The great hope for the future of big, outer-space-centric science fiction cinema relies on Dune. It could be the next Star Wars, it could be like the next Lord of the Rings. Or it could face a level of scrutiny that could work against it.
Other than The Fellowship of the Ring — or maybe the first Alien prequel, Prometheus — large, big-studio sci-fi or fantasy that wasn't a superhero film, Star Trek, Star Wars, has rarely been this highly anticipated by the zeitgeist at large. Casual sci-fi fans and hardcore Dune readers alike are ready for Denis Villeneuve's version of Dune. And unlike all the Dunes that have come before it, there are three very good reasons to believe this one will work.
[Also read: 3 reasons Dune (2020) should be a TV show, not a movie.]
3. Dune (2020) seems faithful to the books — to a point
If we count the never-filmed Alejandro Jodorowsky version of Dune, only one of the three existing Dune movies is super-faithful to the source material. Jodorowsky took massive liberties with the book, and in infamous documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, he openly admitted to not reading the book before taking the job (and it's unclear if he ever read it at all).
David Lynch's approach was much more reverent to the source material, but studio interference resulted in a heavy-handed approach to the material and an ending (Paul making it rain by magic) that doesn't really have anything to do with the books. The only thing close is the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, but that was 6-hours-long and made a few fairly large changes to the fundamental story. It's the closest thing to "faithful," but that doesn't mean it holds up 20 years later. Six hours for just the first book might also be too much.
Then again, it's possible Dune (2020) might end up being that long, too. Assuming the planned second movie gets made, the entity of Villeneuve's Dune could end up being the same length as the 2000 mini-series. That said, we already know that Villeneuve is making smart changes from the source material of the novel: the role of Liet-Kynes has been reimagined as a woman of color played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, and Villeneuve has gone on record that Stellan Skarsgård's take on the Baron Harkonnen will be unlike anything before. In other words, Villeneuve knows that portraying the Baron as obese and perverse is borderline offensive today. Villeneuve is being faithful to the Frank Herbert material, but he's making changes that will make Dune (2020) richer. Not just different.
2. Warner Bros. seems to be backing Dune (2020)
Because we live in an era of constant speculation about rewrites and reshoots, we tend to get worked-up about behind-the-scenes turmoil before a big movie comes out. Sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. Think about all the different directorial changes on recent Star Wars movies like Solo and The Rise of Skywalker and then think about how those movies were received. (Hint: mixed, to poor.) This isn't to say that every time a movie has turmoil behind-the-scenes it's a bad movie, in fact, sometimes just the opposite. The original 1982 Blade Runner was a horror-story behind the scenes, and yet, it's still one of the best science fiction movies (or regular movies!) ever made.
But we live in a different time now. When there is smoke behind-the-scenes on a big genre movie, that usually means there is fire. It was true with Justice League and it was true with The Rise of Skywalker. So, the fact that we have heard nothing like this regarding Dune (2020) is encouraging. Yes, the second Dune (which is thought to complete the first novel) has not been 100 percent greenlit yet, but that seems to be more of a formality of Covid-19 concerns than anything else. Villeneuve has given a few interviews recently where he referred to doing a few reshoots for Dune. At no point do these sound like studio-mandated reshoots. This all sounds like stuff he wanted to do himself for the sake of making the best movie possible.
1. Mainstream culture is finally ready for Dune (2020)
Twenty years ago, a faithful adaptation of Dune had to air on the Sci-Fi Channel. Today, a faithful adaptation of Dune will (hopefully) hit theaters during a time of year we've come to expect a new Star Wars movie. The idea that Dune is a mainstream movie at all is something geeks would not have believed twenty years ago. What changed? Well, Lord of the Rings helped. So did the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the late '90s or early '00s, it seems reasonable that your average moviegoer couldn't follow the complicated political machinations of the Dune universe over the course of several films. But now, moviegoers are accustomed to the complicated continuity of the Marvel movies, to say nothing of Game of Thrones.
Dune is not simple in comparison to those two franchises, but if you've watched all of Game of Thrones and seen a few Marvel movies, then you're used to remembering what lots of different characters are doing in lots of different locations; particularly if they have over-the-top-sounding names. Everything from Harry Potter to the Star Wars prequels to the recent comeback of complicated and overlapping Star Trek shows has reshaped the way the mainstream thinks about epic science fiction. The world is ready to accept Dune, not as a product that is made for mass consumption, but hopefully, for just being its weird Dune self.
The spice isn't weird anymore, because the weirdoes took over about 10 years ago.
Dune (2020) is still scheduled to hit theaters this December.