Update, October 26, 2:24 p.m. ET: After this article was published, production company Legendary Pictures announced that Dune will get a sequel.
This is only the beginning...— Legendary (@Legendary) October 26, 2021
Thank you to those who have experienced @dunemovie so far, and those who are going in the days and weeks ahead. We're excited to continue the journey! pic.twitter.com/mZj68Hnm0A
Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time, and it has a notorious reputation for being unadaptable. Famed auteurs Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch both tried their hand at making a cinematic spectacle out of Dune; the former was never finished, and the latter has been disavowed by its creator. Despite those setbacks, Denis Villeneuve, who had already completed the near-impossible task of making a worthy Blade Runner sequel, stepped up to the challenge. Does Villeneuve’s vision achieve what was once considered unachievable, and does he make Dune work for the big screen? The frustrating thing is that there’s a chance we’ll never know the full picture.
Billed on-screen as Dune: Part One, Villeneuve chose to split Herbert’s sprawling text into two movies. (Even though it focuses only on the first half of the book, the film still has a meaty 155-minute running time.) “This is just the beginning,” Zendaya’s Chani intones to Timothée Chalamet’s moody protagonist Paul Atreides moments before the end credits hit. It’s a statement that doubles as a knowing tease for the audience. But while Villeneuve sets up some really thrilling payoffs for the sequel, including the brief sight of a Fremen riding atop a giant sandworm like it’s a horse, currently there’s no assurance that a follow-up will actually happen. (That, in turn, makes the decision to put “Part One” in the film’s title one hell of a flex.) As if making a crowd-pleasing blockbuster out of dense source material wasn’t enough of an ordeal, Dune faces an uphill battle to turn a profit between a theatrical landscape that hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic, and its distributor’s controversial hybrid release strategy.
Having elected to have its 2021 film slate simultaneously play in North American theaters and on HBO Max, Warner Bros. intentionally handicapped its own box office prospects. Prior to Dune, the studio’s best domestic opening weekend came courtesy of Godzilla vs. Kong, which made just under $32 million. (By comparison, Black Widow, F9, Shang-Chi, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage all grossed upward of $70 million in their opening weekends.) For Dune, a production that reportedly cost $165 million—which doesn’t include the money poured into global marketing—there’s a palpable anxiety that disappointing ticket sales could scrap plans for the second half of Villeneuve’s epic sci-fi saga, turning the would-be franchise into one of Hollywood’s latest and most frustrating what-ifs.
Fortunately, Dune’s early box office numbers are encouraging. The film grossed more than $40 million in its opening weekend—far off the pace of this year’s most lucrative blockbusters from rival studios, but more importantly, the highest debut from a Warner Bros. movie this year. With the day-and-date release strategy limiting its financial ceiling, and with initial box office projections as low as $30 million, Dune is off to a promising start.
That news should bode well for Villeneuve, who’s been critical of Warner Bros. for not just prioritizing the luring of subscribers to HBO Max, but also for betraying the spirit of Dune as a celebration of the theatrical experience. “Warner Bros.’ sudden reversal from being a legacy home for filmmakers to the new era of complete disregard draws a clear line for me,” Villeneuve wrote in a fiery op-ed for Variety last year. “Filmmaking is a collaboration, reliant on the mutual trust of teamwork and Warner Bros. has declared they are no longer on the same team.” The implications of Villeneuve’s scathing missive have already materialized: After two decades of collaborating with Warner Bros., fellow blockbuster auteur Christopher “Timelord” Nolan’s next project is being set up with Universal.
Nolan has also been critical of the studio, but Villeneuve’s shit-talking is on a whole different level considering he’s bashing the same corporate entity that’s still responsible for green-lighting Dune: Part Two. (If it’s any consolation, Warner Bros. has already pledged to release films exclusively in theaters next year, which was Villeneuve’s biggest grievance.) But while Villeneuve’s outrage over Dune’s release appears to be self-defeating—why bite the hand that feeds, and while we’re at it, why bank on a sequel that isn’t actually guaranteed?—he may also be playing the long game.
Given how Warner Bros. caved to the demands of Zack Snyder’s highly vocal online acolytes and actually released the Snyder Cut, a move that reportedly cost the studio an additional $70 million, a similar uproar could occur if Dune doesn’t get its deux (sorry). And it’s not like Dune aficionados wouldn’t have legitimate reasons to be upset: Not only did Dune have the strongest opening weekend of the year for Warner Bros., but it happened despite the film being made available a day early on HBO Max, offering even more incentive for prospective moviegoers to enjoy the spectacle from home. (The studio did the same thing for James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, which limped into a pitiable opening weekend cume of $25.2 million.)
But for all the concerns that Dune will never get the chance to deliver its payoffs—not to mention all the meticulous world-building that Villeneuve establishes—it’s worth noting that Warner Bros. has been publicly supportive of the franchise. In an interview with Deadline this month, Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff stopped just short of making the follow-up official. “Will we have a sequel to Dune?” she said. “If you watch the movie you see how it ends. I think you pretty much know the answer to that.” With that near promise, Sarnoff has essentially backed the studio into a corner—one that’s compounded by the fact that the Snyder Cut debacle set a new precedent for giving the fans what they want.
Dune doesn’t have to be another dust-up between a studio, fan base, and filmmaker trying to complete their vision. Even taking the box office out of the equation, it’s hard to deny that Dune lived up to the hype. Villeneuve managed to wrangle Herbert’s sprawling text into a packed yet accessible sci-fi tale full of indelible imagery, gripping performances, and a Hans Zimmer score that will make your teeth rattle. As Chani said at the end of the film: This is just the beginning. Let’s hold Warner Bros. to that promise, and hope the book isn’t closed on Dune’s big-screen prospects when half the chapters have yet to be explored.