations—second only to The Power of the Dog‘s 11—would be seen as a total underdog, but Dune is exactly that. The chances of Villeneuve’s masterful adaptation nabbing top honors have been written off in the trades as negligible.
But a Best Picture win is what it deserves. It would be like if Mad Max: Fury Road had won in 2016 instead of Spotlight, which six years later seems like how things should have played out. (Spotlight is a great film; Mad Max: Fury Road, like Dune, is a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.)
A Dune win would merge popular and critical acclaim into a singular commodity, rewarding ambition and vision over more typical Oscar bait. It would be the kind of shakeup that keeps moviegoers interested in award shows for the next decade. The bottom line is this: If voters can’t expand their current conception of what “Best Picture-worthy” means, it could be the hill—or dune, if you will—that the Academy’s relevance finally dies on. And it won’t be salvaged with a sequel.