Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Oscars are having an identity crisis. The Academy has made three significant changes to the Oscars this year: eight largely technical categories will be scrapped from the live telecast; two fan-voted awards, for favorite film and most “cheer-worthy” movie moment, have been added in their place; and after three years without an emcee, the ceremony will be hosted by Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer, and Regina Hall. Viewed together, these tweaks are an attempt to salvage the award show’s dwindling TV ratings, even if it comes at the expense of upsetting craft guilds and the people who care about the Oscars in the first place. Never mind that ratings are down across the board outside of major sporting events. The Academy believes that a naked appeal to the masses—of, uh, Twitter—will lure viewers through the prospect of Spider-Man: No Way Home rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Power of the Dog and Drive My Car.
The desire to acknowledge mainstream movies alongside typical Oscar fare isn’t a new development: From The Dark Knight’s Best Picture snub inspiring a rule change to the nearly implemented Popular Film award, the Academy wants the best of both worlds. But the focus on the fan-voted awards and the hype that surrounded No Way Home potentially sneaking into this year’s Best Picture race have ignored the giant sandworm in the room. There’s already an epic, immersive, crowd-pleasing tentpole up for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and Dune doesn’t just deserve a seat at the table. An ambitious spectacle with a level of craftsmanship comparable to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Mad Max: Fury Road, Dune winning Best Picture is exactly what the Academy needs: a blockbuster celebrating the inimitable, awe-inspiring power of the big screen that everyone can get behind.
The critical and commercial success of Dune was hardly a sure thing. Celebrated auteurs have twice tried to make a movie out of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel. The first attempt, from Alejandro Jodorowsky, was never completed—though its failure was turned into a documentary—while David Lynch disavowed his fascinatingly flawed adaptation that made it to the screen. But these high-profile setbacks didn’t deter Denis Villeneuve, whose impressive CV of big-budget genre filmmaking includes a worthy, sumptuous sequel to Blade Runner. If someone was going to crack the code to Dune, Villeneuve seemed a good bet.
Villeneuve’s solution was to split Dune into two films, a move that would give the political machinations of Herbert’s dense, sprawling text more time to breathe. That Villeneuve made this decision without the guarantee of a sequel was quite the flex, but Dune: Part Deux was put in an even more precarious position when the pandemic arrived and WarnerMedia controversially elected to have all its 2021 theatrical releases simultaneously available to stream on HBO Max. Villeneuve voiced his frustrations with the company in a scathing Variety op-ed in which he extolled the virtues of the theatrical experience and how essential it was for Dune. But reading between the lines of his column, you could also sense the palpable anxiety that a half-completed Dune would become one of cinema’s greatest what-ifs. (A what-if that was partially self-inflicted, no less.) Of course, there’s no longer any concern about the franchise’s future: The sequel is happening. And the fact that Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures made the announcement within days of Dune’s release spoke volumes of Villeneuve backing up his big talk with a very big movie.
Dune made an impression before a single frame was even shown on screen, as the discordant sounds of the Sardaukar—their garbled words translating to “Dreams are messages from the deep”—set the tone for a jarring, transportive experience. In an era of cinematic universes that pander to audiences with familiarity, there’s a lot to admire about Villeneuve’s confidence in his own, uncompromising vision—and that viewers will go along for the ride. It helps that the special effects spared no expense. The sandworms are as unfathomably enormous as advertised, underlining that, despite the expanse of barren desert on Arrakis, the planet is very much alive. The dead-of-night siege perpetrated by House Harkonnen against House Atreides was laced with apocalyptic dread, as hulking ships descended from the pitch-black sky to raze everything in their wake. Throw in Hans Zimmer’s booming, Oscar-nominated score, which in certain theaters rattles your seat like a plane going through turbulence, and you can understand why Villeneuve was so insistent that Dune had to be seen on the big screen.
The sheer scale of Dune’s world-building was matched by the star power attached to it, as Timothée Chalamet led a stacked ensemble that included Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Jason Momoa, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård, and Dave Bautista. (The sequel could reportedly add Florence Pugh to its ranks.) Their respective talent elevated Dune’s intriguing cast of characters: Isaac brought a solemn grace to his doomed Atreides patriarch; Ferguson’s Lady Jessica straddled the line between alluring and ominous; Momoa’s Duncan Idaho was the best hang in the galaxy. But the very presence of so many A-listers committing to this sci-fi epic was a statement in and of itself, fueling the idea that Dune wasn’t just a tantalizing blockbuster, but the kind of must-see moviemaking event that rarely happens in a given year—let alone a decade. (You know, like Star Wars before Disney oversaturated the brand with sequels, spinoffs, and TV shows.)
With the pandemic accelerating concerns about the future of theaters—release windows have collapsed, and films that would’ve gone to multiplexes even five years ago are instead finding themselves on streaming services—an engaging, overwhelming blockbuster like Dune reminds us that moviegoing is a unique and invaluable experience that can’t be replicated from a living room. And while the Academy has warmed up to films from streaming services, the 2021 Best Picture nominees skewed favorably toward theatrical releases like West Side Story and Nightmare Alley despite their underwhelming box office performances. If the Academy’s historically testy relationship with Netflix is any indication, then you can read the Best Picture nominations—with seven of the 10 slots going to movies from traditional studios—as a rebuke against the industry’s streaming-dominated future. (That The Power of the Dog is the presumptive front-runner for Best Picture is indicative of the respect Jane Campion carries more than the Academy warming up to Netflix.)
Dune winning Best Picture won’t save theaters, and it probably won’t halt the Oscars’ ratings slide. But in adapting one of science fiction’s most iconic—and notoriously unadaptable—novels into a blockbuster with artistry, gravitas, and a battalion of movie stars to bring it to life, Villeneuve has created something special. Dune is an antidote to stale, familiar franchises, and a breathtaking reminder of why we love movies the way they’re meant to be seen. With the Academy fretting about the waning popularity of its award show, and an industry continuing to reckon with the ever-shifting tides of the pandemic, the Oscars can do much worse than embracing desert power.