Another week – another high profile Hollywood project bites the dust. It was a mere seven days ago when both Universal and Disney played chicken with directors Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Zemeckis, and came out 2 and 0. Citing poor critical reception and rising production costs, the studios respectively canned the big budget horror spectacle At the Mountains of Madness and a CG motion capture Yellow Submarine remake. Now Paramount has decided to put up and shut down any talk of bringing Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi epic Dune back to the big screen. Once again, money and the mounds of it needed to realize an outsized vision seem to be the primary creative deterrents.
Welcome to the new Hollywood business model, one that’s slightly less sympathetic than the old one. Cash has always controlled what gets made and what doesn’t, but in 2010 the online media machine is behind every closed conference room door, reporting (?) on the latest decision and debacles. This means that support and/or backlash is almost instantaneous, a lack of considered hind or foresight leading to misinformation, miscommunication, and misunderstanding. Of course, pundits complain that in this waning world of geek speech expectations, not every dream project gets a pass. They argue – rightfully, in part – that all filmmaking is part inspiration, part imagination, and part ability to achieve same within sane budgetary limits. The nerds of the world are just kvetching because someone gave them a free blog soapbox upon which to do so.
Dune is no exception. It has undermined greater directors (Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch) than those currently on the revision radar (Peter Berg…Pierre Morel…) and is far more brain- than brawn-oriented. Herbert’s allegory, steeped in religious imagery and philosophical debate, is not a wholly visual work. Instead, it plays in the mind, making its way through preconceptions and prejudices, tapping traits long dormant or dead. Bringing something so cerebral to the big screen has always been a given, considering the book’s (and eventual literary franchise) intense popularity, and in the many decades since its release, almost every major movie player has contemplated the adaptation. Jodorowsky came close in the ’70s, but once again, desire and dollars undermined his arguably odd and eccentric vision.
Lynch learned a lot while working on Dune. The final conclusion? Never again be a flunky for a seismic studio risk. Between the demands of his producers, the people paying the bills, and the book itself, the film flailed mightily, remaining a messy masterpiece or a missed opportunity, depending on who’s writing the review. There is no doubt that the famed filmmaker captured a unique look and style for the otherwise specious speculative fiction, but there is still little action and even less adventure present. From the unusual casting choices to the relatively weak F/X (Those sandworms? Really?), Lynch was severely restrained. That he made anything remotely watchable is a major accomplishment. Still, it was the turnstiles, not the nobility of one’s motives, that rode the red ink.
When a pre-Y centric Sci-Fi Channel decided to attempt a remake, they too had great expectations. Following a path similar to Lynch’s, they combined subplots, expanded characters, and condensed pages and the passage of time into mere minutes onscreen. Many complained about the lack of “faithfulness” while others, still smarting from the 1984 affront, made it one of the most popular mini-series the cable network ever attempted. A sequel came and went with little fanfare, and since then, very little has happened on the Dune front. Then, in 2008, Peter Berg stepped up and proclaimed a remake to be his dream project. A few months later, he had walked away from the project, stating it wasn’t “part” of his career plans for now. Whoa.
Since then, Dune has died a dozen deaths, resurrected whenever studios see something like Avatar and realize the potential goldmine that exists within the whole genre field. Even better, Herbert penned several sequels before his death, and his son continues the series to this day. Have a hit, and you’ve got endless sequel resources to draw from. Miscalculate, and you could end up like Walden and its limping along Chronicles of Narnia. The men and women making the decisions for these massive multinational entertainment conglomerates don’t retain their power by making movies out of passion. As we’ve pointed out before, they would rather make a dozen Diary of a Wimpy Kid films (tiny budgets, big box office worldwide) than gamble on one questionable $150 to $175 million behemoth.
Besides, Dune itself doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, cinematically. The sprawling story demands a Lord of the Rings like treatment, a creativity and commitment to see the entire project through from elephantine beginnings to even larger running time realities. If you sit back and state without question that the movie must be rated PG-13, that it must not be longer than two hours, and must cost no more than $85 million, you’re already throwing spanners into the moviemaking machinery from which a title may never recover. With an original piece, you can plan these kind of prerequisites. It comes with the pitch territory. But an adaptation is different. Part of its allure is the very elements you asking to confuse and contort.
Naturally, none of this matters within our current complex economic state. Paramount can’t find a sound fiscal reason to make this movie, and so they are passing. The producer argues that, as rights retainer, he is capable of shopping it around to another studio. Perhaps someone will step up and give a new Dune a shot. Sure, and Uwe Boll will make a major mainstream blockbuster in his lame lifetime. While far from the final straw – heck, Tolkein’s treasures were tossed around by everyone including the Beatles before finally getting “properly” made – those holding out for a reverent revisit to their favorite messiah metaphor may have a while to wait. The death of Dune is not unexpected in today’s show biz clime. That it doesn’t happen more often is.