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Defector At The Movies

‘Dune’ Has More To Offer Than Big Spectacle And Bigger Worms

Warner Bros.

On Thursday night, I betrayed one of my favorite joys in life. I eschewed going to a movie theater to watch Dune, choosing instead to watch it at home, an option that was available to me thanks to the film’s simultaneous streaming release. I have no regrets.

I am an ardent movie theater enjoyer, someone who is always down to spend just a bit too much money to down a tub of popcorn and a dangerous amount of soda while letting pretty much any movie wash over me. Our current pandemic reality has definitely slowed my moviegoing, but I have still gone to see a handful of flicks in theaters, most recently No Time To Die last weekend. (I loved it.) I mask up, make sure the theater does social distancing, and bring my vaccination card. It’s as safe as could be, and probably safer than other things I’ve done during the COVID-19 days.

And yet, I still decided to watch Dune at home, despite protestations from both the Dune fanatics and Denis Villeneuve devotees in my life. There are banal reasons for this—the main one being that my girlfriend’s new foster dog has a severe case of separation anxiety and we did not feel comfortable leaving her alone for three-plus hours—but it was also due to a more critical reason: I wanted to see how much I enjoyed Dune for what it is, and not just how it looked and sounded.

So, what is Dune? That’s a question I could only somewhat answer before Thursday. Over Labor Day Weekend, I finally started to read the Frank Herbert novel, fittingly among the sand at the beach. It was engrossing but also completely overwhelming. The terminology and lore introduced in the first parts of the book made me read and re-read the same pages more often than I enjoyed, and so after about 150 pages, I sidelined Dune in favor of some more straightforward fare. (It’s a lot easier to follow the new Sally Rooney book, I will say.) I figured I had over a month to return to Arakkis and House Atreides and the Fremen, but that just didn’t happen.

Perhaps it was that failure that made me open to a non-theater experience. Fans of the book have been waiting for this movie for years, some for decades, and I just didn’t feel the same pull they surely did to watch it in its intended big-screen glory. Perhaps it was just that I enjoy being among the first to experience any type of content, and the prospect of watching Dune shortly after its 6:00 p.m. ET release on Thursday was too strong. Or, and this is what I really do believe is the reason, I was worried about committing an entire evening to deciphering this dense science-fiction world while simultaneously worrying about COVID-19 in a theater.

That meant I had to make a sacrifice. Dune is a big movie, in every sense of the word. It’s a visually stunning epic, exactly the kind of movie that movie theaters are made for. If the “we have Dune at home” experience had one saving grace, though, besides the convenience and the lack of anxiety over masking, it’s that the movie is much more than its glorious visuals and sounds, great though they are. The large-scale destruction of the sand planet is a pyrotechnic showcase, and the Big Worm is truly big and also a worm. When the movie goes for grandiose spectacle, it never fails to deliver.

Those things wouldn’t get me all that excited on their own, though. I’ve been suckered in by gorgeous movies with nothing going on under the surface before. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was the smaller moments in Dune that really worked for me, and made watching on a much smaller screen a more palatable endeavor. My favorite scenes in Dune came when Villeneuve brought the epic down to a handful of characters.

The climactic one-on-one combat scene is visceral and tense, and an early scene in which Paul and his mother Lady Jessica—played in standout fashion by Rebecca Ferguson—are hiding in a tent among the desert sands is among the best in the movie. I won’t spoil much, but it involved a hallucinatory vision of intergalactic war and generational pain, and the mythology is sold well by both actors. Villeneuve also treats the inherent silliness with respect, which is how Jason Momoa’s “Duncan Idaho” can have such a dumb name while also having an emotionally resonant warrior-mentor character arc.

I also found that the complicated lore that drove me away from the book worked better when delivered on screen and with semi-frequent pauses to wrap my head around the terminology. I still had to google Gom Jabbar just now to include it in this blog, but I at least have a general sense of what that term means (it’s a deadly poison needle). Paul’s journey from the son of royalty to The One involves very serious actors very seriously throwing around terms like Kwisatz Haderach, Bene Gesserit, and Lisan al-Gaib, and being able to pause to remember exactly what each of those meant was a boon to my overall enjoyment of the movie.

I’m not arguing that seeing the movie at home is the preferred way to do it. For Dune fans, it will certainly be the inferior way; they do not need the help that watching at home afforded me. But this is a big-budget blockbuster, one hoping to leverage our culture’s increased acceptance of nerd shit into getting a lot of people to see a movie about space mercantilism and psychotropic sand. Theater evangelists might scoff at this, but I think that having the option to watch Dune at home will help in that goal. It’s a lot easier to commit to the world and weirdness of Dune without making a whole evening of it, and I can say you don’t lose much from not having a giant screen and movie theater subwoofers to aid you along your journey. When Dune gets into the moments beyond the fireworks, it succeeds on any size screen, in any kind of environment.