Last year when the pandemic was dragging on and theaters were closed, there was some debate on Film Twitter about, what, exactly, a movie even was anymore. If you’re watching things on streaming services at home, they’re still technically movies — the content of the work hasn’t changed — but nonetheless a core component was missing. There are many ways to define a film — they run about 90 minutes to two hours or more, they feature movie stars, etc. — but there’s one aspect to them that’s crucial and, to my mind, irreplaceable: They have to be shown in movie theaters.
Vulture film critic Bilge Ebiri got a decent amount of pushback for this pronouncement — so, what, you’re saying a film I see on TV somehow doesn’t count? — but I completely agree with his take. Yes, if you watch Citizen Kane on TCM, it’s still as much a movie as it ever was. But one of the reasons why movies are movies — what makes them fundamentally different from plays or TV shows or anything else — is that they’re meant to be projected on a big screen. They’re intended to be larger than life, to absolutely knock us on our ass. Whether it’s a romantic comedy or a war picture, movies feel magical when they’re shown in a huge theater on a screen bigger than even your impressive home-viewing setup. We’re supposed to be dwarfed by the movie — we look up at the screen, we get immersed in it.
That’s how cinema has been perceived for about a century and how the majority of its makers think of the work they’re making. Yes, theater patrons can be annoying and, absolutely, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. (And that’s to say nothing of how ableist movie theaters can be.) But anytime I’ve seen something good in the last year and a half, I’ve had the same thought: God, I wish I was seeing this in a theater.
Is that a snobby attitude? I don’t believe so, but I understand why people might think otherwise. And I also realize that it puts me in the same camp as certain filmmakers who go on and on about the “theatrical experience” — the same folks who talk about movies like they’re a religion or higher calling. And nothing’s more annoying than that, right? After all, they’re just… movies.
Except they’re not — they mean more than that to me, and if you feel similarly, you might be on the wavelength of Denis Villeneuve, a director whose films are spectacularly pretentious. But despite their eye-rolling excesses and lumbering sense of significance, his movies have finally worn down my defenses. His are the kind that you need to see in a theater — anything smaller would be insufficient for their thematic and visual hugeness. The guy is fool enough to believe that a large percentage of the population still cares enough about theaters to mount such overblown spectacles. Dune is his latest, and it very much plans to crush you under its boot.
As our own Miles Klee pointed out, Dune is the sort of Dude Cinema that attracts rabidly self-serious film-loving bros — that subsection of cineastes who pledge allegiance to anything that parades its hyper-intense artistry, usually because it involves oppressive brooding or touches on somber themes like death and the existential terror of being alive. Villeneuve could be this club’s patron saint: Ever since his Oscar-nominated 2010 breakthrough Incendies, his fourth feature, a twisty tale of family and war, he’s slowly ascended the Hollywood ladder, merging impeccable style with a lethal amount of chin-stroking self-regard. He doesn’t make empty-calorie blockbusters, you see — he’s making Important Statements, whether those statements are “ordinary people have secrets” (Prisoners) or “war on drugs bad” (Sicario).
With those early films, I wanted to rip my hair out of my head — good god, man, take it down a notch (and while you’re at it, stop using Radiohead songs as a dramatic crutch) — but things turned around for me with 2013’s Enemy, an enjoyably weird little indie starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a guy who discovers he has a double. For once, the pretentiousness was undercut by a dark sense of humor and some genuine strangeness. (Its startling ending doesn’t make any sense, but it gets me every time.)
Since then, either I’ve developed a tolerance for his moody posturing or he’s found better material. Regardless, Arrival was a genuinely thoughtful sci-fi drama about love and destiny featuring an excellent Amy Adams and some cleverly conceived aliens. After that came Blade Runner 2049, one of the most straight-up gorgeous-looking films I’ve ever seen — my god, it was amazing on the big screen — which more than lived up to the legacy of Ridley Scott’s original. Villeneuve is still too consumed with his holy mission of bringing High Art to the masses — we mere slobs should consider ourselves so lucky that he’d deign to try to elevate our meager consciousnesses — but when his films are operating at a high level, which has been often lately, the pompousness is merely part of the overall glorious package.
I have lived my entire life basically ignorant of all things Dune. I never read the Frank Herbert novel, never bothered giving the David Lynch movie a shot until recently. So I didn’t go into the film (which opens October 22nd) with any expectations. But although Villeneuve’s movie is only Part One — if this one does well, he’ll get to make a Part Two — I found myself pretty overwhelmed by the experience. Is it worth seeing on the big screen? Absolutely — and part of the reason is how stupendously pretentious the whole crazy thing is. Remember how everybody talked last year about how Christopher Nolan was single-handedly going to save the theatrical experience because of Tenet? Right, that was dumb — also, Nolan never claimed that — but watching Dune, I wondered if Villeneuve had had that very ambition in mind. This film isn’t the only type of thing cinema can be — and lord knows Dune has its faults — but I’ve so badly missed movies that swung for the fences this aggressively. What some viewers may think is its epic folly is part of the reason I kinda love it.
The film has a story, but it might not be why you see it. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul, an impetuous young man who’s the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), the head of one of the powerful clans that rule the galaxy millenia from now. Long story short, they are sent to Arrakis to supervise the cultivation of melange, a spice that’s incredibly important to the universe. But other clans also want control of that spice, and so war is inevitable. Paul is being trained to be a warrior, with the expectation of taking the reins from his father years from now — like nearly every young male protagonist in a sci-fi film, he’s “the one” — and this first half of Herbert’s book concerns him beginning the path to becoming a man. Also, there are freakin’ huge sandworms.
Dune’s plot is a classic hero’s journey, but for Villeneuve it’s merely grist for what he seems to really care about, which is draping his film in arresting images and ponderous ideas. In his Dune, Paul isn’t just “the one” — he’s the most important “the one” ever. Sci-fi novels can run the risk of being a little leaden — they make intergalactic warfare sound as scintillating as reading an instruction manual — but Villeneuve has no interest in injecting the material with a little zip. If Lynch’s film was a bit goofy, Villeneuve makes absolutely sure nothing in his version is remotely lighthearted. No, sir, each episode of palace intrigue — each little bit of scheming among the different factions in order to gain a strategic advantage over their enemies — is treated with a breathtaking graveness. It would be laughable if it wasn’t delivered with such confidence, the big screen giving the necessary weight to each and every twist.
The performances are equally epic, with everyone from Rebecca Ferguson to Josh Brolin to Charlotte Rampling to Javier Bardem caught up in Villeneuve’s spell. Everything in Dune is mammoth. The spaceships are massive, and the shots of the desert planet of Arrakis stretch out forever, the treacherous environment both utterly beautiful and humbling. If you see Dune in a theater, you’ll rarely feel as insignificant — between the vast battle scenes, the humongous sandworms and the cosmos-size stakes of this showdown, you’re bludgeoned by the scope of the whole thing. You may roll your eyes, but you may also relish the onslaught.
Not surprisingly, Villenueve has made no secret of his belief that what he’s making is Cinema, unhappy that Warner Bros. decided last year to release its upcoming movies, like Dune, on HBO Max at the same time as they open in theaters. “Frankly, to watch Dune on a television, the best way I can compare it is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub,” he lamented. “For me, it’s ridiculous. It’s a movie that’s made as a tribute for the big-screen experience.” Also not surprisingly, some of his fellow directors pushed back:
But those complaints ignore the point Villeneuve is making. I, too, saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time on VHS, and I think it’s the greatest film ever made — but, sorry, that initial experience can’t match seeing it in a theater. Not everyone has access to theaters, which I appreciate. But Stanley Kubrick had the audacity to create such a towering vision with an eye toward people seeing it on the big screen — his intention for how 2001 should be experienced is inexorably woven into the fabric of its making.
The same goes for Villeneuve, which isn’t to say that his Dune comes close to matching 2001. No question he’s among the most pretentious studio directors we have, the kind who makes obnoxious film bros stand up and salute. But just because some of his fans are toxic doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy his passionate attempt to make movies still feel like, well, movies. You have to be a little arrogant to think that the world needs to see your film on the largest screen they can find. But, really, what’s so wrong with being pretentious now and again? The history of cinema is written by filmmakers reaching for greatness that might be just beyond their grasp — the thrill comes from seeing how close they get.