News and Commentary

‘Dune’ And The Art of Big Screen Beauty

“Dune” has shown us a better way forward that honors art. If only the entertainment industry will listen.

A funny thing happened on the way to the cineplex’s demise.

For months, already declining theater revenues were struck a near-fatal blow by the Delta variant resurgence. As studios and theaters wrestled over what movie-viewing would look like in a post-pandemic world, it seemed inevitable that streamers would triumph. To the degree that films would still have theatrical runs, it would be largely out of a sense of obligatory nostalgia — bonus bucks on top of the real money, which is using premium content to draw audiences to platforms where the piece of entertainment they’re watching is never just about itself, but also about its interconnectedness to a cornucopia of cinematic worlds.

This Easter egg ties into that bit of dialogue from an earlier movie that references a cameo in a prequel which leads to an after-credits scene that sparks more excitement in viewers than the thing they actually plunked down money to watch. You can click the stop button any time you like, but you can never leave.

Then came “Dune.” Suddenly, even though the film was immediately available to stream at home on HBO Max, the most niche and impractical big screen experience, Imax, experienced a resurgence. According to a quarterly earnings report, “Dune” scored Imax’s biggest October opening weekend ever, bringing in $17.8 million, or 20% of the film’s total weekend haul. Based on the movie’s success, the company had the best October in it’s history. “Dune” was no slouch in standard theaters either.

What that tells us is that people didn’t just want to see “Dune”; they understood they should watch it in as immersive an environment as possible. To further bolster this point, unlike the recent big Marvel releases — which cratered in their second and third weekends in theaters — and despite facing stiff competition in the midst of pandemic fear, “Dune” had moderate legs.

Given how few audience members are familiar with the 1965 novel and how meditative director Denis Villeneuve’s work is known to be, what “Dune” offered was the opposite of Marvel’s wink-wink-nod-nod fan service. Ticket buyers understood they were going to see something intellectually demanding, yes, but also beautiful.

As Hannah Long writes in conservative journal The Dispatch, “Audiences will put up with a lot of weirdness for a friendly, earnest epic that doesn’t equate art with ugliness. ‘Dune’ is strange but beautiful (i.e. not ugly), and it’s spectacular…It’s a film designed for a big, big screen and audiences have recognized this in their consumption choices.”

But “Dune’s” beauty goes deeper that the visual. It’s a movie that has something to say that is bigger and more complex than simply “patriarchy is bad” or “systemic racism is a problem.” Though author (and, incidentally, former journalist) Frank Herbert based his world on a Muslim paradigm, he asks questions and probes for answers that transcend time, geography, and culture.

What is it in us that searches for a Messiah? What are the wages of placing faith in the wrong one, both for the worshippers and the object of worship? There is no crude allegory to current events here, yet in its openness, “Dune’s” explorations can apply to any society or subgroup, as great cinematic art used to do before it was required to serve the god of “representation.”

Oscar Wilde famously chided in “The Decay of Lying,” “If something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify, our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile and beauty will pass away from the land.”

Today, “narrative” has become a stand-in for “facts” — some activist culture commentator’s tedious tallying to make sure every leftist political interest receives its little checkmark. How tedious is it? Consider Slate’s review of “Dune”:

[Director Denis] Villeneuve may have been aware of some of these [Islam-inspired] themes when he chose to cast African and Black American actors for his movie adaptation, at the time the casting was first announced, this felt like something to be celebrated. Yet when it became clear that the casting of these African and Black American actors was to the exclusion of North African and Middle Eastern actors, many were disappointed. Add to it that the strongest Black performances were for characters who died or who lacked the depth afforded to Paul and his mother, and the choice ultimately felt empty…

Part of this is also Herbert’s fault. By writing a story in which he intended to critique “Western man,” Herbert also centered Western man. Often when critiquing something, one falls into a binary that prevents the very third option that so many have been looking for since decolonization.

Could there be a more soulless example of how to encounter art and evaluate creative work than this excruciating ethnic bean-counting? And yet this is the thumb most of Hollywood is under these days. Is it any wonder then that even the products that are the least imaginatively and intellectually taxing are failing to draw crowds?

“Dune” has shown us a better way forward that honors art. If only the entertainment industry will listen.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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