We are now (counting possible Thursday night previews) three months out from the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. The film was initially supposed to open in November of 2020 (after Fantastic Beasts 3 got pushed back due to The Crimes of Grindelwald being very “not good”) but then found itself on December 18, 2020. As I wrote two very long years ago, Warner Bros. pitching the film as that year’s court-appointed year-end holiday blockbuster fantasy epic, that year’s Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Avatar, was the very best shot it had at global box office success. Hell, even WB’s Aquaman swam all the way to $334 million domestic from a $72 million debut (along with a stunning $298 million in China and $1.148 billion worldwide) partially due to being the official year-end spectacular of 2018.
Alas, Covid spiked those plans. Legendary’s over/under $160 million, star-studded Dune part one of two (yes, it’s only adapting half of Frank Herbert’s influential tome) will open not on October 1 (the same weekend where Blade Runner 2049 bombed but also where Gravity, Annabelle, Gone Girl, The Martian and Joker broke out) but on October 22. The reason for the move was simple: getting away from both No Time to Die (opening in the UK in late September and in North America on October 8) and getting away from Hotel Transylvania: Transformania which Sony moved from July 23 to October 1. Don’t laugh, the Hotel Transylvania trilogy has thus far earned $1.3 billion worldwide. Even with the budget, the cast, the source material and Film Twitter treating it like the second coming, Dune is absolutely an underdog.
We were here four years ago, with a Denis Villeneuve-directed sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film that 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 like Star Wars or the Disney animated films. Alas, 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. Harrison Ford hasn’t been a draw outside of Star Wars and Indiana Jones since What Lies Beneath in 2000, and Ryan Gosling has rarely been an opener.
So, even with rave reviews, Blade Runner 2049 earned $93 million domestic and $251 million worldwide. That actually would have been pretty good for an R-rated, 2.5-hour, action-lite, sci-fi tone poem that didn’t cost $160 million. The good news is that Dune has a huge ensemble cast (including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista and many more), a PG-13 and the promise of more action than Blade Runner 2049. The better news is that Warner Bros. (which distributed Blade Runner 2049 in North America while Sony released it overseas) is trying to not bet the proverbial farm on “Hey, it’s a Dune movie!” The first trailer, released with Tenet last August, emphasized sweeping visuals, the ensemble cast and the notion that Chalamet’s Paul Atreides would be a protagonist/marquee character worth following.
However, judging by the second Dune trailer and the IMAX sizzle reel I was able to see the other day, the marketing folks at Warner Bros. have their work cut out for them. I’m not going to ding the various canned EPK quotes offered up in what is clearly destined to be a future Blu-ray featurette or a “For Your Consideration” ad. It’s pretty conventional “everything is awesome” chatter, although I was amused by an out-of-nowhere quote from Hans Zimmer concerning attempts to beef up the film’s female characters and I was chilled by Oscar Isaacs’ comment about digging into Dune and realizing how influential the original novel became. That’s no secret, but Bicentennial Man and John Carter show the dangers of “finally” adapting a text that has been copied and homaged countless times over the decades.
But in terms of the footage we saw, it’s the very definition of “good news, bad news.” Even with IMAX-formatted footage, much of what we saw consisted of almost oppressively tight close-ups amid periodic expansive wide shots. We saw the first several minutes of the film as well as a key first-act action sequence, and the footage played as narratively obtuse as the infamous source material. And that second trailer, mostly culled from the first ten minutes, was oddly less narratively coherent than the initial teaser. More so than the first teaser, the second trailer (which will get an IMAX sneak peak tomorrow night before debuting for general audiences I’m presuming alongside The Suicide Squad), seems to be selling the mere idea of “Hey look, we made a mega-budget, all-star Dune movie!” as its primary hook.
There are hints in that second trailer, which is the primary piece of marketing that most audiences will see, of a “prince of privilege switches sides and aligns himself with the oppressed” plot. That primal story that has resonated in everything from Exodus to Avatar. If there is a third trailer (perhaps timed to the film’s Venice Festival launch or to No Time to Die in late September), I’d suggest leaning hard into that angle. Hell, even if they have to lie a little bit, I’d play up the notion that Chalamet and Zendaya are dueling protagonists whose destinies eventually intermingle. No, I haven’t read Dune and don’t remember much about the David Lynch-directed 1984 bomb or the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel two-parter. But remember that the vast majority of potential moviegoers won’t have read it either.
I was amused to hear Jason Momoa arguing “You’re gonna have a good time!” because he’s the only actor in the trailer seemingly enjoying himself. He’s loose and energetic, while seemingly cutting loose in his action beats. I was reminded of True Detective season two which went off the rails partially because everyone talked like Matthew McConaughey’s cryptically poignant Rusty Cohle from season one. Likewise, George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels featured a majority of characters who all talked like Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi from A New Hope. If all of the Mystery Men sounded like Wes Studi’s Sphinx, it wouldn’t have been quite as funny. If Momoa turns out to be the one offering relatable gee-whiz energy amidst a cast of “very serious drama” performers, then he’ll be the MVP in a walk.
We weren’t shown the Dune footage to scrutinize the film’s commercial potential. I loved Sicario and Arrival, liked Enemy, didn’t care much for Blade Runner 2049 and felt Prisoners was a strong effort undone by a single narrative flaw (we get a huge clue as to culpability before the big second-act confrontations). But that I liked Blade Runner 2049 less than my peers (yes, I will give it a second chance sometime between now and October 22) doesn’t mean that its box office failure retroactively negates the critical raves. I’m 84% certain that Dune will get generally positive reviews regardless of whether I like it. I hope it’s good, but it will need more than Film Twitter adoration to commercially justify a sequel. And right now WB and friends need to be wary of preaching to the converted.
Look, in a world where audiences almost never show up for “new to you” biggies in theaters, and where even vaguely well-known IP is worthless sans an active interest in the movie itself and/or a marquee character, Dune was a commercial long shot even before Covid. Barring a miracle, Dune was no more likely to get anywhere near $1 billion worldwide than was Tenet, Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984 or other allegedly surefire Covid-era biggies. Warner Bros. lost, through no fault of their own, their best shot at making Dune the next Lord of the Rings. Now they have to hope that having at least some of the must-have hooks for non-nostalgia hits (ensemble cast, marquee director, high-concept hook, good reviews and a promise of escapism) counts for at least a modest win. Otherwise, well, at least it’s allegedly a lot cheaper than John Carter.