'Dune': The Power and Peril of an All-Star Cast

Every so often a film comes along that is so packed to the brim with a cast of all-stars that you can’t help but think it’s either going to be one of the greatest films to ever hit your eyeballs, or a disappointment so massive that it’ll hurt just to think about lost potential. Both considerations lean on the hyperbolic side of things, but the fact remains that there is something both exciting and worrying about packing a film full of so many big names that it’ll be a wonder if any of them truly get a chance to shine. 

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is shaping up to be such a film. It began production Monday, with Warner Bros. confirming the sprawling cast that will be filming in Budapest, Hungary, and in Jordan.

Based on the classic science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert, considered by many of be a masterwork of the genre, Villeneuve’s Dune has been grabbing headlines with its casting announcements for the past few months. The assembly of talent includes Timothee Chalamet, Jason Momoa, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgard, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen and Stephen Henderson. It may be the most star-studded release on the schedule this side of Avengers: Endgame, only this film will have to work a lot harder to earn a fan base, even with the names attached.

Going by box office and critical analyses over the past decade, the star-driven movie system is largely over. Audiences go see movies because they’re based on familiar IP, promise new worlds and narratives, or have a connection to a larger fandom. Rarely do big-budget movies succeed on the merit of their casts alone. While the '90s were a goldmine for films that had names like Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Brad Pitt behind them, now these stars struggle to open films that aren’t associated with a franchise. The Mission: Impossible series may still be earning bank, but Cruise’s star power couldn’t turn Rock of Ages (2012), Oblivion (2013) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014) into the box office juggernauts they once would have been. Likewise, Suicide Squad (2016) managed to become a breakout hit, but it was Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn that most audiences were talking about and not Smith’s Deadshot. While star names could once save even some of the most critically maligned films, now it’s about character names.

Venom carries more weight than Tom Hardy, Deadpool more weight than Ryan Reynolds. Even Chris Pratt, who has managed to become a name that at least piques general audiences interest in a movie, is still secondary to seeing dinosaurs and Marvel characters, as is evident by the poor audience turnout to the Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Passengers (2016) that would have once been the biggest movie of 1998. So what’s the benefit of an all-star cast today when Avatar (2009) can become the highest-grossing movie of all time or Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) can become an $853 million hit without a single major box office star?

While general audiences may not simply show up to a movie because of the cast anymore, there is a level of prestige, both real and imagined, that we associate with films that have so many big names in tow. And we’re not just talking two major names and a number of recognizable supporting faces a la Magnolia (1999) or Serenity (2019) just to provide the other side of that quality coin. We’re talking movies packed with stars who have predominantly been leads in major money-makers before. For film buffs, even those who prefer the Magnolia route that sees stars Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore surrounded by the tremendous talents of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and William H. Macy, there’s a sense of great expectations that comes with cast of all-stars. That expectation of prestige can be in terms of awards consideration, or something more broad, like genre prestige. Films like The Longest Day (1962), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) stand out as Hollywood classics that used their star power to make their mark. Contemporary films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Crash (2004) and The Departed (2006), and American Hustle (2013), with Scorsese’s film being far and ahead the best out of that lot, have fared well with audiences and critics. But films like The Monuments Men (2014), Triple 9 (2016) and Collateral Beauty (2016) couldn’t make their star power amount to much in either awards or genre prestige. Of course, there’s always been a precedent for these kinds of star-powered disasters, Earthquake (1974), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), but they seem much more common now, or at least widely reported on.

Perhaps the challenge of all star-led movies is best summed up by two films, both money makers that are neither unwatchable nor a masterpiece, but films that utilized their massive casts quite differently: The Expendables (2010) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017). There was little doubt that The Expendables was going to be one of the greatest action movies ever made. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, Terry Crews and Mickey Rourke. It was going to be that film, the action movie that brought '80s and '90s action into the 21st century. Instead, it was a film that didn’t really serve any of its action icons, each of whom could have handled the requirements of the plot on their own. And more than that, it felt overly crowded to the point where no one really got a chance to stand out. The sequels added even more action icons and the problems increased. There simply wasn’t enough story for all those muscle men. Murder on the Orient Express didn’t have much expectation weighing on it. It was a re-adaptation that no one had really been begging for. The cast consisted of a global collection both box office stars and awards season stars of the stage and screen featuring Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman and Johnny Depp. With that many names, Murder on the Orient Express seemed destined to go off the rails. But it didn’t. Instead Branagh provided this cast of characters with a script worthy of each actor, balancing character-specific moments and deaths in a way that allowed the cast to truly create an ensemble piece in which no one felt unnecessary or miscast, regardless of the rating we’d place on their overall acting abilities.

There may be something to the fact that many of our most successful ensembles balance aspects of romance, action, mystery, crime and comedy in a way that allows each actor to find and sell their strengths in their area of expertise, rather than having the whole cast go all in on one element. This is also why The Departed stands out as one of the great all-star ensembles, one that gave every actor, even Mark Wahlberg who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, a place to utilize their greatest performance strengths without a sign of weakness. Villeneuve isn’t at Scorsese’s level yet when it comes to balancing characters, but he’s certainly proven himself as one of our contemporary greats. I'm on the optimistic side of things and think if anyone can make a film packed with this many stars work it’s Villeneuve and his co-writers, Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts. Still, it’s worth reflecting on where star-driven ensemble films of the past have succeeded and failed. Dune, which comprises political intrigue, action, mystery, science-fiction and romance, may already be ahead of other all-star ensemble films in regards to delivering enough content for its cast to handle. To quote the tagline for David Lynch’s Dune (1984), “You are about to enter a world where the unexpected, the unknown and the unbelievable meet.” While such a meeting may not have worked for Lynch, it may be just the thing that allows Villeneuve to make good on the promise of Dune’s ever-growing cast.