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I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person, but I failed to follow considerable chunks of Denis Villeneuve‘s sci-fi epic Dune, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Friday, having already screened under embargo stateside.
That’s not to say I didn’t have some fun watching it. It’s a visual and aural feast, and will undoubtedly receive numerous nominations in craft and technical categories. But it does leave me wondering if other fairly intelligent people — including members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — will also find the film frustrating, which could prevent it from garnering Oscar recognition beyond below-the-line categories in the way that Villeneuve’s Arrival did five years ago when it garnered picture, directing and screenplay noms to go with five lower-profile mentions.
Dune, which Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth adapted from Frank Herbert‘s 1965 novel of the same name, and which is set in the 102nd century, certainly boasts a formidable cast — one led by Oscar nominee Timothee Chalamet, with supporting turns from Rebecca Ferguson (oddly enough, the 37-year-old plays 25-year-old Chalamet’s mother) and Oscar Isaac (his father), as well as Josh Brolin (his guru), Jason Momoa (his older buddy), Zendaya (the woman of his dreams, literally), Stephen McKinley Henderson, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling, Javier Bardem and the list goes on.
But, as THR‘s chief film critic David Rooney writes in his review out of Venice, the film — with its rapidly-introduced planets, houses, sects, tribes and the like — has only a “semblance of narrative coherence” and “might thrill the Herbert geeks, but will have most everyone else zoning out,” particularly given its lack of resolution even after two-and-a-half-hours. (It is introduced at the start as “Part One”; Villeneuve apparently intends to make a “Part Two” if this one finds a sizable audience.)
There is a school of thought which argues that the novel Dune — because of its length, density, terminology, etc. — is simply unadaptable. Alejandro Jodorowsky attempted to turn it into a film in the mid-1970s, but ultimately aborted his quest; and David Lynch did turn into a film in 1984, only to have it slammed by critics and bomb at the box-office. But this apparently did not deter Villeneuve.
Villeneuve’s Dune almost certainly is going to — and should — receive Oscar nominations for Patrice Vermette‘s production design, Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan‘s costumes, Greig Fraser‘s cinematography, Joe Walker‘s film editing, Hans Zimmer‘s original score and the work of the film’s sound and VFX teams. A directing nom could happen, too, given the scale and complexity of the entire undertaking. But with performance and writing noms less likely, a best picture nom is not a slam-dunk.
That being said, Warners has a huge amount of money invested in Dune — its budget was reportedly $165 million, and many millions more have surely been spent on marketing — and the studio will undoubtedly fight extra hard for a nom in the top category in a season in which the Academy is going back to a guaranteed 10 slots for best picture nominees. It certainly could pan out — the Academy has shown an increased appetite for sci-fi in recent years, bestowing best pic noms not only to Villeneuve’s Arrival, but also to Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian (2015), Her (2013), Inception (2010), Avatar and District 9 (2009). But I wouldn’t bet the planet on it.
Dune will be released in the U.S. on Oct. 22, both by Warner Bros. in theaters and by HBO Max on that streaming platform.
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