When Warner Bros. announced last year that it would be simultaneously releasing its entire slate of movies for 2021 in theaters and on streaming, Denis Villeneuve rushed to the barricades. “Frankly, to watch Dune on a television, the best way I can compare it is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub,” the director told Total Film. “For me, it’s ridiculous. It’s a movie that has been made as a tribute to the big-screen experience.” He even struck out at the studio in an open letter printed in Variety. “AT&T has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history,” he wrote, referring to Warner’s corporate parent. “Filmmaking is a collaboration, reliant on the mutual trust of team work and Warner Bros. has declared they are no longer on the same team.”
With the movie’s debut in theaters and on HBO Max, movie watchers are choosing sides as well, and the decision about where (or whether) to see Dune is feeding into a larger debate, not just about the future of theaters, or even movies, but about the value of public spaces, and what it’s worth to preserve them.
To be clear, the key factor in deciding whether to see Dune in a movie theater has less to do with the ideal cinematic experience than it does with a complicated, highly personal calculus of case rates and vaccination status, mask mandates and immune health, all weighed against your general tolerance for risk. But that’s the same calculation you make now before doing anything outside your house, from grocery shopping to eating at a restaurant. There are people who will respond “DURING A PANDEMIC?!?” the moment you suggest there might be value to seeing a movie in a theater, but a) I am going to assume you are a grown-up who can make your own informed choices about what to do with your life, and b) those people are no fun at all.
I’ve seen Dune in a theater twice—both times with fully vaccinated audiences—and I would say that if you’re going to see the movie at all, that’s the way to see it. Villeneuve’s $165 million movie is a towering science-fiction epic full of weighty concepts, one that relies on the gravity of its images to pull you through its languorous narrative, which is a nice way of saying that if you try to watch it at home, it’ll be about 10 minutes before you’re itching to reach for your phone. I would hardly say that Dune’s 2 hours and 35 minutes fly by in the theater, but the movie makes its pace your own, and I found it seemed to move more quickly the second time than the first, like a car trip once you know where you’re going.
There are also a variety of ways to see Dune in a theater, from standard widescreen to dual laser-projected IMAX, where at times the image almost doubles in height for added impact. There is also an intermediate IMAX version whose 1.90:1 aspect ratio is close to that of a widescreen TV, although you’ll only be able to see it in theaters; the streaming version will have the same wide, narrow 2.4:1 aspect ratio as most theaters. And though Warner Bros. hasn’t gone out of its way to announce the fact, some of the screenings that turned up this week are apparently in post-converted 3D—although I’m not sure even Denis Villeneuve wants you to see his speedboat in that many dimensions. Factor in the differences between 2K and 4K resolutions, and there are as many as seven different ways to see Dune, not counting the one where you’re sitting on your couch. Having seen Dune in both its widest and tallest forms, I prefer the regular theatrical version to the towering onslaught of IMAX. As with Dunkirk, what you lose in brute force is offset by the ability to see the entire frame at a glance. Dune is a hard enough movie to follow without having to worry that there’s some piece of vital information lodged in some far-off corner.
But the decision about where to see Dune isn’t just about that, either. Because multiplex chains have basically given up on maintaining the atmosphere inside their theaters, seeing a movie has become a roll of the dice, and worrying about whether the people down the row are still “actively eating” or just nursing a jumbo Coke for three hours so they can keep their masks off the whole time has raised the stakes considerably. (I can also say, having been in several full-to-capacity theaters recently, that it’s not as scary as it might seem, and a lot of people do not seem concerned in the slightest.) The moviegoing experience isn’t perfect, and it certainly isn’t something you can control the way you can your own home. But without movie theaters, we don’t get movies like Dune.
That’s true in the immediate sense; among the things hanging on the performance of Dune: Part 1 is the greenlighting of Dune: Part 2, which would complete the story Villeneuve began with no guarantee he would be able to finish it. But it’s also true more broadly. Streaming providers may be doling out billions of dollars on content, but they almost never spend the $165 million that it cost to make Dune on a single movie, even though that’s relatively modest for a franchise-launching tentpole these days. If seeing something with Dune’s scope and scale doesn’t matter to you, you won’t miss those movies when they’re gone—especially if you’re only watching them at home, where the qualities that make them special are already diminished.
But consider that what’s at stake is not just blockbusters, even of Dune’s relatively fragile variety. (This is a movie with explosions and sword fights and people riding giant worms like surfboards—but also a sprawling world involving warring dynasties and religious sects whose complexity has eluded filmmakers for decades.) The same dynamics are also at play for movies like Julia Ducournau’s 2021 Palme d’Or winner Titane, whose phantasmagorical assault on received wisdom about gender and trauma requires the immersion of a theater to work its will on you, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, a wry, meditative story whose distributor has opted to open it in one city at a time like a traveling art installation, rather than tossing it into the gaping maw of streaming. Like everything else, such movies will probably find their largest and certainly most lasting audience via the internet (well, maybe not Memoria, which at the moment has no announced plans for a streaming or home video release). But in order to be streamed, those movies first have to exist, and without theaters, and the attendant economics that have been built up around them over more than a century, they might well not.
For some people, extoling the virtues of seeing movies in theaters has become to seem insufferably arrogant, as if you’re slighting the way they like to do things. But it strains credulity to argue that there’s no difference between sitting in a darkened room with no control over the thing you’re watching except how your mind receives it and plugging a piece of content into whatever various holes in your schedule happen to present themselves. (It’s also a false dichotomy, since there are precious few beings on the planet who only see movies in one way or the other; even the most ardent cinephile has laundry to fold.) We’ve spent the past year and a half as unwilling subjects of an experiment in minimizing human contact, and it’s made most of us unhappier and angrier. Maybe now’s a good time to invest in the places we can be together, rather than reaching for one more reason to stay home alone.