Reel Streaming: A Tale of Two Dunes
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 57
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The long-anticipated science-fiction epic Dune, the first part of a proposed two-film series directed by Denis Villeneuve, debuted simultaneously in U.S. theaters and on distributor/co-financer Warner’s HBO Max streaming platform on October 22. What followed was a warm reception from both critics and audiences. The box office was positive, too, as the film has rung up a very respectable $69.4 million at the domestic box office after 10 days following a pandemic delay of nearly a year.
Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve’s Dune is the second feature film based on Frank Herbert’s popular and influential 1965 novel—we’ll talk about the first film a little later—and its source material is as sprawling and daunting a work as you’ll find in the sci-fi canon. At nearly 1,000 pages, Dune is set thousands of years in the future, when humankind is part of an interstellar empire of different planets and species. The primary narrative revolves around a royal family, the House Atreides, led by its noble son, Paul. And that story achieves cosmic proportions when the Atreides take control of the desert planet Arrakis, home to a rare spice that provides the means of intergalactic travel, expanded sensory perception and an extended lifespan. Not surprisingly, it’s the most prized possession in the universe and the “MacGuffin” that lies at the center of Dune, its dozen-plus literary sequels (penned by Herbert and, later, by his son Brian and sci-fi novelist Kevin J. Anderson) and the aforementioned pair of Hollywood films.
The origins of the just-released Dune date back to December, 2016, when Legendary Entertainment acquired the film and TV rights for novel Dune, which prompted Villeneuve immediately to begin talks with the studio to direct a film version. Coming off the large-scale sci-fi theatrical projects Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), not to mention being a serious fan of the novel, Villeneuve’s positioning was perfect. Within a year-and-change, the deal was made for him to direct and co-write Dune. And if all went well critically and commercially with the first part, a second installment to the epic story was on the table.
With a serious and skilled cast that included Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Villeneuve and company went into production in March, 2019.
Putting commercial considerations aside, Dune means serious business; it is a solemn and sweeping affair that fulfills all the aesthetic requirements necessary for a huge-budget Hollywood sci-fi epic, while maintaining a sense of human-scale intimacy and intensity. In other words, it looks awesome and delivers on what could be considered dense or even difficult material. Indeed, Villeneuve’s take on the novel captures Herbert’s themes of colonialism and feudalism (among other “isms”) and gingerly places them into the context of today’s world.
As for the performances, Stellan Skarsgård’s Brando-in-Apocalypse Now take on the villainous Baron Harkonnen is stellar, and Chalamet brings just the right amount of frustrated wonder and longing to his role of a young man on the brink of a divine breakthrough.
As for Dune Part 2, things are looking good for those in House Atreides fighting for survival on Arrakis. Last week, Legendary Entertainment ensured that the spice will continue to flow with an announcement that a sequel has been officially green-lit. Unlike the first entry, the second film will probably have an exclusive theatrical run prior to its ancillary rollout to the streamers. The hope is that there won’t be a world-wide pandemic to schedule around and that, a couple of years down the line, audiences will be wholly supportive of seeing the film in theaters.
Villeneuve, who estimates that the earliest he could begin shooting would be the fall of 2022, acknowledges that although a lot of work has been done already regarding design, scripting, casting and so on, he still has plenty to do.
“I will try to face that challenge because it’s important for me that the audience sees Part 2 as soon as possible,” he told The Hollywood Reporter on October 28. “It’s not a sequel where it’s another episode or another story with the same characters. It actually has direct continuity to the first movie. It’s the second part of the big, huge movie that I’m trying to do. So, the sooner, the better.”
Mark your calendar: Dune: Part 2 is officially scheduled to open in theaters on Oct. 20, 2023.
Would that the tale of that other theatrical film version of Dune had ended so optimistically. But the story of the first film of Dune from 1984, written and directed by David Lynch, headed off in a far different direction.
Lynch had become a cult superstar with his first feature, the 1977 midnight movie sensation Eraserhead. The film’s success on the underground circuit immediately lined him up for the historical drama The Elephant Man, based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man in Victorian London. It was produced by Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch immediately after he viewed Eraserhead, reportedly embracing the young filmmaker and declaring, “You’re a madman! I love you! You’re in!”
Released in 1980, The Elephant Man was a critical and commercial smash, snagging eight Academy Award nominations (it didn’t win any), lining up Lynch for what seemed to be a substantial Hollywood career.
Basking in Elephant’s glow, and clearly at a crossroads of his young filmmaking career, Lynch was approached by George Lucas to helm the third film in his Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi (1983), which he turned down. But then he was offered the opportunity to write and direct another big-budget sci-fi epic by an Italian impresario trying to quickly crank out his own version of Star Wars. The producer was Dino de Laurentiis, and that film would be Dune.
De Laurentiis’ and Lynch’s Dune cost a then-staggering $45 million to produce. It was quickly rejected by critics, fans and the domestic box office, where it grossed a disastrous $27 million. A few years later, distributor Universal Studios issued an extended version of the film for the television syndication market that featured nearly an hour of unused footage and new narration, and that, too, was poorly received. Lynch was so unhappy with the alterations that he had his name removed from the extended cut, which carries the name of “Alan Smithee” as the director and “Judas Booth” as the screenwriter. (The latter was a name Lynch invented to not-so-subtly announce his feelings of betrayal.)
“I always say, Dune is a huge gigantic sadness in my life,” Lynch said in a 2019 interview in the UK. “I did not have final cut on that film. Total creative control, I didn’t have it. The film is not the film I would’ve made had I had that final control. It’s a bit of a sadness.”
As for the film itself, well, it certainly has a distinctive look, with its colossal, steam punk-styled sets, bizarre costuming and baroque make-up. Not so impressive are the rather cheesy space travel and battle sequences, the hard-to-follow script and the not-wholly-enthusiastic cast, which features a lackluster Kyle MacLachlan as the messianic hero Paul Atreides, and a pustule-covered Kenneth McMillan and cod piece-wearing Sting as the chief baddies. It also included Lynch stock players Brad Dourif and Jack Nance (Erasherhead, himself!) acting weird for weirdness’s sake. Dense, confusing and poorly paced, Lynch’s Dune could never be mistaken for a Hollywood film with broad appeal.
The film gods had other things in mind for David Lynch, though, as a year after Dune, he wrote and directed the remarkable Blue Velvet (1986), an auteur’s calling card if ever there was one. Also produced by de Laurentiis, it is now regarded as one of the greatest films of the decade.
Actually, now that I think about, the story of David Lynch and Dune does have a happy ending!
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.