Getting way too hype for the Oscar possibilities that await Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”…in 2021

We need to talk about the Oscars. No, not this year’s awards that will be presented in a few days’ time, the culmination of several months’ worth of head-scratching decisions, logistical retreadings and general affirmation that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are at a crossroads. That discourse has been beaten with the proverbial golden statuette through many an op-ed, Twitter thread and blog post.

So no, we’re not talking about the 2019 Academy Awards. Nor the 2020 ceremony. If you’ll indulge me, let’s skip ahead to early 2021, where – pending the existence of the human race – it feels increasingly likely that the revival of a certain sci-fi/fantasy property is poised to have the genre’s biggest night at the Oscars since the finale to Peter Jackson’s standard-bearing “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 2004.

[Disclaimer: Yes, I’m aware it’s early 2019 and the 2020 election primaries haven’t happened yet. Yes, I know that you know full well what upcoming movie I’m referring to if you read the headline. Yes, I know Oscars chances are quite possibly the worst prism for analyzing how a movie is shaping up. Yes, I’m asking that you indulge me anyway. OK? OK.]

Hollywood’s latest attempt at producing a respectable cinematic vision of Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” the science fiction staple that blends interstellar Shakespeare with “Star Wars,” is slated to arrive in the fall of 2020. And when it does, something will give way—the end of a filmmaker’s six-movie, Oscar-tinged home run streak or the turning of the tide for an historically inept adaptation that has yet to live up to the source material on the big screen.

With every cog that gets added to this version of “Dune,” however, comes an additional burst of confidence that it’ll end up being the latter. With that being said, let’s run through the reasons why it’s turning out to be an eye-opening production on paper, even for those unfamiliar with the story itself, and why – if it all turns out right – the film could be up for Oscar gold two years from now.

The task: A small one, this ain’t. Herbert’s 1965 opus tells the story of an intergalactic familial feud erupting when the Atreides gain control of the planet Arrakis and its most valuable resource: a drug-like spice that surges natural perception to 11 and that can’t be found anywhere else. “Dune” spans years, contains multiple species and multitudes of characters, and is about as easy to absorb as a physics thesis in a foreign language.

The world-building that Herbert does over the span of a few hundred pages is an artistic feat in and of itself. While appendixes in other books containing historical context and vocabulary codexes are an added luxury, in “Dune” they’re a necessity. In recent years, continuously improving visual effects and sheer will have allowed filmmakers to chip away at the notion that any story on the page is “unfilmable” (See: “Lord of the Rings,” “Watchmen).

But attempting to adapt “Dune” includes the added task of creating a world that feels lived-in and, well, alien, while also not turning off newcomers to the story with nomenclature like Bene Gesserit, gom jabbar, Kwisatz Haderach and Missionaria Protectiva.

Context clues can only get you so far in the world of “Dune,” and there’s too much story to tell, betrayals to reveal and sandworms to ride for directors to get hung up on explaining every detail of it; that’s a dichotomy any film adaptation wouldn’t be able to avoid contending with.

And it’s only part of the the reason the two most high-profiled attempts – Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated mushroom-trip of a movie that fizzled out in the ‘70s and David Lynch’s oft-misguided, somewhat respected 1984 cult classic – are equated more with failure than with success.

“Dune” is as rich in mythology as it is devoid of subtlety in presenting that very mythology; an exercise in readers toiling through the initially supremely vague workings of an unknown universe to reach a rare caliber of narrative nirvana. That makes for a planet-sized task for any director of a potential adaptation to pull off. Speaking of which…

The director: One Denis Villeneuve. Firmly holding a spot as one of Hollywood’s most stylistically distinct auteurs whose filmography has slowly become more ambitious in scope, theme and aesthetic, Villeneuve has also treaded further into cinematic territory where the topography increasingly reflects futuristic sensibilities.

By all accounts, when it was announced at the end of 2016 that Villeneuve was hired as the prodigal son to help usher in an era in which a widely accepted “Dune” film exists, it was next-to-impossible not to succumb to the initial surge of hype. The first trailer had just arrived for his “Blade Runner 2049,” a heroic undertaking in its own right; 10 months later, the 35-years-in-the-making sequel was – wouldn’t you know it? – damn good, cementing Villeneuve as that rare filmmaker who brings just as meticulous and confident an eye to grand stories as he does to intimate ones.

“Blade Runner 2019” was also the latest in a fascinating streak of projects obsessed with analyzing the human condition, while also tending to go to some pretty dark places. Just take a look at Villeneuve’s his recent run of features since 2010, a list that has garnered 17 Academy Award nominations and three wins: “Incendies,” “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049” represent a unique cadre of projects, naturally and steadily ascending like a string of scientific breakthroughs that he can implement in the next, inevitably bigger project. For the better part of the 2010s, Villeneuve has carved out a storytelling niche in showing how secrecy and subsequent discovery affects his characters, who are typically of the fish-way-out-of-water variety.

All the while, Villeneuve has fostered a unique brooding aesthetic that imbues his movies, weaving narratives with just barely enough light at the end of the tunnel for protagonists and the audience to grasp onto. His stories are dark, often brutal, but also parabolic in what they reveal about the tendencies of humanity we tend to keep covered up the most tightly.

Villeneuve’s work on “Dune” (a project he says will, wisely, be split into two films shot back-to-back) in particular will put a cap on a science fiction trilogy that feels almost prophesied. “Arrival” was nominated for Best Picture, the rare sci-fi film to have the distinction, tentacled aliens and confounding plots be damned. In 10 to 15 years, people may very well wonder why “Blade Runner 2049” wasn’t. As for “Dune”…well, to borrow from sports phrasing, that’s why they play the game.

The precedent: Weak, at face value. This is where Villeneuve’s recent work really makes the case that it isn’t too early to be lining up for Part 1 of Denis’s “Dune” (Hey, it’s got a nice ring to it, right?), and to proclaim it as the best movie of the 2020s before the decade gets here.

OK, I kid.

But in reality, Lynch’s and Jodorowsky’s admirable attempts don’t install the same level of nearly-insurmountable expectation for Villeneuve’s impending film as does the very novel they tried to adapt, a novel that many regard as the greatest science fiction book ever published. If anything, the critical and commercial success of “Game of Thrones” – an equally sprawling fantasy epic with a world as far-reaching as its story – provides a bit of a template of the scale that we can expect from “Dune.”

It’s an interesting paradox that will follow Villeneuve right up until the film’s release. While there’s no similar cinematic standard of greatness that he has to be meet a la his toying around with the “Blade Runner” franchise, there’s also seemingly no escaping the age-old adage—the third time has to, should very well be, must be the charm for “Dune” adaptations, right? Certainly when it comes by way of a director who converted many a cinephile who’s pre-“Blade Runner 2049” Critique of Pure Reason made clear that no sequels 10-plus years in the making should work, let alone 35 years.

Worse-case scenario: Villeneuve has spent four to five years during the prime of his powers creating a subpar adaptation of a story beloved by millions, before marching straight into production on another little project by the name of “Cleopatra.”

No pressure, Denis.

The cast: One that would make Quentin Tarantino’s impending “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” blush.

The construction of what has become a ludicrous, bordering-on-practical-joke ensemble for Denis’s “Dune” is what has piqued the interest of pop culture’s lay folks, the ones not invested in this film to begin with, let alone nearly two years before its release.

It began not with a whimper so much as a bang in the form of Timothée Chalamet – he of near-instantaneous fame and Online Stardom – and his signing-on to play the story’s protagonist: the young, unassuming Paul Atreides destined for great things. Physically, it’s tough to think of a better actor well-suited for the role; Herbert describes Paul as having a “face oval….strong bones…hair black-black…thin, disdainful nose; shape of directly staring green eyes…” Chalamet checks off all those boxes.

But the 23-year-old Chalamet also has the necessary acting chops to bring gravitas to a character that sees a pretty remarkable transformation over the course of “Dune.” 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name” garnered him an Oscar nomination—one history may not look too kindly on him losing. The role will also undoubtedly be more physical than anything Chalamet has done yet, but considering the generally-warm reception to recent rumors he could play the next “Batman,” it’s tough not to be confident in him.

If Chalamet’s casting turned some heads, though, follow-up castings over the next few months – particularly since the start of 2019 – has locked a ball-and-chain on our jaws. As of Feb. 21, Denis’s “Dune” is also set to star (deep, deep inhale): Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Dave Bautista, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård and Charlotte Rumpling (exhale).

It’s a veritable who’s-who of a cast that has become the Hollywood equivalent of, “But wait, there’s more!” and further reaching bit-status on social media with each new announcement (there hasn’t been a new one since I started writing this piece, but it wouldn’t have surprised me).

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“Dune” churns on the strength of complicated webs of relationships between its characters, intimate encounters set against the backdrop of alien worlds and technology. If the ensemble of A-listers is Villeneuve ensuring that he doesn’t plan to sacrifice that substance for pure spectacle, all the better. The likes of this cast – one with six nominations among them – could bring potentially Oscar-worthy life to characters whose motives are as muddled as their ambitions, especially under Villeneuve’s direction.

The spice must flow, and so must the celebrity.

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The precedent: Very much there. A year ago, Guillermo Del Toro received some way-overdue love from Academy Award voters when “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture—the first outright sci-fi/fantasy to win the final award on Oscar night since the aforementioned “Return of the King” 14 years prior.

But that isn’t to say the genre hasn’t made its case for Best Picture between 2004 and 2018. Seven other stories with fantastical, scientifically fictional premises were nominated, and “Avatar” came real close to being the victor in 2010. All those nominees along with “Avatar” – “District 9,” “Inception,” “Her,” “Gravity,” “The Martian” and Villeneuve’s own “Arrival” – are among the most memorable moviegoing experiences of the last decade-and-a-half. And they’re all tethered to Earth or humanity in some way or another. Peter Jackson’s triumph in 2004 proves that shouldn’t be an obstacle for an excellent film adaptation of “Dune,” which can’t be excellent unless it adopts the same immense scale of world-building and transporting storytelling that continues to make Herbert’s novel a classic.

Done right, it would rival Peter Jackson’s “Rings” movies, and any other of those nominees in terms of sheer new mythology.

It should be noted all of those Best Picture nominees arrived after the 2009 Oscars, when the Academy decided to change the game up in a major way after “The Dark Knight’s” martyred snub and expanded the field from five to as many as 10 nominees. With genre films generally receiving more love from an increasingly younger, more diverse Academy (think “Get Out,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Hell or High Water”), the 2021 Oscar stage is even more likely to be adorned by Villeneuve’s footsteps.

Wait, are we just talking about Best Picture? Though that’s where the conversation naturally goes first—no. If recognition by nomination is any indication, Villeneuve’s filmography is held in high esteem by the industry at large.

Four of the auteur’s past five films have been nominated for Best Cinematography, and though frequent collaborator Roger Deakins won’t be teaming up with Villeneuve for “Dune,” another Oscar nominee is stepping behind the camera in the form of Greig Fraser (“Rogue One,” “Lion,” “Foxcatcher” and “Zero Dark Thirty” scatter Fraser’s recent credits).

His films have also been nominated for the occasional other technical Oscar; Sound Mixing here, Film Editing there. The screeching of an Arrakis sandworm, dronings of a stars-spanning ship and the interweaving of multiple narratives into a larger story are aspects of “Dune” that prove Denis’s film could make a run at those again, as well as another Visual Effects Academy Award (“Blade Runner 2049” won in 2018), given the extraordinary eye candy  that will have to be conjured up.

Notably absent from the Oscar history of Villeneuve’s films, though, are nominations of acting performances, though turns by Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Hugh Jackman and others in the director’s movies certainly made for strong cases, and possibly some omissions that will become more noticeable as time goes on. Given the components of the still-in-progress cast of “Dune,” and its various individual actors not only respected but also recognized by the Academy in the past, Denis’s “Dune” could break that streak, although performances in genre movies are rarely honored at the Oscars, Heath Ledger’s diamond-in-a-mountain-of-rubies work as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” notwithstanding.

As for other Oscars “Dune” could contend for—the film already has several Oscar-nominated hands on-board the project down the ladder, including when it comes to costumer design, editing and production design. A score composer has yet to be announced, though you’d be wise to put your money on your friendly neighborhood BRAAAAAHM BRAAAAHMster Hans Zimmer being an inevitability.

When it comes to screenplay, which “Arrival” notched a nomination for in the original variety, “Dune” also represents a major, early player, based on the strength of Herbert’s novel alone. Along with Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth are cowriters, the latter of the trio a five-time nominee himself.

All told: Villeneuve’s films have been recognized with Academy Award nominations more or less across the board, save for the acting categories. With “Dune” set to be the biggest test for the filmmaker in terms of sheer scale, there’s no reason to think that wouldn’t continue in 2021, with some individual performances being honored to boot.

The counter-argument: Yes, OK, after several hundreds words making the case, believe me when I say that trying to predict a film’s Oscar chances for a year in which some of the top contenders we haven’t even heard of yet is a task bordering on lunacy. I promise, my head feels fine.

We could go through some of the movies that might have already been announced for 2020 that Denis’s “Dune” could be up against in a Best Picture race, but it makes more sense to focus on the fact that “Dune” might be joined in the race, or even pushed out of it, by another impending sci-fi epic.

12 years after the original, James Cameron is expected to release “Avatar 2,” the first in a series of sequels that will most likely dominate pop culture discourse in the early half of the 2020s. Given the Best Picture nomination of “Avatar” and Cameron’s tendency to continue pushing the fold of what new technological frontiers cinema can embark on – something the Academy recognizes more often than not – it’s fair to even make the argument that his sequel has a better way-too-early case for a Best Picture nod than Denis’s “Dune.”

Consider this, then: Villenueve, as previously mentioned, is planning to split “Dune” up into two parts. Presumably, Part II would release the following fall, in October or November of 2021. In the vein of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s fair to assume, based on Oscar narratives of years past, that the Academy may hold off on recognizing Denis’s two-part project until early 2022, when the second part of the film might be a contender. After all: “Return of the King” won a record-tying 11 Oscars on the evening of Feb. 29, 2004, five more than “Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers” combined, despite the trio of movies functioning and breathing as one entity. All three chapters were nominated for Best Picture, and it’s been a fairly universally accepted truth ever since that finally bestowing Best Picture upon “Return of the King” made for an appropriate fairy tale ending to one of the century’s most admirable fairy tale filmmaking feats.

(Or, you can accept that there were a myriad of other political factors at play, in which case you probably wouldn’t be wrong, but you decide to live in that decidedly less-fun world if you want to.)

If history repeats itself, however, and “Dune, Part II” is what is nominated by the Academy….it will possibly also go up against “Avatar 3,” also releasing in 2021. Because, ya know, Cameron can’t let anyone else have all the fun. For all we know, Villeneuve vs. Cameron will be the Oscars war that dominates the 2021 and 2022 awards.

Of course, in our humble place and time of mid-February, 2019, 21 months ahead of the expected release of the first part of “Dune with nary a set photo to fawn over…it’s too early to be certain of anything.

Except that it isn’t too early to be excited as hell.

 

 

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