Another decade, another adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune. Alejandro Jodorowsky, auteur director whose films include El Topo and The Holy Mountain, recently told French publication Le Point that the first trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s take on Dune was “predictable.” Now…I love Jodorowksy’s Dune, but one thing I took away from it was that his version of the movie is always going to be “the best”, because it didn’t have to actually, you know, exist. The myth of it never has to contend with actual reality. In concept it was wonderful, imaginative nonsense, but the execution – particularly with that nightmare of a cast – could never have lived up to what he had planned. Jodorowsky didn’t even read the book. Jodorowsky adapting ANY book is fairly ridiculous. You can’t compare a big budget film to, say, Holy Mountain. I mean you CAN (“On the one hand, the big budget film has far fewer exploding toads dressed as conquistadors…”) but let’s not dump all over Villeneuve just because he’s a tad more linear than a hallucinogenic Chilean.
A major studio is taking chances putting a lot of money adapting a notoriously difficult book, whose last big-screen adaptation lost money at the box office, under the helm of a director whose last film was also a commercial failure, albeit one most critics loved. The least they can do is make the film comprehensible to as wide an audience as they hope it reaches. IMO, I’m not sure the first trailer even did that.
This isn’t a Scorsese-calling-out-the-MCU situation. No remotely faithful adaptation of Dune that costs this much money could ever be described as a safe bet. Calling this “industrial cinema” underestimates the risk that Legendary and Warner Bros. are consciously taking – as opposed to wrongly believing they have a cash cow on their hands, like DC and Warner with Justice League or Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis with the last Dune film.
As for contrasting industrial and auteur cinema, Jodorowsky’s ideas of what the latter looks like and should aim for are frankly silly. Kubrick himself didn’t try to make every one of his films as grandiose and unconventional as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thing is, Villeneuve’s Dune also somewhat resembles Frank Herbert’s Dune. His artistic sensibilities and grant it life beyond “big Hollywood blockbuster adaptation of sci-fi book.” In fact, much of what Denis Villeneuve does is big-budget art pieces, and I’d argue any commercial failure of any of those projects aren’t really a result of a failure of the industry and auteur together, but improper marketing.
Now, to be fair, a lot of the style on display in the trailer and promotional photos is quite Spartan, and that’s surely not to everyone’s taste. I myself would have preferred something more ornate, part Lynch’s 19th century Europe in space, part Galactic Ottoman Empire, since the Middle Eastern influences in Frank Herbert’s book are almost as common among the Imperium as among the Fremen – imagine Kaitain as Constantinople or Cairo in 1874, or even Arrakeen as Sarajevo or Baku 25 years later. To pick one specific detail, the bladed weapons that we saw I just don’t like. But that’s clearly a matter of choice, not money or imagination.