Fear Is the Mind Killer

How the Snyder Cut and HBO Max fix Dune’s biggest problem

Challenging. Long. Possibly setting up a sequel we'll never see? This is the new normal for big sci-fi movies on HBO Max.

Warner Bros

The biggest shock about Zack Snyder’s Justice League wasn’t that that it was actually kind of good, it was that over a million people watched the Snyder Cut in its first weekend — and some of them even finished the 4-hour epic.

Without a doubt, the Snyder Cut benefited from its straight-to-streaming release on HBO Max. Regardless of the film’s merits (or unique triumphs relative to public revisionism), it’s impossible to imagine the film getting this big of a reaction if it had premiered in theaters instead. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a difficult pop science fiction movie that actually came out at the perfect time and in the perfect way.

The fact that this overly long, tricky epic — streaming on a B-list platform — connected with mass culture is a good sign for another big sci-fi epic. Dune. Here’s why the Snyder Cut sets up the new Dune for mainstream dominance.

Even before Covid-19, nobody believed that Denis Villeneuve’s new version of Dune was destined to be a blockbuster slam-dunk. For all its popularity with a certain type of audience, Dune is extremely weird and hard to explain, making its mass cultural appeal pretty hard to predict.

David Lynch’s Dune was certainly marketed as a mainstream sci-fi/fantasy epic, but in 1984, it’s not like there’s really an established audience for that kind of thing. After Star Wars, anything that wasn’t Star Wars, but felt a little bit like Star Wars, nearly always failed to live up to Star Wars.

Chris Foss science fiction artwork. Foss was a concept artist on the Jodorowsky Dune that was never complete. Guardians of the Galaxy’s spaceship design was an outgrowth of Foss’ influence.Getty

Forty years later, this is oddly still true. When it comes to mainstream outer space sci-fi movies, you kind of either have to embrace the Star Wars comparison (Guardian of the Galaxy, the J.J. Abrams Star Trek) or actively know your movie will be perceived as anti-Star Wars (Arrival, Prometheus). This isn’t fair, and certainly doesn’t represent the entire spectrum of good science fiction films, but if we’re only talking about Marvel-level mainstream appeal, science fiction movies set-in-space and released after 1977 are kind of already playing behind the 8-ball.

Lynch’s Dune is no exception, and other than the relative scrappiness of the Trek franchise (which predated Star Wars) it’s really tough to point to an outer-space-heavy, big sci-fi movie that was ridiculously popular and somehow wasn’t compared favorably to Star Wars. From cult-classics like The Last Starfighter (1984) to mainstream hits like Starship Troopers (1997), living in the shadow of Star Wars is tough. Avatar (2009) might be the outlier here, but let’s face it, it really is an outlier.

Sci-fi/fantasy movies can often crush at the box office (Lord of the Rings, Marvel) but if your movie is an epic set in space, you’re kind of working with a popularity deficit. Even Star Wars suffers from its own success, which is probably why being on streaming right now is so good for the galaxy far, far away. I mean, can you imagine if The Mandalorian had been a one-off movie like Solo?

The MandalorianLucasfilm

The point is, Dune is a big-ass space movie that posits itself as the anti-Star Wars. Luke Skywalker leaves a desert planet to go on to a great adventure. Paul Atreides begins his adventure on a backward desert planet and doesn’t really mess around with space much after that. Dune goes big by going small. Star Wars goes big by being really easy to like. Dune has several characters with concubines, but also political spouses who they do not love. There’s incest in the book sequels. Everyone is addicted to a space drug called “the Spice,” which also helps with space travel.

For those who loved the shades of grey in Game of Thrones, this all might sound appealing and familiar. But the ethical message of Dune makes the supposedly gritty Thrones look like a bedtime story. Unlike Lord of the Rings, there’s not a real clear “good versus evil” message here. And because most mainstream moviegoers don’t like muddled ethical messages in their epics, that makes Dune a hard sell at the box office. Dune isn’t being marketed as “The Godfather in Space,” even though it totally should be. It’s being marketed, even if on accident, as a Star Wars-y thing.

Dune presents itself as a Hero’s Journey narrative, but the trick is, it’s not. This makes it hard to love at first. Dune is awesome, but it’s not populist. To his credit, Lynch knew this and tried to make his movie as weird as possible. The SyFy Channel version of Dune in 2000 was more faithful, but even less accessible to the layperson.

Dune is the anti-Star Wars because it’s going to make you work really hard to understand what’s going on, and even harder to figure out what it’s supposed to mean. Conventionally, this is why somebody might say Dune is “deep,” but that’s not really the point. The point is, it’s hard to like because it’s not simple. Without being too rude, Dune is deeper than Star Wars, but that’s not a very high bar.

A lot of the barriers to entry to Dune could be applied to the Snyder Cut, too. It wasn’t really a cut-and-dried superhero team-up story. It had a kind of unhappy ending. Various things didn’t hold your hand and tell you how to feel about the plot points. Had it been released in theaters, the Snyder Cut probably would have been a curiosity. But because we all got it on HBO Max, the medium became the message.

Dune is also similar to the Snyder Cut in another specific way: it might end on a cliffhanger that will never be resolved. Villeneuve frequently claims that he wanted to adapt the first Frank Herbert Dune book into two films, not one. But as far as we know, only one movie is coming out. When the straight-to-HBO Max strategy was announced for Dune, Villeneuve was publicly against it. In an op-ed for Variety he wrote this:

“Warner Bros.’ decision means “Dune” won’t have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable and piracy will ultimately triumph. Warner Bros. might just have killed the “Dune” franchise”

He might be right, but, paradoxically, what Villeneuve is missing is that because Dune is hitting HBO Max directly, more people might watch than would have during a theatrical release. There’s oddly less risk now of Dune having crossover appeal outside of hardcore sci-fi fans.

Will the sci-fi spice of Dune flow on HBO Max hard enough to get it a sequel? If everybody keeps in mind that the only character who exists in all the books is Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, then maybe Dune sequels will become a no-brainer.

Dune hits HBO Max on October 1, 2021.