Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Oscar Narrative For “Dune: Part Two”

Earlier today, Warner Bros. Pictures released the much-anticipated trailer for one of the year’s biggest films: Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two.” The epic sequel to the first half of Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi novel already has more goodwill heading into its November 3rd release date compared to the first film, as the 2020 release had to deal with introducing new fans to this overwhelming world, story, and characters, contend with theater-going be at an all-time low due to the pandemic and win over the legions of devoted fans of Herbert’s novel who had already been burned by the previous not so well received film adaptation by David Lynch. No such problems will facing Villeneuve and his team later this year (hopefully) and thus, the groundwork has officially been laid for “Dune: Part Two” to become an even larger Academy darling than the first film.

Dune” (or “Dune: Part One” now) mostly exceeded expectations, garnering solid reviews after it world premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, earned strong critical reviews, made over $400 million worldwide, and received a total of ten Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay) winning six, the most for any film that year for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects. Now, with the upcoming release of “Dune: Part Two,” many are wondering how it will perform with the Academy after they so warmly embraced the first film.

The Academy can be hit or miss when it comes to substantially recognizing sequels. “The Godfather Part II” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” are the only sequels to have won Best Picture, with all films in their trilogies receiving Best Picture nominations. While we’ve seen more sequels get nominated for Best Picture in recent years, such as “Toy Story 3,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and even last year’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” none of them won Best Picture or Best Director. The Academy can be even harsher when recognizing sci-fi, a genre they have only sometimes gone out of their way to reward outside of the craft nominations, “Dune: Part One” being one of them.

A lot of “Dune: Part Two’s” awards season success will ride on whether or not it is deemed the final adaptation of Frank Herbert’s story from Denis Villeneuve or if he decides to take on “Dune: Messiah” and turn this two-part adaptation into a trilogy. As of right now, there are potential talks of adaptations of “Dune: Messiah” (I’m sure Warner Bros. would love that), but the plan has primarily been to adapt just Herbert’s original novel “Dune,” which is what “Part Two” will accomplish when it releases in theaters later this year. Why is this important, you may ask? Because if voters figure out there’s still more story for Denis Villeneuve to tell, they may elect to wait to properly reward him and the franchise with Best Picture/Best Director. Peter Jackson famously missed a Best Director Oscar nomination for the second entry in his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Two Towers,” after receiving Best Picture and Best Director nominations for “The Fellowship of the Ring.” “The Two Towers” still went on to receive a Best Picture nomination and six nominations overall (wining two Oscars) but this paled in comparison to “The Fellowship of the Ring’s” thirteen nominations and four Oscar wins. Still, the Academy wouldn’t fully reward Jackson and the trilogy until the story concluded with “The Return of the King,” where it famously swept the Academy Awards for all eleven of its nominations. Most recently, James Cameron followed up the biggest film of all time, “Avatar,” with “Avatar: The Way Of Water,” amassing over a billion dollars in box office receipts and strong reviews once again. However, while the Academy saw fit to give the King of the World another Best Picture nomination just as they did the first time, they didn’t bestow a Best Director nomination for him this time around. Could this have been because of the release gap between the two films? Or was it because it’s been widely publicized that Cameron still has more story to tell? Assuming “Dune: Part Two” meets everyone’s expectations, if the Academy chose to wait for “Dune: Messiah,” they would be doing themselves a disservice by not rewarding Villeneuve now for “Dune: Part Two,” which will likely be the most Academy-friendly of the three films considering where “Messiah’s” story goes.Austin Butler - DuneThe Academy loves a storybook ending for those behind the scenes who gain critical and commercial success. However, if their work still needs to continue beyond the latest film, it’s virtually impossible to see both Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director being bestowed to the same film. Like Peter Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola achieved this with “The Godfather Part II” when many assumed that was the end of “The Godfather” saga (Coppolla would return to the franchise with “The Godfather Part III” in 1990). While the first film won Best Picture, Coppola was given both Best Picture and Best Director for the sequel when he matched, and some would say, surpassed what the first film accomplished. Denis Villeneuve could be in the same spot as Jackson and Coppolla, but one has to wonder if the Academy would’ve recognized “The Godfather Part II” as much as they did if they knew “Part III” was coming.

Assuming “Dune: Part Two” is the final film for Villeneuve in this world, then the question becomes can it match the success of the first film or surpass it? The answer is definitely yes. It’s not hard to imagine the second film receiving the same ten Oscar nominations as the first. There’s even the added possibility of an owed Best Director nomination for Villeneuve (after he shockingly missed a nomination for the first film) and an acting nomination. Who could the acting nomination go to? Many felt Rebecca Ferguson could contend for the first film, but it was not meant to be. Could she contend more heavily for the second installment? Possibly but my money is on last year’s Best Actor nominee, Austin Butler, as the arrogant and ruthless Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. Considering Butler is coming off a prolific Oscar nomination for “Elvis,” which many felt he was going to win, endeared himself to audiences and the industry at large during the Oscar campaign, is working with Warner Bros. again for this film, and has fully transformed for the role going so far as to shave his head and eyebrows, it’s looking like we’ll see a whole other side of the exciting young actor.

What will be even more interesting is if “Dune: Part Two” can repeat any of its Oscar wins it received for “Part One.” Because of the visual continuity between “Part One” and “Part Two,” some Academy members might feel there’s no need to reward the cinematography and production design again since they could perceive it as “more of the same” and look for an opportunity to reward other films. Best Visual Effects feels like a shoo-in, much like how “Avatar: The Way Of Water” had that category locked up a year in advance (but would go on to be the sole-win for that movie last year). Best Sound is another distinct possibility for a repeat win. At the same time, one should never count out Hans Zimmer, especially if he can come up with more iconic themes to accompany his astonishing work on the first film. And, of course, we won’t know about Best Film Editing until we see the final film. There’s a chance the film’s runtime may eclipse the first’s two and a half hours and push toward the three hour mark considering how much story there is left to tell to give the book a satisfying finale.

One thing is for sure, though the epic scale, dazzling images, and awe-inspiring soundscape will be fully on display for the more thrilling and grand portion of Herbert’s novel when “Dune: Part Two” comes to theaters on November 3rd. Will it earn the same level of critical, box office, and awards success as the first film? Only one of those seems assured (without the full might of the pandemic and no day and date HBO Max streaming release, this will far outgross the first film). Still, given the subject matter, where the story is heading for Paul Atreidies (“The Godfather” comparisons shall continue, I promise), and the size of the project, critics and the Academy may be impressed enough by what Villeneuve has achieved much in the same way they were when critically acclaimed blockbuster films with grand vision and execution captured audiences hearts and imaginations such as “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Time will tell. It’s going to be a long six months until we find out.

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Matt Neglia
Matt Neglia
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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