On Friday, I had the chance to attend a first screening of Dune and left the theater with two things in mind. At one point I thought “Wow, that was good”, and the other, I thought “maybe I should have waited”.
Why this? Shouldn’t I have been happy to see the sci-fi epic weeks before its release? Well my regret came from a few selected scenes, but that’s all it takes to leave an impact on how you experience a movie.
Dune is such a fantastic movie – a true work of art, buried in a year of schlocky but enjoyable action – that I noticed it when things looked wrong. And from my point of view, Dune doesn’t work when you see what looks like a lower version.
We have been warned
Coming out of Dune after feeling like I had been manhandled, the words of its director Denis Villeneuve (in an interview with Deadline) resonated in my head. Without the interviewer even asking for the best way to see Dune, Villeneuve spoiled the winner, stating “I encourage people to see it on the big screen… It was dreamed up, designed and shot with IMAX in mind. When you watch that movie on the big screen, it’s almost a physical experience. We designed the movie to be as immersive as possible, and for me the big screen is part of the language. “
Don’t take these words like I did, as a marketing ploy. Yes, IMAX tickets cost more, and who knows if he sees that extra money, but after seeing Dune in a regular theater (WarnerMedia’s pretty decent screening room in New York’s Hudson Yards neighborhood), I can already say that I saw the lesser version.
No, it’s not that I missed scenes. Honestly, I felt I could tell when I saw a fraction of the story. Which makes sense when you remember that IMAX movies can have a very high aspect ratio, a much squarer image of 1.90: 1, compared to the wider 16: 9 ratio for most movies. With Dune, I felt like I was losing something in the difference between these two sizes. No, I wasn’t losing jokes as we saw with the 16: 9 presentation of original 4: 3 shows like Simpsons and Seinfeld, but I was out of the moment.
Context is the key to establishing things
Watching Dune in a traditional big screen cinema, I could tell something was wrong. Entire shots of Arrakis Castle where the Atreides family lived appeared to have been zoomed in from a wider perspective. You might not see it without being warned in advance, but I’m pretty sure viewers will understand what I mean.
My colleague Alyssa Mercante from Games Radar pointed out to me what I was missing, telling me that her partner “felt like it was not correctly represented that they were in a big city not just their castle”, it was then that I learned that their castle was in a city, and not remote from a city.
Another shot, where Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin) rushed in to stop the invaders, also seemed to have gone wrong. I couldn’t say or it was – but it was one of the places Leto (Oscar Isaac) told him to keep.
I don’t blame Villeneuve for doing what he wanted with Dune. At the screening I attended, he did a few Q&A and his passion for the film (if not evident from the quality of the film itself) came out clearly. But I feel a little weird that Dune doesn’t feel right in a regular theater.
When I saw No Time To Die (which also came out on IMAX) a few days later, I didn’t have that experience at all. Yes, Dune is a completely different genre of film than Bond, but those moments that didn’t click for me in Dune seemed like they could have been edited or re-edited so as not to make the ordinary cinema version inferior.
Look at the photo above, it’s an intact press asset for the film. Look how tall he is. These moments, when Chani (Zendaya) and Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) wander through the winding corners of the desert, would have been much more intimate if they had been presented as such. You would have seen the scene more like them, inside the walls.
How about seeing Dune at home?
We already know that Villeneuve wants us to see this movie in theaters – and that IMAX is the best situation for that. But I started to wonder about seeing Dune at home rather than seeing him in a theater.
Throughout the pandemic, I have constantly thought about the pros and cons of seeing movies at home. And – I hate to admit it – but I (still) agree with Villeneuve. A big part of what I love about Dune is how it feels to wrap you up in its sprawling desserts. Hans Zimmer’s score explodes enormously. The visceral fights have you almost ready to scream your support for Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Gurney. The floating wings of the flying vessels mesmerize and feel totally new.
And I think – no, I know – watching that movie at home would have taken me out of this moment. Because life likes to interrupt when you’re at home, as opposed to the theater where you silence your phone (you silence your phone, right?). The walls of a theater rarely let in noise from outside.
Sure, those who have home theaters that block out sound from outside, but that doesn’t happen where I live. Cars with fierce stereos explode with bass as they drive through New York City (it literally happened again when I typed that phrase). Dune must not be disturbed by a car horn, totally incongruous to his world.
But believe it from a guy who went to Dune with only a superficial understanding of what was to come next (I couldn’t have told a Muad’Dib of a Sardaukar): this is a movie that deserves all of your attention in its great IMAX Aspect Ratio.
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