In 2019 Martin Scorsese caught flack for saying Marvel movies aren’t cinema. “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.” He’s completely right (to read his full thoughts on the matter click HERE) but that doesn’t mean these impressive works of art aren’t enjoyable. Sure Marvel isn’t producing films that would move the weathered spirit of a cinema history titan like Martin Scorsese but they’re not designed to. They’re designed to make a lot of money and give as many people as possible a good time. Is that wrong or somehow an artistic crime? Is commercial art not art? (To counterpoint myself a little, it certainly seems like Disney is aggressively blackmailing theaters to disproportionately show Disney product or deal with the studio withholding their entire slate of upcoming films. This tactic is designed not only to convince the audience that Disney is the film standard but to put pressure on other studios and carve out exclusive slice of market share. Seems like Disney might be the worst film gatekeeper of them all.)
For my massively influential part, I’ve loved many Marvel movies, especially those that broke new ground by redefining their genre like Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarok. As time’s gone on the aspects that made those films standout became formulaic requirements for every subsequent superhero movie. They need to be sardonic, quippy, and follow the same basic story structure. Unfortunately this standardization dilutes the uniqueness that made those noteworthy films standout. Exemplary becomes standard becomes cliche. I believe the same fate befell Dune, but in reverse.
So as I understand it Frank Herbert published Dune in 1965 and it revolutionized Sci-Fi casting it’s influence far and wide like pollen in the wind. Decades pass and Dune’s influence can be seen in countless stories in all genres. Dune became the template, it’s revolutionary elements became predictable cliché. The book Dune was widely believed to be unfilmable. Directors Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch took their shots but only one successfully completed a film. Unfortunately for Lynch, Dune 1984 ended it’s theatrical run $9 million in the red. 37 years later Denis Villeneuve proved Dune could not only be filmed but also turn a profit.
Villeneuve shot a the most stunningly gorgeous sci-fi film in decades, second only to Blade Runner 2049 (coincidence or template?). Dune is a triumph but it’s story feels flat and familiar. Like I’ve seen its hero’s face a thousand times before. Structurally it appears the picture was made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and was designed as a variation on a finite number of themes that appeal to wide audiences (where have I heard this before?). Paul’s arc feels familiar too, like I’ve seen it before in John Carter Warlord of Mars. Even Dune’s pace feels familiar, like someone shortened the first season of Game of Thrones to 3 hours. There’s nothing really wrong with it, it’s just a very good version of a story I already know.
It’s tragic that film special effects took 56 years to actualize Frank Herbert’s vision. It’s doubly tragic that the same creativity his novel inspired in generations of filmmakers ended up being pillaged by those same filmmakers such that when Villeneuve was finally able to film Herbert’s Opus the final product is pat, even cliché. Imitation, while the sincerest form of flattery, is the novelty killer.