DUNE: Ambitious and Oscar-Worthy
“Dune” is a good movie; not a great one, but it should be in Oscar contention.
“Dune” debuted this month to generally positive reviews that weren’t necessarily ebulent. It was praised for its score, its visuals and its sense of action, but many critics had problems with the pacing, and they’re right. The source material of “Dune” is classic sci-fi, in that it’s dense and takes many detours and lengthy explanations, all of which build up to being important to the plot. That’s particularly hard to adapt into film, and while director Denis Villeneuve does a generally good job, it is true that the film loses narrative steam in its last third. It’s a good film with great components.
So while it only has OK reviews, what “Dune” does have going for it is fantastic box office numbers. That’s important. It’s the first movie that’s even a little exciting in terms of its filmmaking to do well in theaters since the COVID-19 pandemic began. That fact is doubly surprising given that “Dune” was simultaneously released on HBOMax, so the high box office numbers means that people really want to go see the film in theaters. It’s the first step in the right direction if studios still care about theatrical release post-pandemic.
With good reviews and great box office returns, Oscar buzz seems inevitable. Yet, it’s not really the type of movie that the Oscars are known to reward. Action movies are rarely nominated for Best Picture if they’re not war movies, and sci-fi Best Picture nominees are even rarer. The ones that do get in are usually exceptional. “Mad Max: Fury Road” managed to score a best picture nomination and quite a few wins, but “Fury Road” has an argument for being the best film of the 2010s. It’s an epic feat of storytelling and visually stunning. “Avatar” similarly made it into the best picture category, despite being a maudlin extra-terrestrial retelling of Disney’s version of an already outdated and inaccurate “Pocahontas” narrative. But “Avatar” made big money. Like, most-money-of-any-movie-ever type of money. “Dune” is unlikely to be one of the best films of the decade, and it’s not breaking any records.
So why nominate Dune?
Well, the Oscars didn’t begin as what they are perceived as now: an elitist event for Hollywood insiders. They used to regularly award some of the most popular movies in America. “Gone With the Wind,” despite all its innumerable faults, had an extremely successful box office, and it won Best Picture. The original “Star Wars” was nominated for Best Picture, as was “Jaws”. “The Godfather” was the top grossing movie the year it debuted, and it won Best Picture.
They’re elitist now because the most popular movies in America got bigger and “stupider” once the blockbuster became the dominant form of making money off of movies in America. They’re also elitist because studios started using the Oscars as a marketing tactic for their best, least enjoyable films, beginning with the harrowing war story told in “Deer Hunter”. “Deer Hunter” is absolutely no fun to watch, but it is very well-made, and it’s that type of inaccessibility that the Oscars would later become known for rewarding.
“Dune”, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of large-scale production that they should be rewarding. The Oscars got in the habit of not rewarding action movies that made a lot of money partly because they became so rote. That’s the type of thinking that led them to snub “The Dark Knight” out of habit. “Dune” may have faults, but none of its faults are due to lack of ambition. While Marvel movies have been following the same formula, using the same market-tested, paint-by-numbers, dirge-like filming style for each film, “Dune” feels like an action movie that was cared for. It’s interesting; it’s obtuse; it’s gorgeously shot. “Dune” forces the audience to actually pay attention, and its audience has been ginormous.
Movies like this should be rewarding for their ambition, not just their payoff. “Dune” takes big swings, and they’re worthwhile. If they want their relevance back, the Oscars should reward it.
Photo Courtesy of CREATIVE COMMONS